By George E. Curry
NNPA Special Correspondent
Sheila Johnson’s accomplishments are breathtaking. She is president and managing partner of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. As a partner in Lincoln Holdings, LLC, she owns part of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals hockey team. She sits on the boards of educational institutions as varied as Howard University and Parsons The New School for Design in New York. Johnson is a member of the President’s Committee of the Arts and Humanities and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. An accomplished violinist, she gives generously to the arts through her Sheila C. Johnson Foundation.
Her sterling accomplishments notwithstanding, Sheila Johnson has yet to fully emerge from the shadow of Black Entertainment Television (BET), which she co-founded with Robert L. Johnson, her ex-husband. BET’s parent company, BET Holdings II, Inc., was sold to media giant Viacom in 2000 for $3 billion.
Sheila Johnson is a no-nonsense person who talks about BET the same way she talks about everything else – with candor and bluntness.
“BET was really our first mission to put the voice of Black America on the screen,” she recounted. “We were going to be the Ebony magazine of television. It hasn’t gone as well as we wanted it to go, to say the least.”
Sheila Johnson says more about that period than many would expect.
“Where I saw the network going, it was really going to be a communication and education piece to really promote dialogue in Black America. I wanted news programming in there, I wanted to talk about the issues through Emerge magazine, I really wanted it to be – I shouldn’t say this – but the smart Ebony.”
Instead of the smart Ebony, BET became largely a dumbed down cascade of risque, gyrating music videos.
“That’s not the way the videos started out,” Johnson explained. “I have been a very loud voice on this from day one. But the problem is that they watch this stuff, the advertisers know it, it’s easy money. It’s the easy way out. You don’t even have to think about it. Except that you see the damage being done within the African-American community.”
“Teen Summit,” the peer-to-peer award-winning discussion program that was on BET, was the brainchild of Sheila Johnson. She still has a burning passion for teens and that passion is evident when she discusses their plight.
“I think BET was the biggest perpetrator of this: We got kids watching videos day in and day out. They have no idea of who they really are, they are not even taking the time. They’re thinking that they should go out and live like these people on the videos. The bar has been lowered so much. It’s like I want to slap them all and say, Look, we got to rebuild this.’ We need to rebuild this whole thing.”
After her divorce, Sheila Johnson began to rebuild her life. She married Judge William T. Newman, Jr., began building the Salamander Resort & Spar and settled down in Middleburg, Va. in northern Virginia horse country.
Ironically, the medium that once linked her – through marriage – to insulting music videos may now turn out to be the platform that showcases her compassion for “the other Washington, D.C.”
She is the producer and executive producer of “The Other City,” a powerful film that seamlessly merges the issues of poverty, sex, drugs, AIDS and homelessness. It is a riveting film about neglected people living in the shadows of power, but unable to level that proximity to improve their lives. The film was screened last week at the international conference on AIDS in Vienna, Austria and will be distributed nationally this fall to a limited number of theaters. It will also be picked up by a yet unidentified television network.
The power of the film is that the stories are told through the voices and footage of the people directly affected. Directed by Susan Koch, the film is an emotional behind-the-scenes look at the lives and problems that beset anyone poor, homeless or living in Washington’s “other city.”
Johnson said, “In D.C., you got the affluent White Washington, that’s Ward 3. You got the international community. So you lump those two together. That’s the perception of Washington. You will not see any stories written about Black Washington and that’s the other Washington. We’re not on their radar screen.”
Nor is it on the radar screen of many Hollywood celebrities.
“The celebrities, they go abroad to adopt a little Black child and their guilt is gone. We’ve got to start taking responsibility for ourselves. We’ve really got to do this.”
In addition to all of her other activities, Johnson serves as global ambassador for CARE, the world anti-poverty organization. It was while serving in that role, that Johnson was challenged to help improve the lives of residents living in the other city.
“I had traveled with Helene Gayle [president of CARE] all over the world, especially Africa and South America, really dealing with the AIDS epidemic,” Johnson recalled. “The thing that really bothered me is every time I came back home and I was in D.C., I noticed parallel problems. And I said, “You know what? If we don’t solve our problems at home, how can we solve problems globally? You come back home and you see young African-Americans going down the tubes.”
Johnson says she hopes “The Other City” heightens concern about the downtrodden people who live in the city within the city. She said, “I want to use this film as a tool to help get the word out there.”
In the process, it might also help get the word out that Sheila Johnson has moved out of the long shadow of BET.