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Race, Identity & Faith

Bethany Johnson-Javois Brings Passion For Advocacy, Service To Deaconess Foundation

Bethany Johnson-Javois HORIZONTAL.jpeg
Deaconess Foundation
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Bethany Johnson-Javois begins her role as president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation on Oct. 18.

Bethany Johnson-Javois remembers praying in the former Deaconess Hospital’s chapel in the 1990s. She asked God to heal her father, who was suffering from a heart condition, and promised to commit her life to serving others.

Her father is alive today, and Johnson-Javois credits the hospital for saving his life. Deaconess Hospital closed in 2012, and in its place sprang a foundation dedicated to promoting racial equity for children in the St. Louis region.

More than two decades later, when the Rev. Starksy Wilson stepped down as head of the Deaconess Foundation, Johnson-Javois wanted to become its president and CEO.

“It felt like it was the right time to come full circle to apply for an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime,” she said. “And by faith, I wanted it to be mine."

Johnson-Javois plans to advocate for public policy changes to eliminate racism against children in education, public health and the justice system.

She is not a new face to the organization, having served on its board of trustees from 2011 to 2018 and on its grants and program and policy and advocacy committees. During her time on the board, she also co-chaired the foundation’s community advisory board.

Johnson-Javois, 46, spent years in leadership roles at health care and community organizations. Since 2009, she has been CEO of the St. Louis Integrated Health Network, a nonprofit that includes federally qualified health centers, public health departments, medical institutions and health care systems in the region.

The longtime health care and racial justice advocate managed the Ferguson Commission, a group that former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon appointed in 2014 to study the socioeconomic conditions in the St. Louis region after civil unrest erupted when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown Jr.

Johnson-Javois said she has learned that to determine how to transform harmful systems, the region's leaders need to listen to community voices and ask people what they need to thrive.

She sees the foundation as a powerful tool for change.

“Deaconess ... already has an infrastructure in place that honors anchor partnerships, anchor institutions, that prioritizes policy, that talks about racism. It talks about anti-Black racism,” Johnson-Javois said. “So, there's a lot of wind, fresh wind that is coming in the sails that allows me to get into place quickly and to be able to act and enact, as the people have already spoken.”

Her sense of urgency and forward thinking led the foundation’s board of trustees unanimously to select Johnson-Javois to lead the nonprofit.

"What's the really, really important part of what we got to see, and what she works like under pressure, how she brings people together as she deals with community engagement, it was a very impressive experience,” said Rudy Nickens, chair of the foundation’s board. “And so knowing all those things about her, I'm really excited to see what she brings to us to the next level.”

Johnson-Javois grew up in University City, the youngest of five siblings. Her parents were among the Black people who integrated University City. They moved from Kinloch, one of the largest all-Black towns in the U.S. She spent much of her time in Jennings at her father’s church. Now an evangelist at Monument of Faith Church of God in Christ, she preached her first sermon at 20.

People who know her say she is well suited to lead the organization.

When Angela Clabon first heard the news that Johnson-Javois would take over the Deaconess Foundation, she was elated.

“It was like a breath of fresh air. Like 'Oh my God, I don't have to worry about the Deaconess Foundation,” said Clabon, St. Louis Integrated Network board treasurer and CEO of CareSTL Health. “It will give them a sense of pride, joy for the community, that we will pick the one that we grew on our own."

Clabon, who has known Johnson-Javois since 2009, said that the new Deaconess CEO leads with her faith and that allows her to bring integrity and passion into her work.

Clabon said there was a time when she did not feel comfortable speaking up during board meetings because she did not want to be seen as an angry, Black woman, but Johnson-Javois encouraged her to speak up in every meeting.

Johnson-Javois goes out of her way to listen to her staff, constituents and community, which makes her great for the role, Clabon said.

“She has connections that will help her if she continues to grow the foundation and help heal more families,” Clabon said of Johnson-Javois. “Then she has the talent. I can see their budget doubling, raising money. I think she can do that and change the world. She is a change maker.”

Johnson-Javois also wants to use her position at the foundation to create a pipeline to support African American leaders in the region.

“It's always been my goal that St. Louis not just be a place of development, but that it is a place where people choose to want to stay and to bring those skills and passion and love,” Johnson-Javois said.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

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