Deidre Johnson is the CEO and Executive Director of The Center for African American Health (CAA Health), an organization dedicated to health equity and working to improve African Americans’ social determinants of health. CAA Health values and centers community with its hub in the traditionally African American community of Northeast Denver. Through community engagement, research, advocacy, culturally responsive health education, outreach, and services, CAA Health empowers African Americans locally and globally to overcome the root causes of health complications by breaking down barriers to knowledge, promoting greater self-advocacy, and providing support services to improve health outcomes.
Deidre was raised in a household in which education was a non-negotiable priority. Her father was a former NASA mathematician turned entrepreneur, and her mother was a registered nurse. A Princeton University graduate with an MBA from the Yale School of Management, Deidre takes an entrepreneurial approach to nonprofit management.
In December 2015, Deidre was selected as the CEO and Executive Director of the Center for African American Health, which for 10 years focused on health education and health promotion for African American elders. Deidre’s results-oriented and bold executive leadership has made the seemingly impossible possible during the past six years. She embraces goals that others often assume are unachievable, catapulting the immense growth of the organization. With an extensive background in strategic planning, philanthropy, program development, project management, strategic learning, and systems evaluation, she has tripled the organization’s operating budget; strengthened the organization’s infrastructure; changed the business model, vastly expanding the breadth and depth of services; and successfully purchased a new facility in Northeast Denver. Today CAA Health provides culturally responsive direct services and resource referrals for families and individuals in need and works to center research and evaluation, advocacy, and community power building around the needs of African Americans. She and her team are working to push the boundaries of what is possible within a community-rooted nonprofit.
Deidre is well versed in the broad landscape of movements for equity and justice and has a lived understanding of the foundational role of racism, sexism, and other forms of bias and oppression in perpetuating inequity. As a community leader, Deidre challenges the naivete of thought that persistent, complex problems can be solved with one-off solutions that do not engage the intended beneficiaries. She is deeply committed to centering the community in strategy development and believes that true collaboration necessitates a spirit of generosity and a laser focus on the desired outcomes for the community being served. In her role, Deidre encourages staff at every level to engage in diverse convenings, understanding the power of convening seemingly disparate parties to begin building relationships and shaping a shared agenda, to advance transformative policy and inform and influence practice at the local and state level. These attributes have enabled her to transform a trusted community organization with a rich history of service to the next level of development and sustainability.
Deidre has been recognized among peers as an exceptionally creative, innovative, collaborative, adaptive leader who consistently achieves professional and organizational goals. She enjoys variety and complexity and always approaches her work from the perspective that time is of the essence because lives are at stake. The mission of CAA Health is deeply important to Deidre, both for personal and professional reasons. Issues of equity are not theoretical for her. Whether dealing with racial bias in the medical, education, or housing sectors, she and her family have also had very personal experiences similar to the community members she serves. It is this intersection of the personal and professional – how one can feel so personally connected to one’s professional role – that she continues to balance and which fortifies her resolve.
She holds that health is every individual’s most important asset. Yet, many people never have the opportunity to be truly healthy. Not even a fighting chance due to systemic racism and the significant barriers faced by African Americans to quality opportunities. In America, Black people experience excess death in every way. African American health disparities appear in just about every category you can think of: Maternal mortality, infant mortality, asthma, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, COVID-19. Name the health issue, and African Americans are likely 2-4 times more at risk of having the disease and dying from it. For instance, Black women are four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. Even after class and poverty are accounted for, African Americans still have worse health outcomes than white Americans. A white woman with a high school diploma is guaranteed a healthier birth outcome than a Black woman with a Ph.D. The same applies if the white woman is carrying a bi-racial baby. And these disparities start early and set lives up for a dangerous trajectory.
“There is so much that we already know. We know that poverty limits access to healthy foods and safe neighborhoods. An obese 5-year old is already more likely to have a variety of health issues as an adult including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes,” she explains. “We know that communities with unstable housing, low incomes and substandard education are the very communities experiencing the poorest health outcomes – we can even measure life expectancy by zip code. For decades, that has been the problem, so much measuring, and so little corrective action. Health Equity is ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to be healthy. Regardless of where they live, work, play or pray. Creating Health Equity requires looking at the social determinants of health and dismantling systemic racism. Health Equity also requires that we listen to people. They know what they need and what their experience has been”.
Deidre has been selected for multiple leadership fellowships throughout her career, all of which offered her a rich array of leadership development opportunities and an expanded network of peers and thought partners. Each revealed new ways for her to embrace her natural talents. Deidre is an ASCEND Aspen Institute Colorado Children and Families Health and Human Services Fellow, a Transformative Leadership for Change Fellow and a Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Livingston Fellow. She currently serves on the Colorado School of Public Health Advisory Board, the Transition Advisory Group for the new Colorado Department of Early Childhood, the Colorado Behavioral Health Task Force, the Yale Philanthropy Conference Advisory Board, and the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop’s Development Committee. Deidre always dedicates time to partner with, mentor, or advise other women nonprofit leaders in her network. As an Adjunct Professor in the University of Denver’s University College Nonprofit Leadership Program, Deidre also enjoys the opportunity to educate, encourage and inspire future leaders.
Under Deidre’s leadership, CAA Health has undergone an exciting period of organizational transformation and expansion. While the organization is acutely aware that it cannot be all things to all people, especially in a community with a myriad of needs, it is quickly becoming a center of excellence for services offered and an exceptional network partner and systems builder, ensuring that children, youth and families are connected with the resources, education, services and supports they need to take control of their health and well-being. CAA Health is now a leader in supporting community health through inquiry, innovation, and impact.