Forget Florida; She's Staying in Detroit
Everyone needs a purpose.
For Dr. Linda Johnson, it is to help Detroit be a great place to live.
Johnson is the perfect example of how longtime Michigan residents are devoting what some call “the second half of their lives” to public service. In fact, the Detroit resident was recognized last month as a Purpose Prize Fellow, an honor for social entrepreneurs ages 60 and up.
Johnson and her husband could be enjoying a quiet retirement. Instead, they are knee-deep in Detroit: the city, its people and its problems.
“I tried to retire three times,” said Johnson, a former elementary school principal. “I just can't seem to do it.”
Thank goodness. Johnson is the kind of high-energy, experienced, thoughtful person this city and region needs if it is going achieve its long-awaited renaissance.
Johnson, 62, is an emblem of a larger trend toward entrepreneurship later in life. According to studies by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the 55 to 64 age group is the most active in creating new ventures. Going against stereotype, people ages 20 to 34 are the least entrepreneurial, the study found.
I met Johnson last month when I interviewed her and Jamele Hage about the Wayne County Mortgage Foreclosure Prevention Program. In short, the program came about in 2007 to help county residents avoid losing their homes during the state's massive economic recession.
Unbelievably, Johnson was a client before she became its biggest advocate. Johnson was a victim of a predatory lender. Long story short: Dr. Johnson took out a mortgage on her almost-paid-off home to help pay for college expenses. What looked like a 6.5-percent fixed interest loan soon jumped up to 12 percent. The adjustable rate loan was a killer, and her family was close to losing their home.
Then, Johnson read an article about some federal legislation that might help. She called Sen. Carl Levin's office, and the workers there directed her to the Wayne County foreclosure program. The program staffers got the Johnsons a fixed, affordable rate.
Johnson tried to call the program one day to offer her thanks, and she noticed its voicemail seemed constantly full. She asked if they needed someone to clear that out once in a while, and the staff quickly agreed. Her small volunteering job soon ballooned into a regular position.
“There's no gardening project, TV show, shopping trip or sightseeing tour that can generate the kind of satisfaction that comes with helping a family stay in the home they have come to love,” Johnson said.
Her commitment to her “encore career” is palatable. The feeling is mutual. Hage, who nominated Johnson for the Purpose Prize, is a fan.
“Dr. Linda Johnson is passionate, diligent and incredibly creative in her work with the MFPP and we are fortunate to have her working with us,” Hage said. “The nomination for a Purpose Prize is our modest attempt to recognize Dr. Johnson and celebrate her important contributions.”
As part of her Fellowship, Johnson and 45 other fellows attended a Summit on Innovation at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business' Center on Social Innovation, one of the world's leading academic centers focused on social entrepreneurship.
“It was a beautiful environment, full of energetic, creative people. But they were all down to earth. These were people who were passionate about their programs and had no ego,” Johnson said. “I met some great contacts for our work in Detroit and there were so many projects I'd love to see modeled here in the city.”
In fact, Johnson has already reached out to people she met in California and linked them with folks here in Detroit.
“When they first found out I was from Detroit, they'd look so sad, like, ‘You poor baby.' I told them it's not as bad as it looks in the newspapers. We're really trying to help each other,” Johnson said.
To learn more about the Wayne County Mortgage Foreclosure Prevention Program, go here. To learn more about the Purpose Prize and its program through the Encore Careers Campaign, go here.