George Johnson: “Being transparent”

George Johnson grew up in Northside Richmond where he spent most of his time either on the basketball court or figuring out ways to make money without selling drugs. He became a basketball standout in Virginia and made a name for himself when he led Eastern Mennonite University to the Elite Eight of the DIII NCAA Tournament. 

Since then, he has built several businesses in various sectors and enjoys being a serial entrepreneur almost as much as he enjoys being able to support many of his family members and friends. But nothing has been more challenging than the struggles he faced with some of those family members and the federal government standing behind them.

Now George spends his time in Houston Texas where several of his businesses are headquartered. He has three children—two girls and one boy—and enjoys his hard-earned life of freedom.

Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Growing up in the inner-city of Richmond, Virginia, there are things that we see or do or understand that is going to happen, that is crazy, but we normalize it to the point where we don’t see the toll it takes on our mental health. 

People getting shot at, death, drugs… those things are normal, it’s not a big deal! You know that this stuff is going to happen, you know that everyone is going to have a gun, you know people are abusing drugs, and you know that at any moment you can see somebody one day and the next day they’re gone. That’s not right, and the mental toll of that is crazy in itself.

Someone you trust could be robbing you right now and we think that that’s normal, but it’s not! You assume that the police are going to stop you and mishandle you, even if you didn’t do anything wrong. 

Even with all the events this past summer with police brutality, that was nothing new for my community. I grew up knowing and understanding these things. And that’s normalizing the messed-up stuff we see every day. 

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

I have two outpatient service clinics that I run—one in Richmond where I’m from, and one in Houston, Texas, and we just got one up and running in St. Louis. One of the companies is run by my best friend, and the other by my little cousin.

 Both of them were people who were working for me as employees, and as they evolved in the business I wanted to empower them, I didn’t want to be their superior. They were able to take on my position and keep things going.

It feels good to be in the position I’m in now, where we really have long-lasting businesses growing that have changed their lives. It’s like I paid it forward to them, and when things started happening in my life, they kept me afloat. So, great relationships transpired from that.

We service kids and adults, but mostly kids. We service impoverished demographics—in the hood, Medicaid, dealing with all the normalized things I mentioned earlier. They deal with anger issues, ADHD, posttraumatic issues…and that’s the population we serve. And it’s all absolutely free because it’s Medicaid-funded.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

When I first got into this field, there was a family—three boys and their mother. The mother had AIDS, the middle brother had contracted AIDS from his mother, and the other two kids didn’t, but the mother did drugs and they were extremely poor. 

The dynamics they were dealing with were so deep. The services I was providing this family were way beyond my usual scope of work for clients, but I just got so close to them and saw so closely all of the struggles they were dealing with.

One Christmas I went to bring them some gifts, and when I walked in the three boys were by the stove trying to keep warm because the flat was so cold. I asked them where their mom was, and they said she had been gone…and this was Christmas morning. I felt stupid going back to my crib after seeing their conditions, so I put them up in a hotel for a week. Working with them really built my passion for the services we provide. 

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Especially in my community, the overall piece is the vulnerability involved when you acknowledge your mental health. In my demographic, you can’t show your signs of weakness, where you’re wounded or punctured, because that can be used against you.

You don’t see these guys in my community—whose personas are strong, street, gangster guys—maneuvering throughout their days articulating how he’s struggled with a lack of a mother, or wishing he had a father figure… he’s not going to articulate those types of things in that manner. He’s going to cope with those things by putting pain into other people, getting drunk all the time, or popping percs all the time.

Those are the means of coping [in my community] rather than educating yourself on those issues or talking to somebody about it, and that all has to do with the vulnerability aspect.

What are the 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  • Talking to a Therapist and going to therapy; I’ve been very open about that on my social media.
  • Making sure you take 30 mins to an hour a day to just disconnect and be by yourself. 
  • Talking to other people that deal with mental health challenges. 
  • Being transparent—what I started doing was, when I talk to people I hop out the gate and say “Listen I got anxiety”. We laugh and joke about it, but everyone knows that that’s what I’m dealing with. We normalize it.
  • Getting rest is important.
  • Getting literature on what you’re dealing with and educating yourself on your struggles.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

The importance of paying it forward. This is something that I believe in; you reap what you sow. My longevity, ability to sustain myself, and the success I’ve had are because I paid it forward.

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