- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Asked why she is contributing millions of dollars to an effort to “empower” impoverished women in the Third World when there are women with unmet needs nearer her Virginia estate, billionaire entrepreneur Sheila C. Johnson shot back, “Oh, but I have done a lot around here.”

Indeed the owner of the Washington Mystics and Salamander Hospitality has, including continuing to fund area charities such as the performing arts center in Middleburg, Va., that is named in her honor.

But last week, Mrs. Johnson threw her support behind the self-sufficiency programs under the auspices of CARE International to end global poverty by “transforming women”s lives.” Mrs. Johnson and Dr. Helene Gayle announced the beginning of the international “I Am Powerful” challenge to enlist the support of American women in CARE”s campaign at a luncheon at the National Press Club last Tuesday.

“Empowering women is a solution, and I want to promote the solution,” Mrs. Johnson said, by “tapping into the potential of women everywhere.” The “I Am Powerful” campaign aims to double Mrs. Johnson“s initial pledge of $5 million to jump-start the CARE challenge — $4 million of which will be set aside as a matching grant for two years. The money will be used to heighten awareness about the campaign and to give women the business skills and access to health and educational opportunities that ultimately improve conditions in their communities.

“We hope to activate women in developed countries like the United States to use their power — their economic power, their political power, the power of their voices — to empower women in developing countries who suffer most from poverty,” Dr. Gayle said.

Mrs. Johnson“s gift is the largest the organization has received from a living donor in its 60-year history.

CARE is no longer an organization that simply sends relief packages to communities devastated by war and natural disaster. A primary mission of CARE”s 13,000 employees, while working with the local cultures in 66 countries, is to eliminate the underlying causes of extreme poverty.

“We must give them the tools to lift themselves out of poverty,” said Dr. Gayle, introduced as “the most trusted health care professional in the world.” And, she said, investing in women”s lives “is central to breaking the cycle of poverty.”

“It affects our economy, our peace and our stability when other economies fall,” Dr. Gayle said. She suggested that one of the biggest problems that “sustains poverty is the inequality of women and girls,” noting that in many countries, women are still the property of the husbands and fathers.

Dr. Gayle rattled off a list of troubling statistics including that women produce half the world”s food, but own only 1 percent of its farmland; do 70 percent of the world”s work but earn less than 5 percent of its income.

Even though the “I Am Powerful” campaign is aiming for a “ripple effect” among women, Dr. Gayle quipped, “Men are not off the hook. … We”ll take their money, too.”

Mrs. Johnson said, “Yes, money helps,” but “we need a movement” of “matching gifts and matching action.” During the Press Club luncheon, Mrs. Johnson introduced her new husband, Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Judge William T. Newman Jr., and her son, Brett Johnson.

The two traveled with Mrs. Johnson, who is also CARE”s global ambassador, to Tanzania and Guatemala to visit programs that will benefit from “I Am Powerful” funding.

“I want my son to learn how to respect women and see what we go through because there are so many men who don”t,” said Mrs. Johnson, pointing to Judge Newman and adding, “My dear husband already knows this.” She added that it was important to teach “children who grow up with privileges … the heart of generosity and to give back because they have been blessed with so much.” Brett is the son of Mrs. Johnson and her first husband, Robert L. Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, which the couple sold to Viacom.

Mincing no words, Mrs. Johnson railed against lewd images and lyrics in music videos, saying, “That garbage has got to go.” At a recent program at a D.C. high school, she realized just how much girls “don”t have a clue” because they appear to be living their lives based on what they watch on television.

When asked whether that isn”t how BET made its millions with graphic music videos, Mrs. Johnson replied, “I was always against that from the start.” She is proud to have produced “Teen Summit” to counter the negative video images.

Mrs. Johnson“s philanthropic organization is planning three community forums in the U.S. this summer. The next, featuring Princeton scholar Cornel West, will tackle racism and the n-word and is tentatively scheduled to be held in the District on July 15.

Teens need better role models and alternative activities, she said. Mrs. Johnson presents a formidable role model for aspiring teens and women as evidenced by the line of card-carrying well-wishers waiting for an opportunity to greet her or present her with their own projects.

Also present were representatives of several organizations, including the Women’s National Basketball Association, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the National Association of Female Executives, and Parsons, the New School for Design, which agreed to be partners in the CARE campaign.

They aim to enlist 3 million American women to become “powerful” mentors, donors or volunteers.

“My tentacles can reach out a lot faster and a lot farther, and I can make an even greater impact” with the “I Am Powerful” movement, Mrs. Johnson said, which is “one of the greatest legacies I can leave to my children and family — that she really did help others.” Obviously, at home and abroad.

{bullet}For information on the “I am Powerful” campaign, go to www.iampowerful.org.

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