By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
“Philanthropy” — it’s a concept that can be intimidating to the everyday person and we often reserve the title “philanthropist” for that upper 1 percent of the socioeconomic population. Those are the folks for whom hospital wings, museums and community centers are named. I believe that many of us do what we can as “donors,” but maybe it is time to give our philanthropic potential a little more credit.
Don Johnson is a recent transplant to San Diego, arriving, as so many of us do, from the East Coast. He experienced the loss of his mother, Ethel, at the age of 7, and his father at 14. While painful, this helped to cement his appreciation of “family” and empathy for those who had to face life’s hardships without that centering force.
“People really have situations and burdens that can drag them down and that has always been a soft spot for me” he said. “I may have been an orphan and my sister and I were passed around, but it was always to family members; there was always family in my life. I can only imagine how my life would have been different if I hadn’t had that backbone.”
Johnson’s teen years were focused on academics and sports, with occasional jaunts into the music that would eventually be at the center of his life and career.
At 19, he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he worked as an aircraft mechanic and went to school. He auditioned for the Air Force entertainment program at the urging of a roommate, also a member of the program, and found himself on tour three months later. He took this opportunity to not only perfect his vocal craft, but learn the inner-workings of production; something that became his passion.
In 1995, Johnson established Private Stock Entertainment (PSE) in Washington, D.C., a company that covered booking, managing and producing events, and included luminaries such as Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle and Natalie Cole, among others.
This effort allowed Johnson to hone his production skills and define his scope of vision for years to come. In 2010, he formed “Dame Ethel Productions” as a subsidiary of PSE in tribute to his late mother. While Dame Ethel Productions was not initially established as a philanthropic vehicle, when Don moved to San Diego, that transformation began.
As we began to discuss this shift, I inquired as to whom or what motivated his desire to give back.
“I wouldn’t credit a ‘person’ per se, as my understanding of philanthropy was rooted in the church,” he said. “In Washington D.C., I belonged to a church that did everything for its community, and I participated in the varied ‘service ministries,’ such as prison outreach, HIV/AIDS and food distribution.
“I’ve always believed in the sometimes controversial idea of ‘tithing,’ as it relates to one’s full life,” he continued. “In churches, there often is a focus on the money aspect, but giving of your time and skills is equally important.”
Coinciding with Johnson’s move to San Diego was the commitment to join his friend’s Avon Breast Cancer Walk, and the need to raise $1,800. Though he didn’t know many folks in San Diego at the time, he knew how to produce a concert.
This was the first of what is developing into a concert series to highlight and raise funds for various nonprofits. To date, Johnson has produced concerts to benefit the Avon Breast Cancer Walk and the Autism Society of San Diego, and upcoming shows will support the PFLAG Scholarship Fund at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation, Father Joe’s Villages, and the Second Chance Program, to name a few of the beneficiaries in 2016.
Johnson’s life experiences intersect in relation to being black, gay, political, and being a lover of music. His messaging parallels the Black Lives Matter movement and its #BlackLivesMatter hashtag with his own tagline, #BlackLoveMatters.
Having come from D.C., where black-owned and -operated businesses thrive, and black LGBT networking, social and advocacy groups abound, Johnson admits to having been spoiled before arriving in San Diego. The absence of seats at the “tables of power” for the local black LGBT community has been both troubling and frustrating. To this end, he has also chosen to put his efforts into serving on the leadership team of the San Diego Black LGBT Coalition.
As we sit together in his home — decked to the hilt with photos of him with family members, friends and an A-list cadre of music’s divas — Johnson is a bundle of barely contained energy and ambition. The photographs flow seamlessly together, as one endless circle of family and stories. His vision for the future is grand; not only for the benefit of the nonprofit community, but also for the city he now calls home.
“I want to put San Diego on the map for tour routes,” he said. “I’ve seen where artists plan to go, and San Diego is simply not a preferred destination and I mean to change that.”
We look forward to seeing that change.
For information and tickets to the next Dame Ethel Productions concert, email BlackLoveMattersSD@gmail.com.
—Ian D. Morton is the senior program analyst at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.