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Honoree Headshot

Clarence Johnson

Chief Executive Officer
Wisconsin Community Services

Location: Milwaukee, WI
Founded: 1912
Industry: Human Services

Sometimes, all it takes is a casual conversation or two to change the trajectory of someone’s professional life. For Clarence Johnson, those conversations took place while working as a doorman at a hotel adjacent to the administrative offices of Wisconsin Community Services.

WCS focuses on underserved communities in Southeast Wisconsin with behavioral health needs or involvement in the criminal justice system, supporting people on a path to stability and recovery. Services provided by WCS enable people to build skills and overcome adversity, such as substance abuse, mental health needs, criminal justice involvement and employment obstacles.

As a nearby doorman, Johnson got to know some of the associates at WCS. They encouraged him to apply for a position there, and soon he was working as a court advocate. He interviewed people who were recently arrested and would make recommendations to the courts and prosecutors, often suggesting substance abuse treatment rather than jail time.

Over several years, Johnson worked in multiple roles for WCS. He eventually left to earn a graduate degree and pursue other career opportunities. In 2010, Johnson returned to WCS as associate executive director and in 2017 he moved into the executive director job. He now serves as CEO.

“Clarence is an effective, thoughtful and steady leader who can see the big picture and ask the correct questions to understand and bring clarity to the challenges that WCS, and the population that WCS serves, faces on a daily basis,” his team said.

Since 2017, Johnson has helped lead the organization to nearly double its staff and revenue. The staff has grown from about 260 people in 2017 to more than 500 employees today. Revenue has increased from approximately $24 million to nearly $50 million. The number of programs and services offered by WCS increased from approximately 45 to 70.

Under Johnson’s leadership, WCS added youth residential programs and expanded mental health services for youth and young adults. WCS redesigned its outpatient mental health clinic to serve more people, and it grew its peer support staff and training. The organization also opened two adult residential centers for men returning from prison.

In 2021, Johnson was named a Notable Minority Executive by the Milwaukee BizTimes. In addition, WCS was a 2021 finalist for a Recovery Innovation Challenge Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. WCS also received a national Community Partnership award in 2019 from Mutual America Foundation for its drivers’ license recovery program.

Johnson said he plans to “always remain actively involved in work or causes that are much larger than a single person and will continue the process of making the world a better place for all.”

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Honoree Fun fact

In a way, Clarence discovered his career path by accident. When he was sixteen, he wasn’t enjoying school at all – and he was looking for alternatives to even finishing high school. One day, while skipping school, he happed to be passing by a non-profit organization called Milwaukee Neighborhood House. On a whim, he went in and asked for a job. A community organizer took him on a tour of the facility, and Clarence asked him questions.Clarence was surprised when he received a call the next week – offering him a job, on the condition that he get involved in their program. Even though he had just been kidding when he asked for a job, he took it. Today he realizes that was the thing he needed to set him on the right path of finishing high school, going to college and grad school and he’s grateful. He understands that at any time, someone in need can cross your threshold and you just need to be prepared to recognize their need and offer your help. 

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