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Juhanna Rogers, Ph.D., is a scholar-artist and is the creator of Behind the Woman, a WCNY television production that shares personal stories from diverse women leaders to empower other woman to pursue their goals and dreams. She has traveled and lived in Spain, England and Costa Rica while pursuing her graduate education. She currently lives in Syracuse and is the mother of a fifteen year-old son, Nile. She is Center State CEO’s first vice president of racial equality and social impact.

Striving for Greater Diversity

CenterState CEO first VP of racial equality and social impact discusses her new role

By Lou Sorendo

Juhanna Rogers, Ph.D., was recently named vice president of racial equity and social impact, leading the newly formed racial equity and social impact portfolio at CenterState CEO.

The 38-year-old Newark, New Jersey,  native and Syracuse resident earned degrees at Penn State Altoona (2004) and Indiana University (2007, 2016). The mother of a son, 15-year-old Nile, she enjoys acting, writing, directing and creating experiences with friends. Recently, she addressed the importance of her new role in the midst of national racial unrest.

Q.: What motivated you to join forces with CenterState CEO?

A.: Obviously over the last several months, we’ve seen the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the way this has really challenged us as a business community and overall community in terms of thinking about the role that racism plays in our lives in a much more critical way.

Prior to this point, I came in as part of CenterState CEO’s economic inclusion team, working with the community on issues regarding workforce and entrepreneurship. [CenterState CEO President] Rob Simpson has continually had conversations about our business leaders thinking more inclusively about how this could be a community where all people profit.

When I came to CenterState CEO, I was excited about the way the staff was thinking very intentionally and strategically around issues of inclusion and access to opportunity. I do this work outside of promoting my own brand as a facilitator, motivational speaker and performer.

When I came to Rob and Dominic Robinson [vice president of economic inclusion, Work Train director], I said, “I know I can do more.” We talked about opportunities to really engage the business community.

I think I can be helpful and intentional in helping this organization work for economic inclusion in a more strategic way.

Oftentimes you come into an organization as a woman of color and have to make a case. You have to push and you’re being questioned. At CenterState CEO, they asked, “How can we help you do this?” That spoke volumes about the way in which CenterState CEO is an organization that is thinking more forwardly. It doesn’t have all the answers, and asked if I could help find them.

They asked if I could work with business leadership in a very real way; help think of metrics and how to hit bottom lines; and challenge leaders to take courageous action at this time.

This is something we know in the community we have to deal with, but there haven’t been spaces for us to have conversations about it in real, authentic ways.

Even the allies and accomplices out there who want to help us lead and drive social change or just balance the system in a different way would not even know where to begin.

So this position both internally and externally is going to be an opportunity to help our organization think more critically around race, how to drive equitable change, how to measure it and think more intentionally about it. We will help our business members do the same.

Q.: How is the COVID-19 experience impacting you?

A.: One thing that I kept thinking about as COVID-19 and the protests happened is that we are all tuned in. I really do believe this COVID-19 experience forced many of us to sit at home and think about what was happening in our communities in so many different ways.

It’s not that these are new issues; we have been working toward them.

Even at a time when we as humans are being challenged to stay alive while dealing with a health crisis, racism is still a prevalent issue and affecting the Black and brown community in substantial ways.

Q.: Were there influences in your life that helped lead you to the position you are in now?

A.: When I was graduating from Indiana University, my mentor told me, “Getting your Ph.D. isn’t the accomplishment; now it’s time to do the work. Now is the time to put all this training to work.” I said OK, but I had no idea what that was going to mean or the kind of choices I was going to make in order to do that.

I then began working with Sharon Owens in my former position at Southwest Community Center. She was the one that I saw as passionate about the community, intentional about addressing issues of equity and capable of challenging people to meet the mark to address them. She did it in such a powerful way.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with her when I first came to Syracuse and began working and was part of her leadership team. She really helped me to think in a grassroots way in terms of how do we take ideas around equity, race and the realities that it forces people to live in or around and develop strategies to drive it in a community where it is needed.

I spent 2 ½ years with her, and then came over to CenterState CEO.

That’s when Dominic [Robinson] brought me into the team. We worked in partnership and were thought leaders together, and he trusted my views. We established this great rapport and he told me that I really can make a difference. Then COVID-19 happened, and we were shut away in our homes.

Q,: At what point did you decide to ramp up your role as an education activist and work toward racial equity?

A. It was the incident when CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was arrested on live TV.

He was standing there on air with credentials, and police put him in handcuffs without any hesitation. That shook me to my core.

It really made me think about how unsafe I am as a woman of color, even in privileged spaces that I occupy. It also made me think about in such a real way that regardless of where you stand professionally or your level of education, a black body or individual who is perceived to be a black body is not safe. I was just shaken because I know I can talk about these issues and that I am doing great work with economic inclusion, but I am called to do more.

I have to do more and have to feel like I am in a position of really driving some of these issues that can help us think about the different ways we experience American life.

A contingency of mentors in this community and beyond just really empowered me to stand my ground and say this is important.

We have been talking about it in this country and have stepped toward it, but we really need to do some things daringly right now at this moment and hopefully have different results.

I have a 15-year-old son, Nile, and I want business opportunities and employment for him and his peers. It sounds very much “I have a dreamish,” but we have to have a better quality of life.

In this community, with the role of CenterState CEO bringing people together and thinking about change, I would say I really think we’re in a position to hold some people accountable and do this work in a dynamic way.