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Doug Johnson: Family is about love and not skin color

With a career that spans three decades in the music industry from a sound engineer to booking top artists for Summerfest, Doug Johnson is most proud of his other full-time job as being the father of adopted African-American twins. His holistic approach to life, persistence for social justice, and insightful parenting in action takes on racial issues with healthy and direct action. Johnson’s philosophy serves as an example beyond his living room and as a model to the segregated Milwaukee community for how to embrace and incorporate racial diversity.

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Q&A with Doug Johnson

Q: What is the fondest memory of your youth, and who was the most influential person in your life?

A: Every year as a child, my family would embark on a two week vacation, driving to all parts of the United States. I developed a love to travel the world because of it. Meeting new people, ideas, experiences. The most influential individuals would be my parents. A true emphasis was placed on forward thinking support and value system, persistence in the proper way, developing listening skills, and conversational thought process with an emphasis on debate. It set the ideological ground work that I utilize daily.

Q: Is there one thing you are most proud of achieving in your life or career, and what are you still striving to accomplish?

A: I believe in the Kaizen principle, which is a life of continuous improvement. Life goals and achievements are stepping stones to bettering your life consistently and a reaffirmation every day. I strive for betterment, to make change for the better. I am proud of overcoming numerous life altering events that have lead me and to lead others on a positive, successful path. I am most proud of my family accomplishments and relationship with my wife and 6 year old twins as we continue to move forward. We are learning, living, and adapting together on the journey of life. As in my personal life, my proudest career achievement is to continually achieve the set goal, take a breath, enjoy and dissect, and then reset the goal. Carpe Diem!

Q: How is faith a part of your life and the work you do?

A: I believe life is a journey, and that your fate belies how you proceed moving forward. It is more of a Taoist state of mind.

Q: What was the most memorable experience of your twenty years at Summerfest, and how did that job change you?

A: There are many. Some of my most memorable experiences were when artists would not go on stage at scheduled time, some legitimate, some not. I would go in and rectify the situation. It built the stamina, strength, negotiating tactics, and analytical thought that steers me today. How to deal and manage people was what that job brought to me also.

Q: Was there a life lesson you gained from spending your career around musicians?

A: There are numerous, but what stands out most is be humble and work smart, be the best you can be. Use 100% of your attributes 100% of the time. Be persistent in a smart way. You can shoot to the top as quick as you can shoot to the bottom. Treat all people with proper respect, always have the end result in mind, be 100% vested in the strategies and journey getting there.

Q: Where did your interest in photography develop, and is that your only creative outlet?

A: It is one of a couple creative outlets I have. My father turned me on to photography when I was 10. We would go out and shoot landscapes with the numerous cameras he carried. When I went touring at 18, I started to photograph my early experiences and it continued from there. It has transformed into portraits of my twins in various forms and functions of their growing up.

Q: How was your photo essay “Adoption at a Glance” received by the public, and why did you produce the public showing?

A: I produced it to bring attention to adopting kids in the United States and raise a little money for the cause. I had this vast collection of prints of my twin adoption experience, and was completely overwhelmed by the feedback. I think people saw it was for a great cause, adoption, and a personal experience people know – kids. My friend Mark Fairbanks had a spot in the Third Ward and we decided to present it there. The reaction was tremendous and all proceeds went to Adopt U.S. Kids, a great adoption organization and Lifetime Adoption, the agency we used to adopt that is located in California.

Q: What is the most common question you are asked as a white parent of African American twin children?

A: 1. What country are they from? 2. Why did you adopt African American children? 3. And a whole slew of questioning from A to Z.

Q: For you and your wife, what was the hardest part of the adoption process?

A: The wait. We went the 6 years and 6 matches with expectant birth mothers. We got to know our children for 2 days and then they were reclaimed by the birthmother. That was devastating. We had flown to Missouri to pick up the twins when they were one day old. The birthmother reclaimed them a day later. Things happen when you are dealing with human emotions. We flew back home not wanting to continue. Strange thing is, I was back there 13 days later on business, and received a phone call from my lawyer saying the birthmother was ready to give up the kids and wanted to know if we wanted to adopt them. I can not make this up. Kudos to the birthmother. We completed our paperwork over the next few months and made the twins officially part of the Johnson family. And what did no one tell us to expect? The immediate rush of loving someone so unconditionally.

Q: What has parenting taught you about yourself? And how do racial issues influence your family dynamics?

A: It has reinforced my thoughts about compassion and equality for fellow man, my push for everyone to have ample opportunities to succeed, and mentoring as key to our existence and future. Racial issues are at the forefront of my wife and my discussions. We are always tweaking our actions and reactions to issues we need to confront, and to what degree we need to confront them. Trying to traverse racism and figuring a solid path forward, adjusting to circumstances. If you had told me 10 years ago how very deep into the American life fabric racism is, I would have told you that you were crazy. I would have been absolutely wrong. Most people just do not realize it because it does not affect them every day.

Q: What has been the biggest joy of being an adoptive parent, and do you see any of your personality traits in your kids?

A: Observing and helping my children grow, helping them to learn and realize the magic of life. Amazing, as I never thought I would have the opportunity to have children. I had a great talk with a very wise man who had many adopted brothers and sisters. He told me adapted knowledge on average is 70% nurture and 30% nature in an adoptive setting. I agree. I see numerous traits of my wife and I in our children. It is so eye opening because you never think of that when you go thru the process of adoption. You reap what you sow, it gives you back something that you may not have thought possible.

Q: Unlike families of the same race, where children can grow up without knowing they were adopted, how did your children process the realization of their situation from such an early age?

A: Still processing everyday. A question as innocuous as a kid asking the twins why their parents are white, led to a discussion on birthmothers, our family makeup, the commonality with other families, etc. We talked about skin color first and went from there. It is all in the approach. When it seems like a natural and organic conversation, the kids treat it as such and go on with a healthy outlook.

Q: What advice do you have for young parents in Milwaukee who are considering adopting a child?

A: There is a child (or children) out there for you. We did not find the twins, they found us. Some adoption experiences are longer and harder to get thru then others, but you will succeed. Our journey took 6 years for various reasons. Each state, county, city seems to have different laws regarding adoption. The best thing in the world is to adopt a child and give them the opportunities to succeed like any child. And lean on people who have been thru it, lived it, and succeeded. I mentor families on how to navigate adoption. Ask people who have been there. Persevere.

Q: What is your hope for the future of Milwaukee, and the conditions for those living in the most disadvantaged communities?

A: My hope is that more of our politicians, local and state, business leaders and citizens will take a more open view of our city and not brush our issues under the rug, such as racism, redlining, etc. Do we really want to be known as the most segregated city in America? Milwaukee seems to put an onus on an outward look first, i.e. the push to bring Millennials here. Instead of beautifying Milwaukee, investing capital in our kids and neighborhoods. We need to look inward at our underserved areas of Milwaukee and give those kids and neighborhoods the same opportunities as others. I read at a MPS school every week and there are very a smart kids in the system that need help with opportunities and hope. That is how you make a city strong, change social structure internally and the external will take of itself. We need to improve internally first1st. A weak internal base is a detriment for getting people to come to Milwaukee. We need to believe in continuous improvement, getting better every day, no matter how small it is.

Q: In your experience, does local media coverage contribute the role of racial misunderstanding in Milwaukee and reinforce the city’s segregation?

A: I believe that there a few solid writers that have a unbiased look into racial misunderstanding in this city. But yes, I see bias, and ignorance every day in the media and it does not help the situation.

Q: Is there a question that no one ever asks that you wish they would, so you can finally talk about the subject?

A: You just asked it: ‘What is your hope for the future of Milwaukee, and the conditions for those living in the most disadvantaged communities?’ I could talk about this all day, and would like to be part of finding viable solutions. We have to put our money, and efforts, where our mouth is.

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© Photo

Doug Johnson and Lee Matz

Read the Q&A interview and watch the video segments that were produced as companion features for this news report.

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