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Tribute to Arlene Johnson

Dec. 1, 2008 — On Nov. 10th, Arlene Johnson was celebrated at a gala dinner that Lori Sokol hosted at Club 101 in Manhattan. One of the brightest stars in the work-life constellation, Arlene’s career is so noteworthy, her contributions so bountiful and her friendship so valued, that many of us traveled across the country to be on hand. As the head of AWLP, on the Board which Arlene served for at least five years (I frankly can’t remember a time before her arrival), I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to speak on her behalf, trying my best to summarize her long and multi-faceted career. In the throes of this effort, late one night I found myself compelled to capture her unique character while I was at it. This turned out to be one of the biggest emotional and intellectual challenges I’ve tackled in a very long time. The result took an unusual twist that several folks in the audience have encouraged me to share with a much wider audience, so here are my remarks. Please congratulate Arlene on her “rewirement” in your own personal way; I know she will be gratified to hear from each and every one of you. 

My good friend and professional colleague Arlene Johnson is one of the most highly educated, honest, strongly principled, ethical and complex people I have ever known. As I have cast about for the best way to introduce her to those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting her, while at the same time paying tribute to her among the people here tonight who know her very well, the notion came to me of revealing her personality and accomplishments by sharing with you a half dozen of the books that she must keep close at hand – the ones that I imagine have inspired her throughout her life. For Arlene is as much a voracious reader as she is a writer and thinker, and what she reads speaks volumes about her most deeply held values, not to mention the unique fabric that she has chosen to weave of her life.

The first title on Arlene’s bookshelf I’d like to point out is Walt Whitman’s poem, Song of Myself. Written in 1881, some literary critics consider this to be one of the most difficult but greatest poems in the English language. While most of us are content to confine our reading of this Quaker poet to his best known work, Leaves of Grass, Arlene presses on for deeper significance. Like Whitman, Arlene is a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and this particular poem pays tribute to this new, uniquely American faith, which is grounded in rationalism, empiricism and scientific method as the sources of knowledge. Welcome to the wellspring of Arlene’s inspiring yet pragmatic spirituality.

The next book we encounter is Separate by Degree: Women Students’ Experiences in Single-Sex and Coeducational Colleges, by Leslie Miller-Bernal. Arlene is a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, one of the few remaining all-women’s colleges, renowned for academic rigor and internationalism. Like several other women among us tonight who are the products of premier women’s schools, Arlene exudes self-confidence, curiosity and fearless pursuit of knowledge and justice in the face of power. A consistent passion of hers throughout her career has been the advancement of women, an interest that comes quite naturally to her, given her educational background and an inborn sense of optimism.

Next comes a tome familiar to everyone, The Bible. You see, Arlene attended Union Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister. Further evidence that her spirituality is not just a superficial mantle she wears, but a deeply rooted core of her being.

I see a dog-eared paperback copy of the American social scientist Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 1977 treatise, Work and Family in the USA: Critical Review and Research and Policy Agenda, the first work-life book ever published.  Arlene was an early activist in the work-life movement, amassing over 25 years of experience working with employers to create strategies for effective change.  She has served as a Vice President at Catalyst here in NY, she was Director of Workforce Research at the Conference Board, Vice President at the Families and Work Institute, and has most recently served as Vice President at WFD Consulting in Boston. Alongside all of this gainful employment, she found time to honor us at Alliance for Work-Life Progress by serving on our Strategy Board for four years, helping us manage the transition from an independent volunteer Board into our new home within WorldatWork.

Our tenure at the Families and Work Institute overlapped for several years in the early 1990s. The most memorable project we worked on together involved a long, hot summer of focus groups and management interviews at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. We made multiple trips to D.C. together, and I remember strategizing, laughing and sweating our way through many long days, nights and what seemed like endless hikes across the sweltering city from one World Bank location to another. Our final analysis report was well-received by the World Bank’s leadership, which in those days was considered quite an accomplishment for “outsiders.”  I credit our success in large part to Arlene’s dogged energy and determination in spite of the heat, as well as her exceptional ability to synthesize great quantities of information. If you ever find yourself on a large, complex and shapeless project that requires clarity and whittling down to manageable size, Arlene is the ideal teammate.

The fifth book on her shelf is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay, Nature. This philosopher, essayist, poet, orator and leader of the Transcendentalist movement in the early 19th century not only exerted an influence on the Quakers, but serves as the inspiration for the name of Arlene’s first grandchild, Emerson. Arlene has entered an entirely new phase of her life as a grandmother, a joyous opportunity that she undertakes with all the passion, dedication and enthusiasm that she has devoted to everything else.

Last but not least is Machiavelli’s The Prince, written in 1532. Like all of Arlene’s other muses, this central figure from the Italian renaissance was complex and multi-faceted. Historian, statesman, philosopher, musician, poet and playwright, Machiavelli was best known for his treatises on realist political theory. You see, not content to be defined entirely by the professional work-a-day world she has inhabited for over a quarter of a century, Arlene aspires to politics. She astounded us all by campaigning and then getting elected to the 5-member Town Council of Livingston, NJ, where she and her husband, Keith, reside. In the not too distant future, she will serve a term as Mayor of Livingston. It’s even rumored that the Governor of New Jersey addresses her as the Honorable Arlene Johnson.

Now that we have taken the liberty of prying open the books on the bookshelf next to her desk in pursuit of her essence, let me introduce you to this remarkable thought-leader, spiritual guide, politician, grandmother, and my friend — the Honorable Arlene Johnson.

Reader Comments

Thur. December 4, 2008 06:28 AM
Judi C. Casey, MSW I am in total agreement!  I have the utmost respect for Arlene and her work.  Her perspective, knowledge and ability to analyze complicated situations are unparalleled.  She was a terrific contributor to the Sloan Network’s Advisory Board, and someone who you could always call on for advice and encouragement. Lucky Livingston, NJ, which is a little irksome to me as I grew up in West Orange, NJ – the next town over and arch rivals with Livingston!
Wed. December 3, 2008 07:14 AM
Diane Burrus, WFD

It was great to read your moving and creative tribute to Arlene you posted on your blog — I forwarded it on to WFDers and Arlene and we all appreciated the thought and personal reflection that you put into the speech — you truly outdid yourself this time:)  Thank you so much!

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of WorldatWork and its affiliate, Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP).


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