Steven L. Johnson, CEO of Luke, Johnson & Lewis and Utah Black Chamber Chair, speaks about activism for Utah’s Black community

Story by SUNWHEE MIKE PARK

Steven L. Johnson watched in awe, as the legendary California Congresswoman Maxine Waters commanded the attention of a crowd in Utah’s prestigious Alta Club – an institution that formerly did not allow memberships to women or Black people. He could not believe that he was seated at her table, much less that they had just discussed the growth of Utah’s Black economy together. A surreal sense of pride washed over Johnson in that moment, as it dawned on him that in this room, he stood among Congresswoman Waters’ ranks as a revered and respected activist.

But it would take nearly a decade of devotion to Utah’s Black community before such a moment could arrive.

In 2000, Johnson packed up everything he owned and moved to Utah from Denver, Colorado. A freshly divorced ex-sister-in-law who needed help getting settled was reason enough for him to make the arduous 500-mile move. This decision was the first of countless others in Johnson’s new life in Utah in which he would move mountains to help those he cared for.

Throughout his first year in the Beehive State, Johnson became increasingly aware of the stark contrast between his native Denver and Salt Lake City. Chiefly, he noticed that the Black community in Utah was not only small (comprising roughly 0.7% of the entire state’s population then), but seemed also to be stalling and struggling.

Steven L. Johnson is chair of the Utah Black Chamber, and CEO of Luke, Johnson & Lewis. He is a devoted activist who has served UT’s Black community for almost a decade. Photo courtesy of Steven L. Johnson.

At this time, Johnson was used to the thriving Black community in Denver, which he recalled was akin to those of Black meccas like Atlanta or Detroit. In Denver, Johnson reminisced, Black-owned businesses had longevity and were often core components of the city’s booming economy. In Salt Lake City, however, he had trouble finding Black businesses that branched out from the archetypal barbeques or barbershops.

After a decade of wondering who and where the state’s Black professionals were, Johnson finally found himself at the Utah Black Chamber’s annual community barbeque hosted in Sugarhouse Park.

At long last, there they were. Utah’s Black business owners, professionals and community leaders. Observing Utah’s Black community at large for the first time, Johnson finally felt at home in a land that had only been unfamiliar to him until then. “I met more Black people at that event than I had seen in the [years] that I had been here,” says Johnson over the phone in a surprisingly youthful voice. “It was really eye-opening. It made me feel comfortable.”

There he met James Jackson III, founder of the Utah Black Chamber, known then as African Americans Advancing in Commerce, Communication, Education and Leadership (ACCEL). The fateful meeting, spurred on by Johnson’s wife (then-girlfriend), sparked the flame that produced two of Utah’s most revered Black leaders today. “When I met James, it was like a new beginning,” Johnson says, “[like] I might have the chance to help make a difference or a change here in Utah.”

Inspired by Jackson’s passion and devotion to the growth of Utah’s Black community, Johnson found himself increasingly involved in activism as well. But his methods transcended attending community events or facilitating networking between Black Utahns.

In 2011, Paul Law Office – where Johnson worked as a collections manager – shut down indefinitely. Johnson, however, did not lament his new unemployment. Using his final paycheck, Johnson jumped headfirst into entrepreneurship. He founded Luke, Johnson & Lewis (with partner Preston Lewis), a debt arbitration business that specializes in third-party recovery and collecting receivables.

For Johnson, this new venture was more than a simple means to earn profit. As one of the state’s handful of Black CEOs, he wanted his business to serve as a “beta test” for other pioneering Black businesses in Utah. By watching and learning from Luke, Johnson & Lewis, he hoped, future generations of Black-owned Utah businesses would thrive like those he remembered from his years in Denver.

Meanwhile, James Jackson had plans of his own for Johnson. Seven years into the growth of the Utah Black Chamber, Jackson was eager to increase its influence on a statewide level. In order to achieve such a feat, he required the strategic expertise and interpersonal skills of a seasoned legal professional. He brought Johnson on as the Black Chamber’s board chair in 2015, and later made him the chair of its membership committee as well. “Based on [his] leadership, experience, and desires … I felt [these positions] fit him the best to help grow the [Black] Chamber,” Jackson says in an email.

James Jackson III (left) and Steven L. Johnson receive awards from the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. for their work in the Utah Black Chamber in 2018. Photo courtesy of Steven L. Johnson.

Nicknamed the Black Chamber’s “Swiss Army knife,” Johnson took on a range of responsibilities – from strategizing the expansion of the Black Chamber’s membership, making connections with sponsors and spotlighting member businesses on a monthly basis, to furthering plans to establish the long-awaited Black Success Center.

Johnson, in addition to running his own business, was now leading the state’s largest Black-based organization. Yet his activism was still only in its fledgling stage.

Johnson explains that his personal philosophy forbids him from feeling as though he has ever done enough. “If you feel satisfied, you’ve closed the book. The chapter’s over,” he says. That’s why, in 2017, Johnson began a partnership with state lobbyist Craig Hulinsky to start the Good Deed Law Project.

Johnson explains that the Good Deed Law Project was founded with the goal of helping people in debt find alternative ways to pay off or reduce their overdue payments. Acting as the project’s Debt Initiative director, Johnson discovered methods to persuade businesses to write off debts as charitable donations, while allowing debtors to work off their sum in community service or work hours.

So far, Johnson’s debt arbitration model at the Good Deed Law Project has resolved $385,000 of debt while producing 10,000 community work hours. Johnson explains excitedly that his model has put over 500 debtors back on track to financial stability.

“He sets an example … in the Black community. His lifestyle is to be copied,” writes Rev. France A. Davis in an email interview. Davis, pastor emeritus of the Calvary Baptist Church, is another one of Utah’s highly revered Black leaders and an individual that Johnson considers his personal mentor. As part of the latest addition to Johnson’s activism, he and the reverend have recently become members of the Racial Equity in Policing Commission for Salt Lake City. There, the pair are able to review and make recommendations to the city’s police department about its policies, specifically regarding racial biases.

Twenty-one years ago, Johnson arrived in Utah without a job, without a home, with only the feeling that he was needed, that he could help. Now, as one of the state’s most active and respected Black leaders, his foundational drive to help those in need remains the same. Despite his many titles and roles – CEO, board chair, director, commissioner – Johnson’s activism is only just beginning.

“Utah’s Black community is growing … and I want to be there to witness [its] development,” Johnson says humbly about the very community that could not exist today were it not for his tireless efforts.