Winners Announced for 3rd Annual Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award

October 17, 2019

For more than 25 years, Everyday Democracy has worked with communities across the country to foster a healthy and vibrant democracy – characterized by strong relationships across divides, leadership development, including the voices of all people, and understanding and addressing structural racism. The Aicher Award seeks to elevate community leaders who embody these values.

After considering more than 60 nominations from around the country, Everyday Democracy has announced the winner:


Happy Johnson and Arthur Johnson of New Orleans, LA

Happy Johnson and Arthur Johnson of New Orleans were selected as the winners of the 2019 Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award. This team’s winning nomination was selected from 64 nominations in this third annual national contest.  Everyday Democracy will present the two men (who work together but are not related) with a $10,000 award at a ceremony on December 5th in Hartford, CT.

Happy Johnson and Arthur Johnson have been working at the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED) in New Orleans for almost a decade, combining citizen engagement with environmental science to create equitable development and policy on climate resilience. According to Martha McCoy, Executive Director of Everyday Democracy, “there are many others across our country and globe who are facing the inequitable effects of climate change and want to tackle it through democratic ways of working. Arthur Johnson and Happy Johnson provide inspirational models of the kind of leadership we need, so that we can address critical climate issues in inclusive, sustainable ways.” 

The Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED) has been on the front lines of restoring the fragile ecosystem of the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans while strengthening the Ninth Ward’s civic fabric. CSED is committed to equity and social justice in an already underserved community that was completely devastated after Hurricane Katrina. Arthur Johnson and Happy Johnson have been leading the effort every step of the way.

The Lower Ninth Ward is still reeling from the effect of Hurricane Katrina.  With a population that is 93% African-American, the neighborhood has been marked by an uneven recovery effort compared to other neighborhoods in New Orleans. Thirteen years after the storm there were still no supermarkets in the Lower Ninth, and residents had to fight the city to ensure that at least one school of the five that were closed after the storm would be rebuilt. A couple of months ago, one small grocery store was opened.

Arthur Johnson and Happy Johnson are leaders in and advocates for the neighborhood at the heart of CSED.  They are an incredible example of steadfast and consistent leadership.  They are homegrown and grassroots. In an environment where resources are drying up, they implement programs that have strengthened and restored both the ecological and civic infrastructure of their community.

Their work has elevated the voices of African American, Vietnamese, and Latino residents in conversations with state-level agencies, demonstrating that bridge building, equity, inclusion, and transparency make equitable, community-driven change possible and sustainable. Their commitment to racial and intergenerational equity is evident across all of their work.  Arthur and Happy were nominated by Nicole Cabral of Public Agenda, and received several letters of support including one from the National Wildlife Federation that noted: “CSED’s sought-after expertise transcends politics and is regularly tapped for non-profit, mayoral and community appointments, panel discussions, presentations and public policy recommendations.”  

“Community engagement is who we are.” - Arthur Johnson

Happy Johnson served as one of the youngest African Americans to drive an Emergency Response Vehicle in New Orleans post-Katrina and has dedicated his life to building cultural and environmental resilience.  Additionally, his series of children's picture books about wetlands restoration and disaster preparedness have been taught to thousands of students throughout the American South.  Arthur Johnson noted, “We are thrilled to be recognized, because it will help us move the mission of equity and democracy in the Lower Ninth Ward in the face of many challenges.” He went on to say that “Having two black men being recognized for something like this is unusual and also a powerful symbol…. The kind of recognition your foundation gives doesn’t happen a lot in our country.” 

Happy added that “the work is difficult, and recognition doesn’t happen often. This award is a great boost to our morale.” Happy Johnson was excited that he and Arthur were being recognized together, noting that this is the first time this has happened. Arthur reflected that people don’t work together across generations often enough, and that seasoned leaders and younger people should work together all the time. This thought aligns directly with the intergenerational equity work Everyday Democracy is focusing on, to complement its focus on racial equity through community dialogue to change.  


This year, the Aicher Award Committee also recognized these strong finalists for the award:

Catalyst Miami, FL; BRIDGE, Lee, MA; Lisa Jo Epstein, Philadelphia, PA; and, Ximena Zúñiga, Amherst, MA

There were also four honorable mentions:

Brandyn Keating, West Bridgewater, MA; Blontas (Winkie) Mitchell, Springfield, OH; The Phoenix Association, CT; and Roanoke Valley Points of Diversity, Roanoke, VA.

Paul J. Aicher and his wife Joyce were known for their generosity and creative genius. A discussion course at Penn State helped Paul find his own voice in civic life early on, and sparked his lifelong interest in helping others find theirs.

Paul founded the Topsfield Foundation and the Study Circles Resource Center, now called Everyday Democracy, in 1989.  The organization has now worked with more than 600 communities throughout the country, helping bring together diverse people to understand and make progress on difficult issues, incorporating lessons learned into discussion guides and other resources, and offering training and resources to help develop the field and practice of deliberative democracy.

Learn more about Paul's journey and the origins of Everyday Democracy.

The Paul and Joyce Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award honors work that creates opportunities for meaningful civic participation for all people, addresses racial inequities through dialogue and collective action, and shows the power of bridging all kinds of divides by making dialogue a regular part of how a community works.

The award winner was celebrated in Hartford, CT on December 5th.

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