Destined for Leadership: From Activist to MBA

Cristy Johnston Limon, executive director of Destiny Arts (all photos by Noah Berger)

When Cristy Johnston-Limón was hired as executive director of Oakland’s Destiny Arts Center in 2011, the nonprofit was facing eviction from its shared space at a local charter school.

For more than 25 years, the respected center had offered classes—from hip hop to kung fu to karate—to thousands of kids, encouraging violence prevention through the performing arts.

But its future was in jeopardy.

The board had shied away from a plan to purchase and build out an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in North Oakland: with just enough money for a down payment on a new building, some directors and advisors were worried about crushing loan payments.

Even before her first official day on the job, Johnston-Limón began scouting sites. “After touring more than 50 potential sites, I knew this one was it and I did everything in my power to make it happen,” Johnston-Limón said.

It was a tough sell, but Johnston-Limón, EMBA 16, didn’t give up. The daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, Johnston-Limón has always figured out how to navigate life’s challenges—as a teenager turning away from gangs, as a young urban neighborhood activist, as a first-generation college student at UC Berkeley, and now as a student in the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program.

Working with Destiny Arts board member David Riemer, Johnston- Limón met repeatedly with the the board, listened to what they had to say and calmly countered every argument against the building plan. “We kept laying brick after brick after brick,” until the skeptics got the reassurance they needed, says Riemer, an Executive-in-Residence at Berkeley-Haas. “Cristy is a leader with an incredible combination of confidence, ambition, passion, and vision.”

By 2013, Destiny Arts had moved into the new center, which boasts high ceilings; clean, bright studios; peace murals; a black box theater; and meeting spaces.

“A few nerves”

As an EMBA student, Johnston-Limón is working to gain the business skills required to ensure Destiny Arts Center’s future in a nonprofit environment increasingly focused on ROI.

She admits to having had a few nerves when she arrived at Berkeley-Haas last year. In particular, she worried that, for all her strengths in communication and leadership, she didn’t have the quantitative skills required to keep up. She also learned, on her first day, that she was the only Latina and the only head of a nonprofit in her cohort of 69 students.

A natural bridge-builder, she responded by becoming the first vice president of diversity for the EMBA Program, working closely with administrators and peers in the full-time MBA program on plans to foster more inclusion within the student body and faculty.

“Cristy brings an intense focus on diversity to her fellow students and the program overall,” says Jamie Breen, Assistant Dean of the EMBA program. ‘She has taken a leading role, working with other diversity leaders at Haas to ensure we provide our students with the skills required to lead diverse workforces and find and develop talent.”

Johnston-Limón, who is 39 and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, never shies away from discussing issues of social justice. In July, while sitting at a local pub with classmates after a long day of EMBA classes, news broke of the shooting of five white police officers in Dallas, the latest shock in a summer of extraordinary race-based violence nationwide.

Johnston-Limón immediately started engaging her group in a discussion about the events, sharing her insights as a leader on the front lines.

“When I see an opportunity to help people talk about and understand the issues around diversity in a way that’s useful and productive, I grab it,” she says.

Before she graduates in December, Johnston-Limón plans to host a voluntary training on how unconscious bias deters inclusion and gets in the way of great decisions. Partly because of her efforts, the curriculum for incoming EMBA students in the fall included bias workshops.

From “super nerd” to activist

Johnston-Limón was an overachiever early in life.

As a kid growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District, she was a star student who turned to music to escape gang life, domestic troubles, and the trauma of eviction notices as rents skyrocketed. A self-described “super nerd,” she walked to the bus stop with a cello strapped to her back for the cross-city ride to a school in a better neighborhood.

The weekly staff meeting at Destiny Arts Center

As a teen, she felt pressure to join a gang, and even dropped out of high school at one point. But her cello—and her passion for learning—kept her on track.

At 19, she joined angry street protests against The Mission’s gentrification that was pushing out longtime residents.

Even then, she says she sensed that dialogue instead of violent confrontation was the answer and that desire for peaceful justice propelled her to major in political science at UC Berkeley.

A post-graduation year as a legislative aide in Sacramento led her to return to San Francisco to work on a pilot program aiming to revitalize one of the city’s struggling neighborhoods: the Excelsior District.

For her work, she received a national community leadership award for the pilot program, which has since become a citywide initiative for transforming local San Francisco neighborhoods.

Working to create opportunities

Johnston-Limón’s younger brother, Jon, hasn’t fared as well over the years.

He joined a Mission District gang and, after several drug-related infractions, is serving a 15-year prison sentence, she said. “My brother didn’t have the opportunities I did,” she says, tearfully. “Having my best friend in prison has been a motivating factor in my work with youth, advocacy work, and our programs that serve incarcerated youth, which I’ve expanded while at Destiny Arts Center.”

At Destiny, which is an acronym for “De-Escalation Skills Training Inspiring Nonviolence in Youth,” Johnston-Limón works to create new opportunities for kids in a city impacted by high drop-out rates and violence. Over the last five years, she has more than doubled the number of children served by boosting Destiny Arts’ operating budget from $800,000 to $3 million. More than 4,000 students—ranging from age three to 24—now choose from 800 classes annually.

Meantime, at Berkeley-Haas, Johnston-Limón and classmate Alejandro Maldonado are developing an app that aims to help teaching artists connect to parents looking for activities for their kids.

“One reason I love having her as a co-founder is because, even when things don’t go perfectly, she’ll manage to turn them around,” Maldonado says.

For Johnston-Limón problem-solving at work and in her community is about building upon what she’s learned throughout her life. It may sound hokey, she jokes, but she’s hoping to inspire a desire to build a better world in her classmates, too.

“I’m striving for the children we serve to ensure they have safe, inclusive spaces to thrive,” she says. “I’m striving to create the kind of world where everyone feels valued, included, and loved. Who doesn’t want that?”