Girls Inc. CEO pushes powerful message learned from her mother.
By David Laprad
Toccora Johnson-Petersen was 6 when her mother hit her with harsh facts about growing up black in a poor Chattanooga neighborhood.
As Johnson-Petersen was dressing for her first day of kindergarten in the bathroom of their West Side apartment, her mother said data suggested she’d become a teen mother, would never finish high school and would be working in fast food as she entered adulthood.
“She said those were the numbers that came out of our neighborhood,” recalls Johnson-Petersen, who is now 39. “She then told me I could make different choices.”
Fuming about someone declaring what her future would be, Johnson-Petersen decided the information her mother had conveyed would not be her fate.
“I said, ‘I am going to defy those odds. I am not going to have a baby at a young age, I am going to graduate from high school and I will do more than work in fast food.’”
Johnson-Petersen did work at McDonald’s as a teen, but the job was a steppingstone, not a dead end.
“My parents wanted me to learn about economic freedom and responsibility, which I did. Nothing against working in fast food, but I eventually had to move on.”
Johnson-Petersen did not become a young mother, though, and she did graduate from high school – as class salutatorian. She also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Today, Johnson-Petersen is the CEO of Girls Inc. of Chattanooga, the local arm of a national organization that aims to prepare young women to become leaders locally and nationally.
If the statistics Johnson-Petersen’s mother passed on were dire in 1989, they might be more so now. According to a fact card Girls Inc. distributed at its UnBought & UnBossed fundraiser luncheon in May, one in three girls does not read at their grade level, one in four believes they are not proficient in math or science – leading to 33% fewer women than men STEM graduates – and one in seven will not graduate high school on time.
Perhaps as a result, the card notes, 80% of U.S. Congress is made up of men.
For these reasons and more, Girls Inc. strives to “inspire and equip all girls to be strong, smart and bold,” Johnson-Petersen says, quoting the organization’s mission statement.
“We help girls become better students, better family members and responsible and productive citizens,” she continues in her own words. “We do this by being a place where they can make mistakes and then learn from them.
“I can’t think of a better place to pour into our youth.”
Although Girls Inc. has been serving the Chattanooga community since 1961, Johnson-Petersen did not attend its programs. But her adolescent experience could still verify that it takes a village to raise a child.
Johnson-Petersen’s village started at home and expanded from there.
“I saw everything my parents did to give me a better life – the sacrifices they made every day – and while I didn’t always make the right decision, I tried to make them proud.”
Johnson-Petersen’s early forays into her community included weekly trips to Sunday School at Missionary Baptist Church on Ruby Street, where her teacher used the King James Bible to teach her to read before she started kindergarten.
“I was the only child among much older kids, but when it was my turn to read, my teacher didn’t let me play the ‘I’m only 5’ card. She worked with me every Sunday, word for word, until I got it.
“I wanted to be on the same level as the other kids, so I also learned to comprehend what I was reading. So, when my mom spoke with me on my first day of school, I understood what she was saying and decided I had something to prove.”
Johnson-Petersen also learned the value of outreach at her church.
“Church is where I began to understand the importance of community,” she explains. “I learned you have to go to the people. I was 8 or 9 when I started tagging along with the adults. Then I started inviting other kids to Vacation Bible School.”
Johnson-Petersen says her experiences in Chattanooga’s public schools also impacted her in a big way. She remembers Dr. Edna Varner, her middle school principal, as being especially influential.
“She taught me about having standards and realistic expectations. When I told her I was in love with a boy and we were going to get married someday, she said, ‘Ya’ll probably won’t end up together.’”
In essence, Johnson-Petersen says, Varner fed her truth without being harsh.
“I remember her saying he was a great guy but we were too young to be thinking about the future and would eventually go down different paths.”
As Johnson-Petersen forged a path through early adulthood, she had a vague notion of where she wanted to go but no specific destination.
She began college in 2001 intent on becoming a dentist, but her first chemistry class disabused her of the notion.
“Chemistry was eye-opening for me,” she says. “That was the first time I received an F. I was not studying the way I needed to. I went to my lectures and labs but thought I could study a few days before a test. I didn’t have the discipline I needed to be in those kinds of classes.”
Fortunately, college was a place where Johnson-Petersen could “make mistakes and then learn from them.” Instead of letting the failing grade stain her transcript like a hideous ink blot, she retook the class twice. After earning a B+, she was ready to put chemistry behind her.
Johnson-Petersen also shifted from the dental track – a goal she said was only about financial gain – to public health.
“I’d always wanted to provide people with information and help them set goals, so I asked myself, ‘Since I’m not going to be a dentist, how do I educate the community on the importance of dental care?’”
Johnson-Petersen did case preparation for the State of Tennessee after finishing college but she didn’t like being boxed in a cubicle, talking with clients on the phone. “I wanted to see the people I was helping,” she explains.
As Johnson-Petersen tried to forge a new direction, she applied for a job for which the employer said she was overqualified. Instead of hiring her, the person handed her a list of nonprofits in Chattanooga and suggested she apply with them.
Girls Inc. was at the top of the list.
The organization hired Johnson-Petersen in 2010 and made her its manager of elementary programs. Five years later, Girls Inc. promoted her to senior director of program operations.
Johnson-Petersen knew she’d found her destination when she saw the impact Girls Inc. can have on a young woman.
“Many of the girls were just like I had been growing up and I liked pouring into them.”
Although Johnson-Petersen enjoyed her work, she aspired to leadership. So, when the CEO position became available, she tossed her hat into the ring.
“I’ve always wanted to be in charge of whatever I was doing,” she laughs. “When I was a cheerleader, I wanted to be the captain, and when I worked at McDonald’s, I wanted to be a team leader, so I did those things. And when the CEO position became available at Girls Inc., I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’”
When Girls Inc. hired Melissa Blevins instead, Johnson-Petersen was devastated. But she says the experience taught her she still needs people to pour into her.
Stacy Lightfoot, vice chancellor for diversity and engagement at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, did just that. Johnson-Petersen had met Lightfoot through a mutual acquaintance in 2017 and the two had formed a close bond.
“You always need someone who will be authentic with you in your life,” Johnson-Petersen says. “When I would go to Stacy and whine and complain, she’d say, ‘Let’s talk about what you didn’t or didn’t do in that moment.’ She helped me to focus on my accountability and responsibility.”
Johnson-Petersen plowed forward at Girls Inc. with renewed purpose. She then became interim CEO in August 2020 when Blevins departed. In January 2021, the Girls Inc. board made the appointment permanent.
Although taking the reins of Girls Inc. as the pandemic set in was not easy, Johnson-Petersen says every step of the path she’d forged to get there had prepared her for the job.
“The transition into leadership was hard. I’d never been a CEO before, but since programming is the heartbeat of Girls Inc., I knew what running this organization would take.”
Like the 6-year-old girl who refused to aim low, Johnson-Petersen is spearheading initiatives designed to encourage girls to aim high. She’s particularly proud of a leadership program through which a few of the hundreds of local young women the organization serves identified a site for a Little Free Library near the Girls Inc. headquarters on Brainerd Road.
Johnson-Petersen is also pleased with a previous summer research trip that sent several girls to Miami to engage with agencies and nonprofits that are tackling the homeless problem in the city. The young women returned to Chattanooga with ideas for addressing the same problem locally.
Although Johnson-Petersen does not have children of her own, her village still starts at home and expands from there. Her parents died in 2007, but she still has an abundance of family, including immediate and extended.
“I’m a big sister, a little sister, an aunt, a godmother, a big cousin and a little cousin,” she beams. “I love it.”
Johnson-Petersen also is a wife. She and her husband, software developer Randy Petersen, enjoy working out together, sharing a meal with family on Sundays and binge-watching TV.
They also like to travel – “anywhere from Nashville to Jamaica,” she adds.
No matter where Johnson-Petersen goes – whether it’s less than a mile from where her mother hit her with harsh truths to address several hundred guests at the UnBought & UnBossed fundraiser or a different country – her thoughts remain close to her work and the girls into which she is pouring the things others once poured into her.
“I want our girls to know they can defy the odds and make a difference. I want them to know they can do more.”