By Becca Taurisano
Photos by Alice G. Patterson
Dr. Juhanna Rogers is making her dreams come true in Syracuse.
Rogers is the Director of Community Engagement and Empowerment at CenterState CEO. She is also a motivational speaker, activist, and performer, having appeared in “For Colored Girls” at Auburn Public Theater and acted as a member of the Harriet Tubman Troupe. Her latest project, “Behind the Woman,” is a television series airing this April on WCNY.
You might call her the next Oprah.
“If I can do this work for as long as I can, and empower people along the way, that will make my heart very happy,” Rogers said. “I had no idea how this was going to lead me to becoming the next Oprah. In this small town in Central New York, where I have no other connections, every piece of the dream I’ve been talking about since I was [young] has come together.”
Rogers wants to use her own success and her own connections to help others achieve their goals.
“Everybody doesn’t get the same chances. Everybody’s skills and talents won’t show up the same way,” she said. “If we provide spaces for people to come to understand what their purpose is and the way they can operate within the realm of their existence, then my job is done.”
The Great Eight
For Rogers, the path began as an Integrative Arts student at Penn State – Altoona, when she was named the Central Pennsylvania NAACP Woman of the Year Award for her work in the theater. Rogers thought if her theater work could get her noticed, what else could she achieve?
In May of 2016, she graduated with a PhD in higher education from Indiana University’s School of Education. She garnered national attention at the time as one of eight African-American women to be awarded doctorates at the same time from the same school. Getting eight women, especially women of color, to graduate from one college or program at the same time is a rare occurrence, one Rogers described as “divine intervention.”
“It’s an example of how we will be stronger together than we are apart,” she said. Anyone who has been through [the PhD] process will know it is not pretty, it is not glamorous, and it tears your soul apart. You question everything about who you are and how you are formed as a person.”
Rogers pointed out that the process is much more difficult as a woman of color.
“You are doing that in a predominantly white space with faculty that don’t look like you, that don’t really understand what [it’s like] growing up in an urban environment, or being a first generation college student,” she said. “For the women that were in the program, the amount of criticism and ridicule and silencing that happened throughout that process, makes you doubt – can you do this, can you finish?”
But the Great Eight, and Rogers herself, were fortunate to have a strong support system throughout the process.
“I had a phenomenal group of black female mentors during that time,” she said. “They provided opportunities to me that other individuals did not. They reassured me that I could struggle through this, because this is not built for us, but you can do it.”
That support pushed Rogers to finish her degree despite the obstacles.
“I’ve continuously been a part of this village of women. We must recognize that we have strength in numbers and sometimes it’s hard to find a tribe and the tribe looks different,” she said. “We want to be in a position to bring our community forward.”
And Rogers was determined to help her community however she could. During the PhD process, Rogers left campus with the blessing of her mentor and “academic mom” Dr. Robin Hughes and came to Syracuse. She was hired at Southwest Community Center by then-Executive Director (and former SWM cover woman) Sharon Owens, who now serves as deputy mayor of the city of Syracuse.
“In a community like [Syracuse], I understand what it is going to take to help people grow out of the conditions they are in. I can advocate for that,” she said. “I was not trying to do that in a space that didn’t understand. That helped me get back to my dissertation and be able to finish it.”
That’s when the real work began.
‘Behind the Woman’
Living and working in Syracuse helped Rogers recover from the grueling PhD process and achieve her dreams.
“The universe has aligned here,” she said. “There is room for me to grow and blossom, so that’s what I’m doing,”
Rogers’ upcoming WCNY television series, “Behind the Woman,” is a manifestation of that healing.
“This is a love-heart project,” she said. “This is about showcasing that there are some brilliant black and brown women here who have things to say. We are more than just our titles. We experience things and feel things. Getting to where we are is not easy.”
Rogers created the project because she said she feels called to advocate and empower the community she comes from.
“It’s easy when you have the credentials to climb the ladder. It’s important to me to let the community I come from know that I’m thinking and intentionally working to empower and uplift and advocate for the people who are not sitting around the table,” she said. “If I can create art to give voice to that experience, or show up to work every day and address the systemic barriers and policies that are keeping people in that place, then that is my job, that is my role. For the women around me that are at the table with me, that is our collective responsibility.”
Rogers hopes the show will be a spark of inspiration for women who tune in.
“I want to do that in ways that continue to tell stories of people that look like me, of women that look like me,” she said. “I feel like I am called to create spaces to empower disenfranchised people.”
Rogers hopes the show will start a conversation about what kind of community Syracuse could be. As a native of Newark, NJ, Rogers sees similarities between her hometown and the city of Syracuse.
“When you come from the urban corners of America as a black person, it’s almost as if there aren’t entrepreneurs, families that have done well, people that are working hard. Where does that narrative continuously come from?”
Rogers created Behind the Woman to help shape a different narrative.
Behind the Woman will air in April on WCNY on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. The series will feature 13 dynamic Central New York women interviewed by Dr. Rogers.
“I’ve created a framework for other women to say what they want to say. We will find out what their story is,” she said. “There is something powerful when humans can sit down and hear someone’s lived experience in a way that is thoughtful and intentional. Regardless of race, color, and gender, we can see the human connectedness.”
Committing to yourself
Rogers’ other important role is as mom to Nile, 14.
“He is such a special being,” Rogers said.
Her son was the driving force behind her pursuing graduate school.
“He was my motivation to think about… my calling,” she said. “I didn’t want him to see me just working. I wanted him to think, ‘My mom loves her job. I wanted him to know he can pick something that you really love and enjoy doing and pursue it.’”
It was important to her that Nile understand that just because something is expected doesn’t mean that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.
“I think to a degree as women, we have these social norms that are chirping at us, this is how it’s supposed to be done,” she said. “The real source of empowerment, is not to detach from all of them, but we have to take the ones that are really pulling on us and ask ourselves why? Then from there, think about what’s important to you. Some of the things I was able to do was because, during the mothering process, I was in graduate school. [Nile’s] dad has always been there as a supporter. I made this commitment to take time for myself.”
There are many women she has in her life who have empowered her along her journey. These include her mother, Annie Rogers, Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens, her grandmothers Agnes Rogers and Anne Lester, her aunts, The Great Eight, her colleagues at CenterState CEO, Gwen Webber-McLeod of Auburn Public Theater, Nadrea Njoku fellow Great Eight member, and so many more.
“Behind the Woman” is dependent on viewer financial support. If you would like to donate directly to Behind the Woman or nominate a dynamic Central New York woman to be part of Season Two, please visit www.wcny.org/behindthewoman.
You can learn more about the ways Dr. Rogers is empowering women at her website juhannarogers.com.