For David J. Johns, one of his most important missions is simply to let people know that the Obama administration has an initiative aimed at improving learning and development for African-American youth.
Johns is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. And that office is sponsoring a series of summits throughout the country where leaders in business and education, as well as young people and experts in other fields, will convene to discuss ideas and solutions to longstanding challenges regarding youth development in the Black community.
“I feel our first job is to raise awareness that this initiative exists,” Johns said, in an interview with BET.com. “There are people who don’t know that the president used his executive order to establish this initiative. And there are people who need to know that.”
“Second, our goal is to engage in meaningful conversations that communities can have on concepts for educational support for African-Americans,” Johns said. “Many people know about the problems. But very few people are focused on solutions and promising practices. We plan to spend time lifting up practices that can accelerate achievement.”
The first series of summits will focus specifically on issues related to young African-American men. These discussions will not just touch on concepts for enhancing classroom achievement, but on methods to enable young men to develop awareness of issues in their communities.
The summits will be held at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Jackson State University in Mississippi, Laney College in California and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Johns, who came to the position in the Obama administration nearly a year ago, has a widely recognized passion for working with issues related to young people, specifically in the African-American community. He came to his current position after serving as a senior policy adviser to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He was also a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Fellow in the office of Congressman Charles Rangel.
In that job, he worked on issues related to low-income and minority students as well as historically Black colleges and universities. He graduated with honors from Columbia University, from which he also received a master’s degree in sociology and education policy.
"Anyone who knows me, knows that I am passionate about education," Johns said. "I resisted the calling that God has had for me as an educator for as long as I could before accepting that there is no better way to make a meaningful difference, to change the world for the better than by educating others — formally or otherwise."
He added: "Educators do God's work. My mother is the most powerful education advocate I have ever known and she taught me through her unfailing commitment to ensure I have access to every academic, social and emotional development opportunity how essential education is to unlocking pathways to opportunity."
The White House initiatives come after a number of high-profile incidents involving Black male teenagers, from the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis to Ramarley Graham. Those incidents, too, will play a role in the summits, Johns said.
“There is no way we can have conversations around academic and social excellence regarding students unless we pause to think about the fragility of life in general and African-American life more specifically,” Johns said.
“So names like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Ramarley Graham, Renisha McBride and so many whose names we’ll never know remind us that this work is important,” he added.
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(Photo: U.S. Department of Education)