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Mr. Johnson Goes to Washington

From West Baltimore to the West Wing, Broderick Johnson makes the improbable, probable.

You can tell a lot about a person’s status in Washington, D.C., by the location of their office. The Oval Office, of course, is the ultimate seat of power. But a close runner-up—coveted by aspiring politicos from sea to shining sea—is a piece of prime professional real estate in the West Wing. And since 2014, that’s exactly where Broderick Johnson has been—in a second-floor office decorated with family photos, University of Michigan sports memorabilia, and, oh yeah, framed images of him with his friend and boss President, Barack Obama.

As an assistant to the president, Cabinet secretary, and leader of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, Johnson is part of the inner circle of the Obama administration in a way that few others can claim. As Cabinet secretary, he liaises with the heads of federal departments and agencies on behalf of the president. As an assistant, he is a trusted voice in Obama’s chorus of formal and informal advisers. And as the head of My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), he coordinates the administration’s efforts to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color, an initiative President Obama has said “goes to the very heart of why I ran for president.”

So, yes, as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said of Johnson at an April event at Frederick Douglass High School, “He’s a very important person in the White House.”

But just who is he exactly? Well, he’s a Baltimorean, for starters, and a West Baltimorean, specifically. And though he has spent the majority of his adult life in D.C., his Baltimore upbringing continues to shape him, and indeed, the country, especially through his leadership of My Brother’s Keeper, which Obama launched in February 2014 in the wake of several high-profile police shootings of young, black men.

At the April event with Sec. Vilsack—which promoted federal urban agriculture initiatives by marking the opening of the high school’s garden and orchard—Johnson deviated from his prepared remarks to acknowledge how personally meaningful it was for him to be there.

“This neighborhood is very special to me, this school is very special to me,” he told the students, faculty, and community stakeholders assembled in the historic high school’s library that day. “Sixty-one years ago, my parents met here. . . . But it wasn’t until almost a year ago to the day that I visited this very special, hallowed place.

“I came back,” he continued, “because we, of course, were very concerned about what had happened in Baltimore with the Freddie Gray situation, and what had happened, especially, to you students here at Frederick Douglass. There was a lot of negative press about you all, right? As though you all were running around burning the neighborhood, tearing things down. I know that you all do a lot of very positive things that people don’t talk about. So to be here with you and talk about this very positive, new experience of the garden means so much.”

If Johnson, 59, sounds like he knows whereof he speaks, he does. Growing up in nearby Park Circle—the son of hard-working, devoutly Catholic parents—Johnson often found himself in conflict with the limitations placed on him in a Baltimore he describes as only “technically integrated.”

“My mother would tell me about how, when I was a toddler, there were stores in Baltimore that would not allow her to take me into the dressing room to try clothes on,” Johnson recalls, sitting in a wingback chair in his West Wing office a few months after his April visit to the school.

Another instance of subtler racism prompted a parental intervention that proved pivotal for Johnson.

“My second-grade teacher called my parents,” he says with a bemused chuckle. “Apparently, they were called to hear that their son was a bit of a hoodlum—or on a path to being a hoodlum and going to reform school. My parents’ reaction to that was to put me in Catholic school. But that was their attitude—he’s going to do good things in life so let’s take him and put him in a different environment.”

Johnson admits that he, like many 7-year-old boys, may have been a “bit of a knucklehead,” but he says he was hardly a budding delinquent. Instead, he remembers aspiring “to be a leader,” and, at his new school—the now-defunct St. Ambrose Catholic School in Park Heights—he became one.

“I became an altar boy,” he notes. “I also became a safety patrol person. And by the time I reached the seventh grade, I think I was the head of the altar boys and the head of the school safety group.”

Johnson thinks that what happened to him is indicative of an enduring tendency to view black boys as inherently violent or dangerous.

“It is reflective of something we, in the work around My Brother’s Keeper, still deal with today. We still see that in suspensions and expulsions.”

(Indeed, a recent academic analysis of data from public schools in 13 Southern states found that black students were expelled and suspended at rates disproportional to their white classmates. And black boys and young men were censured most of all.)

“I don’t know,” says Johnson wearily when asked why his teacher might have taken such a severe view of his 7-year-old self. “It was just something she didn’t see in me—or did see in me.”

After graduating from Woodlawn High School—his parents moved the family to the county after the ’68 riots—Johnson matriculated at The College of the Holy Cross, a prestigious Jesuit liberal arts college in Worcester, Massachusetts. After a bumpy, hard-partying freshman year, he switched his major from history to philosophy and found a mentor in philosophy professor George Hampsch, a former Trappist monk whose classes emphasized social justice.

“It made a huge difference,” Johnson notes. “I think it was just the value of questioning things, to get to a point where you were comfortable with, say, your own personal values, your own meaning in life. [It also] helped me get through a lot of political confusion at the time in my own head about do you try to make change outside of government? Do you try to make change inside of government?”

Johnson graduated from Holy Cross in 1978, thinking he’d become a philosophy professor. But after a couple years of graduate studies at Bowling Green State University, he realized it would be “a dead end.” Instead, he enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School—crossing paths with fellow future Obama administration officials Ken Salazar and Valerie Jarrett in the process.

Jarrett, senior adviser to the president and a close personal friend of the Obamas, remembers Johnson as a “very studious, serious young man with a huge heart.”

“The issues that he cared about [then] are the same ones he cares about today,” she says, adding that he was focused then, as now, on “how he could use his legal education to make a difference in the world.”

As law school graduation approached in 1983, Johnson briefly considered returning to Baltimore to practice law. But he found the city unreceptive.

“In those years, the Baltimore firms were just kind of not interested in the idea of [hiring] returning African Americans,” he says. “So in a period when Baltimore could have used returning people who could have been leaders of Baltimore institutions and good role models, something was going on there that was troublesome and hurt the city.”

Though Johnson acknowledges that it was a disappointment at the time, he now says he has no regrets.

“Life has turned out the way it has, and it has been great. I’ve been able to help my hometown in considerable ways from here,” he says.

In 1986, Johnson started his political pilgrim’s progress as an aide in the House of Representatives Legislative Office, where he worked on landmark legislation such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. After three years, he left the Hill to work for a law firm before returning to Capitol Hill in 1993 as chief counsel for two House committees. Then, in 1998, he was brought into the Clinton administration as the deputy assistant for legislative affairs, lobbying the House of Representatives on behalf of the president’s agenda. He calls the experience “incredibly exhilarating,” though the excitement was somewhat tempered by the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment trials.

“It was a lot more somber than people perhaps talk about,” he recalls of that time. “Essentially, I never felt like [President Clinton] was going to have to leave office, but I guess it was kind of a close call at times. . . . But I do remember, there was, just as importantly, a sense we had work we had to get done, legislatively.”

After the Clinton administration, Johnson decamped to the private sector, working as an executive for AT&T. By this time, he had met, fallen in love with, and married Michelle Norris, the radio journalist and former host of All Things Considered. The couple has a son and a daughter. Johnson also has an older son from a previous marriage.

In 2003, in the midst of this happy time, Johnson got a request from a friend that would alter the direction of his life. This friend knew a state senator and former community organizer from Chicago who was interested in running for Illinois’ soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat. The candidate was bright, hard-working, charismatic, and ambitious, but he didn’t know many people in Washington. Would Johnson be willing to meet him and think about supporting him?

“I said, ‘Sure,’” Johnson recalls. “He came to [AT&T’s] offices [in Washington, D.C.] and there were four or five of us in a huge conference room. Then we had a fundraiser for him, and a couple months later got to know him [personally].”

Though Johnson found the candidate—who bore the distinctive name Barack Obama—“cool” and “obviously brilliant,” he didn’t necessarily think he was meeting a future president. That changed a year later when Johnson, who was then working for the presidential campaign of John Kerry, watched Obama—still just a candidate for U.S. Senate—take the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Boston and deliver the keynote address.

“That was quite something . . . trying to navigate these narrow corridors to get him down to the stage and he had people stopping him along the way as they all tried to pronounce his name,” he recalls with a laugh. “It was pretty clear to me that he could run for the highest office one day after he’d given that speech.”

Of course, Obama would run for president—and win—in 2008 and 2012, becoming the country’s first African-American chief executive. Both times, Johnson was along for the wild ride as an adviser, part-time in 2008 and then full-time in 2012.

“He provided the campaign with enormous counsel and advice that I found invaluable,” recalls Jarrett.

That’s why no one was surprised when Johnson formally joined the administration in February 2014.

“I had been trying since 2008 to get Broderick to come into the administration,” says Jarrett. “I thought Broderick would have the gravitas to be the primary conduit between the cabinet and the White House. His breadth and depth of knowledge of policy, as well as strategy, made him uniquely qualified. And he has the complete trust of the president. I think Broderick’s moral compass and sense of true north are identical to the president’s.”

Johnson accepted, knowing the president was looking for not just a Cabinet secretary, but a leader for the soon-to-be-launched My Brother’s Keeper, as well. The public-private initiative sets standards for and helps facilitate action in communities looking to address the opportunity gap for young men of color. Currently, there are My Brother’s Keeper communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 19 tribal nations. Maryland alone has eight, including a Baltimore chapter, which was launched in January 2015.

Johnson—whom Jarrett calls “Mr. Baltimore to the administration”—admits he takes a special interest in the city’s MBK community, which has introduced mentorship and job-training programs. And he has already had meetings with Baltimore’s likely next mayor, Catherine Pugh, about strengthening the program in her administration.

Johnson says it’s all about ensuring My Brother’s Keeper survives, even after the Obama administration ends. President Obama has pledged to continue the work post-presidency, and a nonprofit version of My Brother’s Keeper has been established to facilitate that. And Johnson says he and other administration officials are working to “embed” MBK-related efforts in federal departments and agencies “by virtue of things like multi-year grants and initiatives.”

“Whether the next president calls it My Brother’s Keeper or not, these approaches and these multi-year efforts will continue,” he promises.

As for Johnson himself, he jokes that the first thing he’ll do on Jan. 21, 2017, is book himself into a spa somewhere. More seriously, it’s likely he’ll return to the University of Michigan—where he has taught before—as a part-time adjunct professor, focusing on law and government courses.

“It’s practicum,” he explains. “Here’s how someone who is a law student can get into a career [doing] some of the things I’ve been able to do.”

Johnson then points to a dry erase board hanging on a wall in his office. On it are written motivational phrases that Johnson says help him get through the unrelenting 12- and 14-hour days that White House work demands. One in particular—“Make the improbable, probable”—resonates with Johnson when he thinks about his future—and his past.

“So like, for me, it was improbable, going back to the second-grade teacher, that I would end up being able to do the things I’ve been able to do, absolutely improbable,” he declares. “But it’s probable that my kids will be able to do these things and that the kids in these MBK pictures will aspire to be able to do things and lead generations of their own children and grandchildren for whom things will be more probable than people would have expected.

It is absolutely true.”