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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Federal Way Councilman Proves You’re Never Too Young To Make A Difference

By Candice Richardson
The Seattle Medium

Jesse Elijah Johnson was six years old when his family moved to what was then considered a retirement town for a mostly White population of Federal Way, WA. Now at the age of 28, Johnson is the youngest councilman for what is now a very diverse and growing city.

I decided to run last year when I saw the seat open and seeing that nobody who looked like me was running,” says Johnson. “There was an opportunity to really galvanize folks in the community.”

The son of a mother who served in the United States Navy and a father who owned his own painting business, work ethic, discipline, and entrepreneurialism have been the cornerstones of Johnson’s education and career.

“I grew as an apprentice for my Dad’s painting company painting residential homes…seeing the work ethic he had in getting deals done and going out and meeting folks and promoting his business I definitely learned a lot from him,” says Johnson who had decided early on that if he wasn’t going to be an NBA star he would continue in the family business. However, that wasn’t an option if his father had anything to do with it.

“He told me ‘no, I want you to do something else,” Johnson says. “Both my dad and my grandfather were in the construction industry and painting and my dad wanted to see more from me.”

The more included attending college after graduating from Federal Way High School. Johnson chose his mother’s alma mater, The University of Washington, where he received a diversity scholarship from Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery.

“I’ve worked with thousands or tens of thousands of students over the last 37 years and there are those students who you can’t quite put your finger on what it is, but I know instantaneously when I met Jesse that he was a standout,” says Lolie Farinas, Associate Director of Scholar and Donor Relations at the University of Washington.

Farinas says she met Johnson after cold-calling him to see if he would speak at the annual fundraiser after being awarded the scholarship.

“His first response was yeah, sure, I’m willing to do that,” Farinas says. “We met at Southcenter and we crafted his remarks and he took the stage at 17 or 18 years old and he shared his story of his family…I knew he would be successful and he from the beginning knew that he wanted to affect change, he wanted to advocate for some aspect of the community, and he wanted to be a role model for his younger siblings. He never wavered from that throughout his entire educational career.”

While at the UW, Johnson decided that even though he would receive a B.A. in Political Science and Government, it was in fact education, that would be his life’s work. His first job after graduation was with AmeriCorps at Garfield High School for a year before he got a job as a Student Teacher and later as a School and Family Partnerships Coordinator for Seattle Public Schools. He then doubled down with a Master in Education degree at UW in the Danforth Educational Leadership and Policy Program.

Pete Misner, the Associate Director for the Danforth Program, echoes Farinas’ first take on meeting Johnson was that he had a quiet manner but one that drew respect and gave an impression of commitment.

“He carries himself in a way that it’s not just about him,” says Misner. “He’s very easy to talk to. He was young but he had wisdom and maturity beyond his years.”

Johnson parlayed his Masters Degree into a new position as a Strategic Partner in Human Resources for Highline Public Schools where he remains to this day.

“Jesse is a very ambitious young man as it relates to education,” states Jay Upshaw, the Academic Dean at Mount Rainier High School and a colleague of Johnson’s in the Highline School District. “We have very different jobs as he’s in H.R. but we both approach the work the same as it pertains to race and equity.”

“We want to make sure everyone, including faculty and staff, have a very open mind as it relates to children of color,” adds Upshaw.

“A lot of the teachers when I was coming up, I knew that they cared for me, I just didn’t know if they actually believed in me and I think there’s a difference,” Johnson says. “My first teacher in middle school, who said I could go to college, that really resonated with me because I don’t remember hearing that before. As a person of color who has to self-empower and not hearing it enough from teachers, that’s big. Plus, not seeing it, as I never had an African American male teacher or African American principal until I’m going to college and having my first professor in African American studies class…that was huge.”

That experience taught Johnson that representation was everything. And it was another African American male besides his college professors that opened the door for him to walk into civil service.

“It wasn’t until President Obama won the election did I think politics was a possibility,” Johnson states.

“I remember when President Obama was elected to office and, not just that Jesse saw himself in him, because he did, he saw himself in him; but what he saw was his fierce toughness, his poise, and his willingness to just stand up to the many challenges of his office and that resonated in Jesse’s heart and his mind,” says Farinas.

Johnson became a youth delegate during the 2008 campaign where he knocked on doors and attended rallies. His biggest takeaway: public perception is everything.

“The process behind the scenes building a brand and the folks that were working for President Obama throughout the country who bought into his agenda and his message…it was cool to see how that process worked at a young age,” Johnson says.

Federal Way City Councilmember Jesse Johnson

And young people are not just the future, Johnson says, they’re also the present and they have power – a fact that he drove home with an unexpected win for the number two seat on Federal Way’s City Council, where he beat out a two-term incumbent who was also a military vet. But what Johnson lacked in experience, he made up for in teamwork, a willingness to work hard, and relationships using his background in labor to strike a chord with the painters and construction unions and his work in education to effectively communicate.

“From my vantage point interacting with districts, faculty, and alumni, what’s interesting about Jesse is how impressive he is to everybody,” says Misner. “From his students to the faculty, he has the ability to reach all stakeholders involved.”

“For me running as young person is showing other folks that…you’re necessary, you matter and you can make change happen right now,” says Johnson. “You don’t have to wait until the world tells you that you’re old enough or that you have a college degree or whatever standard that they set, but you can do something now.”

In his first four months in office Johnson continues to blaze trails, changing the landscape of how city government interacts with the surrounding community.

Johnson says city council is what one makes of it. In addition to attending regular meetings he also holds Coffee with the Councilman meet and greets with residents, attends outside community events and gatherings, and is a part of the Federal Way Youth Action Team, all while continuing to work full time.

“I think his work and his political aspirations overlap in a lot of ways,” says Upshaw. “It’s all about repping these people who wouldn’t have a voice or who would be looked over if Jesse wasn’t a champion for them.”

Since taking office Johnson says he’s most excited to take his passion for youth education and outreach and merge it with the chance to enact policy with impact, working on initiatives for youth employment and to establish a school district/city council advisory team to look into issues with youth/juvenile issues concerning disproportionality of discipline.

“I think this is one of the most difficult times to be a young person,” says Johnson. “Social media, cyber bullying, trying to get into a career where we’re living in a world where if you don’t have a college degree it’s really hard to get a living wage job…there’s a lot of things youth are dealing with and we’re trying to support them in that and show them that there’s a lot of ways that you can do it. You can be a politician, you can be an activist, you can be an entrepreneur, you can go into the trades and be an apprentice and work your way up. There’s so many different options but you have to start off on the right foot with your schooling and education first.”

But while Johnson has made it a mission, if not a mandate to be a representative for those who were previously without a voice, for him inclusion in its full definition remains the name of the game.

“It’s not just the youth. I want to work with seniors, disabled veterans, I want to help anyone who needs support in federal way,” states Johnson. “I would want them to know that for me…I don’t see myself as a politician, I see myself as a public servant and so I want them to know that I serve them.”

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