Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Keynote speaker

Meeting opportunities

When Broderick Johnson was 7 years old, his second grade teacher told his parents that he was on a path to reform school.

But instead of heading for trouble, Johnson went to college and law school, worked as a public policy advisor on Capitol Hill for more than two decades, and served two U.S. presidents. He says his mother often mused, during milestone events or celebrations, what that teacher might say if she saw him now.

Johnson visited Loyola on Wednesday, January 23, to participate in the University’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations. He delivered both a lunchtime talk at the Corboy Law Center and an evening keynote at the Damen Student Center.

As a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, Johnson spearheaded the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, an effort to address opportunity gaps for young men of color and ensure that all people can reach their full potential. He continues to lead the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, now part of the Obama Foundation, and also works as partner at the Washington, DC office of the law firm of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and as adjunct professor at his alma mater, the University of Michigan Law School.

Johnson took time for a conversation ahead of his visit to campus.

What do you plan to talk to students about during your visit?

How are expectations set for young people of color? Whether it is their parents, teachers, coaches, friends, communities, or themselves, who sets those expectations? When I was in second grade, my teacher tried to set expectations very low for me, in a conversation with my parents, saying I was headed for reform school one day. And we know that, especially for young men of color, expectations are set low right at birth. There was a set of low expectations all along the way in my own life that I had to overcome or resist or ignore, whether it was going to college or law school, or in the years since. Let’s make even greater effort to ensure that exceptional is no longer the exception to the rule when it comes to the accomplishments and, again, the expectations, for young people of color. Because it is still so much the case that, even for me today, I’ll walk into a room and I’ll still be the only one that looks like me in all sorts of settings.

As the first in your family to attend college, what does higher education mean to you?

Everyone doesn’t have to follow the same path, but I think that college, especially for young people of color, is such an important opportunity to take advantage of because it is tantamount to getting a high school education decades ago. In my own family, for example, I’m proud to have been the first to graduate from college and go to law school. I look at the generation behind me, and that’s the level of expectation that has been set now, about how hard they will work and take advantage of those opportunities all the way through. It doesn’t mean as much to me, though, if it’s not happening with other families. And so, through the example of our own lives and the ways that we help other people—especially families of color—advance, that gives me great satisfaction.

You are a graduate of another Jesuit institution: College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. How have the Jesuits and Jesuit education impacted your own life?

The values that are so fundamental to a Jesuit education have guided my life in the decades since I attended Holy Cross. The ideas of service to others, of public service, of caring for the least of our brothers and sisters, are values that are fundamental to the way I was raised. As I became a young adult, they became an even more deeply held set of values, and I am incredibly grateful for that set of values. There is no question for me, then, that my work with My Brother’s Keeper in the White House and since is so tied to my Jesuit education.

In the current political climate, what can Loyola students do to promote diversity and inclusion?

Civic engagement through the political process is important. Millennials played an important role in the last election, specifically through the increased numbers who voted—who understood that voting is not to be left to their parents or their grandparents to determine their priorities or their destinies, but for them to do that themselves.

What are some memorable moments from your time in the Obama administration?

There are many, but the one that I hold dearest is because I have a photograph of it and I’m looking at it right now. It is when Pope Francis visited the White House. Because I was one of the more prominent Catholics in the Obama administration, and I had worked on Catholics for Obama in two campaigns and because of my leadership with My Brother's Keeper, I was given the opportunity to have an audience with the Pope. There is a picture of President Obama introducing me to the Pope. That is the proudest moment. I think the president said something along the lines of, “This is my Catholic guy,” because these are the things that he’s done around issues that matter deeply to Catholics, and to all of us, really. It’s indescribable on so many levels. It was one of the most beautiful days in September. For me, Pope Francis is such a critically important figure for all Catholics, but especially for what I consider myself to be, a progressive Catholic. For him to visit the White House with President Obama as president—someone that I so deeply respect as a leader and as a friend—there was no greater moment in terms of my time in the White House, certainly. And my family was able to be there that day as well, and so, it was something else. You pinch yourself. I had many moments where I pinch myself, but that was the one that stood out the most.

What do you enjoy most about interacting with college students?

For me, it is always so important that when I engage with students—whether it is formal remarks or it’s in less formal programs—that they understand that I’m no different than them in so many ways. In terms of the expectations of my life, the bar was set low by others but high by my parents. I also want to be candid about when I could have worked harder and taken advantage of opportunities that were in front of me earlier. It’s important for someone like me to share that and be honest with young people about that, so that perhaps they work hard and take advantage of opportunities earlier. For my own kids and these young people, the idea that serving a president one day or working on Capitol Hill or being a partner at a law firm or being a great elementary school teacher, those are really normal expectations, not so extraordinary anymore.

Learn more about the theme of this year’s MLK Celebration, Addressing Disparity through Awareness, Advocacy, and Action, and other events and activities at Loyola starting January 21.