A Legacy of Leadership in Dallas: Eric L. Johnson ’98

If Dallas Mayor Eric L. Johnson ’98 hadn’t met Robert Bridgeman — then the director of programs at the Phillips Brooks House Association — while walking across Harvard Yard in his freshman fall, his life of public service might not have been the same.
By Caroline K. Hsu

Dallas Mayor Eric L. Johnson ’98 says his time at the Phillips Brooks House Association inspired him to dedicate his career to public service.
Dallas Mayor Eric L. Johnson ’98 says his time at the Phillips Brooks House Association inspired him to dedicate his career to public service. By Courtesy of Maddy Madrazo — Office of Dallas Mayor Eric L. Johnson

If Dallas Mayor Eric L. Johnson ’98 hadn’t met Robert Bridgeman — then the director of programs at the Phillips Brooks House Association — while walking across Harvard Yard in his freshman fall, his life of public service might not have been the same.

Bridgeman offered Johnson the opportunity to be the director of the Cambridge Youth Enrichment Program upon hearing about Johnson’s upbringing in “one of the toughest neighborhoods, if not the toughest neighborhood of Dallas.” CYEP offers summer academic and extracurricular enrichment to low-income youth in Cambridge.

Johnson accepted the position and spearheaded CYEP’s activities, raised funds for the program, resided in one of the housing projects where program participants lived, and became certified to drive a passenger van to transport students.

“I really decided, I think at that point, that what I really wanted to do with my life was to serve my community and particularly kids who are growing up in disadvantaged circumstances,” Johnson said.

Michelle J. Douglas, director of programs at the PBHA spoke of Johnson’s ability to “bring long-lasting memories to these children and give them something that they may never have ever had before.”

“Eric really brought them together,” Douglas added.

Since June 2019, Johnson has served as mayor of Dallas, becoming the second Black mayor in the city’s history. He credits his experience at PBHA and his childhood as having shaped his views on public safety, the “hallmark” of his mayoralty and career.

‘A Real Interest in Leadership’

Johnson was raised in Dallas in a “low-income neighborhood” in a family of six. When he was a high school student, he experienced “the most violent years in American history in terms of homicides and violent crime,” according to Johnson.

“I have not forgotten what it’s like to live in a neighborhood where you are routinely awakened by gunfire or where you lose friends to gun violence,” Johnson said. “And where there are regularly funerals at your local church for kids who look just like you and are your same age.”

In his youth, Johnson attended the Greenhill School on a scholarship from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas. It was there that he discovered his love for history — which he later concentrated in at Harvard.

While Johnson did not necessarily entertain a political career while entering college, he “always had a real interest in leadership.”

On choosing to study at Harvard, Johnson said he was “intrigued by the idea of attending a school that has been so successful in training so many great leaders for our country.”

A resident of Cabot House, Johnson was involved with PBHA and the Harvard Black Students Association. He was also a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

“If and when there was ever any conflict between organizations, he was always our mediator,” said Mark A. Thompson ’98, Johnson’s fraternity brother.

“It was clear that he had a gift for both representing people as well as being able to communicate well with everyone,” Thompson added.

Leading community service efforts in BSA and his fraternity, Johnson was awarded multiple scholarships through PBHA as well as the John Lord O’Brian Award from the University, which is given to a student who shows “particular promise of a career in public service,” according to Johnson.

Douglas said that Johnson was “definitely an overachiever and really, really passionate about helping kids.”

“You could see that passion in his face when he did most anything in regards to the CYEP,” she continued.

Johnson’s time at Harvard was “the turning point that I can point to in my career where I decided that’s really what I wanted to do with my life,” Johnson said.

After graduating from the College cum laude in 1998, Johnson attended the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, where he obtained a master’s degree in Public Affairs. Soon after, he earned his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania on a public service scholarship.

Outside of academics, he worked in a number of public service positions, including working on narcotics prosecution at the ​​United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

‘Dallas is Home’

Despite leaving Texas to pursue higher education, Johnson always knew that he would return to Dallas “to make this community better.”

“Dallas is home and Texas is home and it always has been and always will be,” Johnson said.

Recalling her first impression of Johnson, Douglas said he seemed “a little eccentric, a little sort of Texas.”

“The pride that he has in his own city from growing up there and watching the evolution of the city of Dallas, and having a hand in crafting what it is today is definitely his passion,” Douglas said. “And again, it all is driven by, I believe, his love for children, his love for education and learning.”

In April 2010, Johnson won a special election for a vacant seat in the Texas House of Representatives for the 100th district, an office he would hold until 2019 when he became mayor of Dallas. During this period, he was also selected to become a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank.

Johnson participated in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government program in 2018, a three-week program for “government officials, elected officeholders, and executives with nonprofit organizations,” according to the program’s website.

“It really started to make me think about other ways I could serve,” Johnson said. “That program, if anything, was maybe the beginning of my thinking of running for mayor.”

60th Mayor of Dallas

In the 2019 mayoral election, Johnson won with 55.6 percent of the vote in a runoff election. Not long after he took office in June, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, bringing with it a “violent crime wave that sort of hit the entire country,” Johnson said.

As crime rates surged, Johnson was reminded of the violence he grew up with in Dallas in the 1990s.

“I did not want my kids, any folks who live in the city to go through what we went through back then — where the homicides just exploded, and people were afraid to walk outside, and all the youth-related violence and the gang violence,” Johnson said.

Lowering crime became one of Johnson’s main goals as he worked to ensure that police departments were adequately funded. He also sought to improve “non-law enforcement tools,” including improving the lighting in higher-crime areas, doubling down on violence interrupter programs, and partnering with the Dallas school district to improve social-emotional learning.

Johnson touted decreases in violent crime in Dallas during 2021 and 2022 — a trend unlike other major U.S. cities.

“That is directly attributable to the intensity that I brought to this issue because of how I grew up and what I experienced being an at-risk youth in the city of Dallas. I lived that life and I know what that’s like, and I just don’t want that for any kid in my city,” Johnson said.

Johnson has also worked to provide young Dallas residents with activities and employment while they are out of school. He launched the Summer of Safety campaign last year and the Dallas Works program in 2020.

“I feel an intense pressure to create more opportunities for children in particular who were not born in the best of circumstances and who need to hear a message and need to see an example of what can be done, what their lives can be, what they can accomplish,” Johnson said.

Despite being re-elected to his second term with nearly 99 percent of the vote last month, Johnson has faced policy disagreements from “members on my own city council” and people he has “worked with for many years.”

He described his “fight to get a new police chief,” since the former chief “did not fully comprehend the magnitude of the problem.”

“I just did what I knew to be — based on my upbringing — what families who are actually having to live with the consequences of these decisions as they relate to public safety would want,” Johnson said.

“Eric doesn’t thrive on what people think of him. He thrives on what he thinks he can do for the people,” Douglas said.

—Staff writer Caroline K. Hsu can be reached at caroline.hsu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineHsu_.