Transforming Lives Through Public Service
Senator Mike Johnston, Colorado State Senate
Duration: 22:22 mins
What gets you out of bed each morning?
What is that you want to change? Do you have the skills to make that change?
Are you taking the right risks to make change happen?
We’ve all had a moment where we can think back to someone who has influenced our lives. Maybe it was a professor, a teacher, a colleague or a friend. And if we’re lucky enough, we’ve had the chance to impact someone’s life in a positive manner as well. Senator Mike Johnston, Colorado State Senate shared his path to running for office, and his vision for crafting a stronger democracy. His story shows the power of public servants to transmit remarkable changes to lives of citizens.
Senator Johnston represents Northeast Denver in the Colorado State Senate. He first entered education as a high school English teacher in Greenville, Mississippi, an experience that led him to write his acclaimed book, “In the Deep Heart’s Core.” After leaving the Mississippi Delta Mike co-founded New Leaders for New Schools, a national non-profit that recruits and trains urban principals.
Most recently, he was the co-founder and principal of MESA (Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts), a redesigned urban high school in the Mapleton Public Schools that made Colorado history by becoming the first public high school in which 100 percent of seniors were admitted to four-year colleges. Senator Johnston holds degrees from Yale College, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Yale Law School.
Senator Johnston started his own career as a principal leading two alternative high schools serving Colorado students held in state custody or living in group homes and detention centers. That’s where Senator Johnston would meet Flavio, and their lives would never be the same.
At Flavio’s high school, there was a large population of children who were dropping out of school. With so many passionate educators, Johnston and his colleagues believed they could help students graduate in school. In 7th grade, Flavio was struggling with his academics, and the school knew they had to act to help change the course for Flavio.
Working with amazing teachers, Flavio ultimately started to do volunteer work and engage in the community, and his entire high school experience was transformed. Flavio applied to college, and was admitted, and thanks to passionate teachers and educators, Flavio was given a shot to gain a world-class education, and provide a better life for his family.
When Senator Johnston was discussing college options, Flavio said, “Mr. Johnston, we kind of have a problem.” Flavio had grown up in Mexico, and when his father and uncle tried to stand up to the cartels running their town, they were murdered. Left alone, Flavio’s mother took her children and came to the United States. Residing in the US illegally, Flavio knew that he simply could not afford to pay for college and the tuition.
“There was nothing more that I could do to help support him,” said Johnston. A week later, a bill designed to give relief to children like Flavio died in the Colorado Senate. It was that week that Johnston decided to run for office. After returning to Mexico for 6 months and sleeping with a gun next to him, Flavio gained US citizenship. But rather than going to college, he joined the Army, believing that he wanted to give back to a country that gave so much opportunity to him.
“There are moments that you can fundamentally change the arc of lives or generations of families,” said Senator Johnston. And certainly, that was the case with Flavio. This story is a remarkable example of the work of the public service, and the power of government to transform the lives of citizens.
“I think there are two central questions: how is it that we do the work better and why do we do it at all?,” Johnston said. “For the people that I work with, one of the most important things to remind people is why they do the work at all.”
And yes, there are dark days when you feel like you may not be making progress, but the mission and the work of public servants is imperative. You don’t need to look further than Flavio’s story, or any of the work you do on a daily basis.