Sanford Johnson, a 2009 graduate of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, is the Deputy Director of Advocacy at Mississippi First, a nonprofit focused on education policy and advocacy that produces and provides resources to help raise public awareness around key education reform issues in Mississippi.
“I do a lot of our engagement work and work on advocacy campaigns related to passing our policy goals,” Johnson said. “I get to spend a lot of time working with teachers and working with school leaders and keeping the general public informed about the work that we’re doing.”
Johnson’s current role fuses two of his passions: education and politics. He is a former teacher, having worked with Teach for America in Clarksdale, Miss., and KIPP Delta Public Schools in Helena-West Helena, Ark. He majored in political science at Auburn University and enjoyed internships in government.
Mississippi First began with a meeting between Johnson and Rachel Canter, two friends who grew up together in Starkville, Miss. While talking through the issues that faced their home state, ideas were sowed on how to create an impact.
“By the end of that summer, I had completely flipped mindsets,” Johnson said. “I thought I had left the state never to return again, and by the time that summer was over, I was all things Mississippi: I’ve got to come back. I’ve got to do something.”
Johnson eventually turned down a full-time position in Washington, D.C., to stay home and work with Teach for America. Following TFA, he accepted a teaching position with KIPP Delta Public Schools where he met his wife and first learned about the Clinton School of Public Service.
“I got a chance to meet a group of students from the Clinton School’s second class,” Johnson said. “They took a tour of the KIPP School and I got to meet them, and it really piqued my interest to hear more about this brand-new school where they’re learning about public policy and they’re learning it on the ground, working with different groups across the Delta, working internationally.”
Johnson’s field service experiences at the Clinton School allowed him to dive deeper into his interests in education policy.
His International Public Service Project took him to Cape Town to work with the South African Education and Environment Project. For his Capstone project, he worked with the Delta Regional Authority to develop afterschool programming focused on tutoring and enrichment activities for the Clarksdale Municipal School District.
“The more I learned about the Clinton School, the more I thought, ‘This is the fit. This is where I need to be,’” Johnson said. “I applied and was lucky enough that I got accepted.”
How did your interest in education start?
It really started with an interest in Mississippi. I was able to come back in 2002, the summer before my final year at Auburn, and connected with a hometown friend of mine, Rachel Canter. We were both working on internships in politics that summer.
That led me to apply for Teach for America, which I did. I actually turned down a D.C. job to teach in the Delta. I met my wife, started working at the KIPP School in Arkansas, and found out about the Clinton School. During this time, I was staying in touch with my friend from that summer. She ended up doing Teach for America as well, and we continued to have conversations that led us to start a nonprofit, an education policy nonprofit, and here we are 10 years later.
What were some of your standout experiences at the Clinton School?
I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with some of the community groups. We were able to work with BGACDC (Boys, Girls, and Adults Community Development Center) in Marvell, Ark. As the years go by, I treasure that experience because it speaks to so many experiences I’ve had since then, and some of the challenges of trying to run a nonprofit organization that serves communities in the Delta.
What’s next for you?
I am looking forward to staying involved in politics. I got a chance to run for office back in 2015. That wasn’t a successful run, but I learned a lot. I learned that I actually enjoy canvasing, campaigning, phone-banking, and I was able to do a lot of that this past year and reach out to help as many candidates as I possibly could. I sent postcards. I made calls. I was able to donate to a lot of different candidates. I shared information on social media. I was able to drive around my community and drive people to the polls on election day. It was a lot of fun. I also am a member of the city election commission in Clarksdale, and I enjoy doing that. That is definitely something that I am going to keep up next year. And will also do it in 2020.