Leonard Johnson applies lessons from MPPA program in different ways around St. Louis

by | Sep 15, 2016

The alumnus is deputy chief of staff in the city's Office of the Treasurer and has launched a mentoring program for college-bound high school students.
MPPA graduate

Leonard Johnson, MPPA 2013, serves as the deputy chief of staff in the city’s Office of the Treasurer and also has launched a mentoring program for college-bound high school students at St. Louis College Prep. (Photo by August Jennewein)

It was really as a second thought that Leonard Johnson enrolled in the Master of Public Policy Administration program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

He’d been hunting for a job after graduating with a pre-law degree from Harris-Stowe State University in 2010 and heard about an opening in UMSL’s Office of Student Involvement.

“It was a leadership development position,” Johnson said. “That’s me to the core.”

He had been active in leadership positions on campus at Harris-Stowe, serving as the president of the student government association, chairman of welcome week and as the student representative on the school’s board of regents, in addition to being the president of his fraternity.

It was only after being offered the position that Johnson learned it was a graduate assistantship, bringing with it the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree. The MPPA program provided an ideal area of study.

“Public administration work has always been something that I thought I would do,” Johnson said. “I got into the program, loved it, did the local government management track, so I got a graduate certificate in local government management as well.”

It’s been serving Johnson well since going to work as the deputy chief of staff in the Office of the Treasurer in St. Louis.

Johnson joined Treasurer Tishaura Jones’ staff in 2013 and during his time at City Hall has been charged with managing efforts to upgrade the parking meter infrastructure across St. Louis. No longer do parking meters only accept coins. Motorists can now swipe credit cards or use a mobile phone app to pay parking fees on city streets.

He also played an early role in the establishment of the Office of Financial Empowerment, which aims to educate and empower citizens throughout the region to make better choices with their money. Among the services the office provides are a series of monthly lunch-and-learn workshops offering financial education training. They are facilitated by local financial services and nonprofit organizations. Additionally, the OFE has a full-time financial education coach that offers free credit and money management classes and can help citizens get their credit scores to 700 or better.

He has put his MPPA to use in other ways, as well.

“For a person who likes to multitask and can multitask well, this degree has allowed me to go into those other sectors of my life,” Johnson said. “I now do a lot of motivational speaking. I still do nonprofit work. I’m deputy chief of staff full-time. My passions are the things I do in the community.”

While studying at UMSL, Johnson established a pilot for an after-school mentoring program, testing it with a group of 11 eighth-grade boys at Grand Center Arts Academy six years ago.

The Young Leaders Achievement Academy, facilitated by his organization, Project: youthIMPACT, has launched this school year with 93 male and female high school students at St. Louis College Prep. It is a four-year program designed to help college-bound high school students develop leadership skills, access networking opportunities and connect with current college students through a tutoring and mentoring program.

Participants take part in twice-monthly Guys and Girls Night Out events that expose them to opportunities they might not otherwise have. One such opportunity for the kids in the pilot program in 2010 was a visit to UMSL to hear Maya Angelou speak at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Johnson’s interest in providing opportunities for youth to better themselves grew because of all he saw lacking while growing up on the too-often violent streets of East St. Louis, Illinois.

Even after making it out of that environment, earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, moving into a home in the LaSalle Park neighborhood and going to work for the city, Johnson has seen the way issues like violence can show up at a person’s door.

He recalled a rolling gun battle last year that took place in the middle of the day on I-44, leaving two dead. Johnson didn’t personally witness it, but it attracted a great deal of media coverage.

The front page of the next day’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch included a crime scene photograph containing the feet of a victim lying in the street. The image also showed a fence in the background. That fence surrounds Johnson’s backyard.

“I wanted to design a program that was focused on trying to make sure that our youth are not becoming victims or perpetrators of violence, that they know they can escape poverty but that they understand it’s going to take some hard work on their part,” he said. “We’ll do our part. We’ll get you all the resources that we can pull together, and that’s basically what my board is comprised of. It’s folks who I’ve met, and they have embraced the vision to help our young people lead change in their community.”

Johnson has visited colleges and junior colleges throughout the St. Louis area, including UMSL earlier this month, to try to recruit 10 college students to serve as campus ambassadors for the Young Leaders Achievement Academy. He has funding to offer them a $1,500 education award should they complete 300 hours of volunteer service working in the program.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out one day trying to make a difference in the community by running for elected office.

“If you were talking to an 18-year-old Leonard, he would say, ‘I’m going to be the first African American president of the United States.’ Then some tall, big-eared dude with a weird name out of Chicago stole my thunder,” he said with a chuckle. “But that was how optimistic I was.”

Maybe still is.

Of course, he also has had in-depth discussions with people such as Clayton City Manager Craig Owens, whom he considers a mentor, about the impact one can have as a public administrator while steering clear of politics.

“With an MPPA, you have options,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the crux here, that even if I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to quit my job and I’m going to do my leadership development and motivational speaking stuff full time,’ I’m confident whatever I set my mind to I can achieve with what I know and what I’ve learned here.”

The UMSL Experience

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik