David Johnson's travels have taken him around the world – and now to Harris Public Policy.

David Johnson, MPP Class of 2022, took the long way to the Harris School of Public Policy and its Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. 

Two years after the “aha” moment in a Tennessee university classroom that cemented his interest in transitional justice — particularly as a way to address racial injustice in the United States — Johnson set off on a new path. He wanted to see transitional justice in action, and thanks to a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, he had the chance to research in countries stretching from Germany to Rwanda. 

But along the way the desire to complement that research with a formal degree led to Harris, the only school, he said, that could provide the combination of analytical skills and coursework that would allow him to continue to learn about both transitional justice and global conflict. There, he won a Pearson Fellowship, which provides financial aid and professional development opportunities. 

A quarter after he arrived, Johnson joined the University of Chicago’s Transitional Justice and Democratic Stability Lab, a research team led by Associate Professor Monika Nalepa.  He works on the lab’s Global Transitional Justice Dataset when not tackling the Harris Core. 

At the Transitional Justice Lab, Johnson is doing coding on Nigeria for the Global Transitional Justice Dataset. That data, he said, can be used for scholars’ papers or studies. It can also provide a glimpse of what transitional justice looks like in a country. Did it work? Did democracy prevail so a nation didn’t backslide into an authoritarian regime?

“There are not a lot of datasets around transitional justice and the mechanisms that different countries use,” he said. “So this is trailblazing work.”

Transitional justice is how countries deal with their past.

Transitional justice, simply put, is how countries deal with their past, Johnson said. It is, he added, “how Germany tried to deal with the Holocaust. What did they do after the end of World War II when everybody was looking at them pointing fingers, blaming them for what had happened? Or how does South Africa deal with apartheid?” 

It was during a discussion of apartheid during his sophomore year at the University of the South that Johnson learned about transitional justice.

“I was the only Black student in the class and I was just looking around and seeing my peers who were really devastated to hear about the crimes that were happening, or that had happened, in South Africa. 

“They were definitely crimes against humanity. But those same crimes happened in the United States too,” Johnson said. “These are the crimes that my grandparents grew up under. These are the crimes that my parents grew up under. Why is it that there's so much outcry and international sensation around apartheid or the Holocaust, but there was never this focus on the United States?” 

Brownsville, Tennessee — the small town where Johnson grew up  —  “kind of mirrored South Africa in that sense where it was a majority Black city, but was ruled by the white minority. I had family members who were involved with the NAACP — and they were themselves victims of racial terror. My great, great uncle was the president of the Brownsville NAACP chapter, and he had his house burned down by the Klan. His friend Elbert Williams was lynched for his work in the NAACP, which made him the organization's first martyr in 1940. Growing up in the abyss of that and learning those stories about the reality of America, got me interested in civil rights work and now transitional justice.”

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned at Robben Island for almost two decades.

Johnson’s Watson project research took him to South Africa, which was, he said, a double-edged sword. “Cape Town in South Africa is probably the prettiest place in the world. It has the ocean; the beaches; it has mountains; it has wineries. It just has everything you could possibly imagine.” But, he added, the World Bank in 2018 ranked South Africa the most economically unequal country in the world. 

“It really bothered me to have fun in that country because if I was South African, based on how I look, I would be living a totally different life. I probably wouldn't be at these wineries or be on the beach or be able to move as freely as I could. … It really shook me up.”

He brought that discomfort, and a desire to do something about it, home to a United States facing such questions, he said, as “how do we deal with the ongoing legacy of slavery or apartheid? How do we deal with the land appropriation of Native Americans? Why are people still so racist? Why do we still have these wealth disparities? Why do we still have all of these different problems compounding on top of each other?” 

“I think we're definitely headed in the right direction,” he said of the United States. “After the George Floyd lynching, I would say that the ripeness of the moment in the United States where thousands of demonstrations were occurring across the country, across the world … it felt like real change was finally possible. It was like in a South Africa or in a Germany where they were on the cusp of reconciliation. They didn't know where they were headed necessarily, but they knew that they weren't going to fall back into what they had just endured.”

“We've never,” he added, “had this much light in the United States shined on crimes against our own people.” The United Nations is considering an investigation into systemic racism in America. Congress is talking about reparations. “People are buying books about how to be an anti-racist and every corporation and every sports team has Black Lives Matter on their jerseys and paraphernalia,” he said. “We haven't had this before, so I'm optimistic that we can have that moment of accountability.

“We just have to really have a hard look at our history and say ‘Wait maybe [former President Donald] Trump is not the worst that we've seen.”

While getting his MPP at Harris, Johnson said he also plans to concurrently pursue a law degree “and my hope is that I can bring transitional justice to the South,” working as an attorney — inspired in part by the work of Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative —  or on political campaigns. He plans to get a political campaigns certificate from Harris

“I definitely plan to be on the end where I'm using the dataset and not necessarily creating the data,” he said.

For now, the globe-trotting Johnson has found a home at Harris and The Pearson Institute.

When he was applying for the Pearson Fellowship, Johnson was in Berlin at the same time The Pearson Institute held its Pearson Global Forum there.

“So I'm just thinking, okay, the universe is aligning right now. I have to go to this event, I have to shake everyone's hand, I have to meet Alex Carr, The Pearson Institute’s director of operations. I just have to make the best impression that I can, because this is God basically setting up this opportunity, placing it in my lap and saying, ‘go for it.’

“Yeah, this is the place that I want to be.”