Feb. 24, 2004 – Semaj Johnson is laying a firm foundation of education, work and life experience for future leadership in the Virgin Islands. Work and study achievements from Nairobi, Kenya, to Capitol Hill to the South Bronx are shaping this young trailblazer who's now in his second year of law school.
Johnson attended Claude O Markoe Elementary School, Arthur A. Richards Junior High School and Country Day School on St. Croix. He is a 1998 Wesleyan University graduate with a dual major in African-American studies and political science.
He was born on Dec. 11, 1976, while his parents were living in New York City. His father, James "Alex" Johnson, is a Christiansted native, while his mother, Esther Perez Johnson, is originally from Panama. The family moved back to St. Croix when Semaj was 10 years old. He has a sister, Retse, who is a special needs teacher at Alexander Henderson Elementary School.
On St. Croix, Johnson was president and co-host of Youth Experiencing Success, or YES — a television program focusing on the issues of Virgin Islands young people. He also was the host and producer of "Youth for Youth," a program airing on WRRA Radio that encouraged debate and resolution among youth and civic leaders. And he served on the Teen Editorial Board of The V.I. Daily News.
Johnson is a recipient of Wesleyan University's Trailblazers Award and the V.I. Governor's Leadership Award. While at Wesleyan, he coordinated the school's first student of color Web site, served as political chair of the African-American Student Union and taught a course on critical issues in contemporary society. He also founded the Rushford-Wesleyan Partnership, an organization linking youth offenders on probation with university mentors.
In 1998-99, he worked as research assistant to Franklin Thomas, the former president of the Ford Foundation, focusing on grant review and strategic grant planning for the United Nations. He also worked on development projects in transitional South Africa and comparative race relations in Brazil, South Africa and the United States.
An effective community organizer
In 2000-01, Johnson was a community organizer for the grass-roots Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, developing welfare-to-work initiatives in the South Bronx including GED studies, computer training, voter registration, financial management and sustainable living projects. He created a staff of former welfare mothers who served as powerful community leaders through the AmeriCorps program; together, they created community gardens, vertical police patrols in buildings and local domestic violence intervention services.
In 2001, Johnson served as vice president of Carolina for Kibera, a not-for-profit organization operating in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. There, he facilitated intertribal conflict resolution. He also secured grants, identified community leaders and linked them with sources of international funding.
He negotiated with customs officials for the distribution of international aid to 13 slum villages, served as a liaison between the village chieftains and local youth leaders, and assisted residents in a mass environmental cleanup effort. Through the efforts of his team, one poor community developed three sustainable projects: a health clinic, a nursery school and a sports association.
In 2001-02, Johnson was community organizing director of the South Bronx Overall Development Corp., known as SOBRO. To stimulate business in marginalized commercial districts, he solicited corporate investors, managed $500,000 in city resources, and coordinated efforts with city officials and service providers. He was involved in developing and expanding Business Improvement Districts and linked more than 200 community entrepreneurs with Small Business Administration grants and empowerment zone incentives. He organized merchant associations, initiated street beautification projects (including graffiti removal) and increased the police presence and sanitation control.
A law student of diverse involvements
Johnson currently is in his second year of study at the Howard University School of Law, focusing criminal law and international trade. There, he is a member of the International Moot Court Team and a Merit Fellow.
Last summer, he was an intern with Delegate Donna M. Christensen, focusing on V.I. homeland security customs and border security, small manufacturing businesses, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, the Economic Development Commission and Internal Revenue Bureau standards.
Johnson recently received Howard University's prestigious Patricia Roberts Harris Public Affairs Fellowship. He is currently editorials editor for The District Chronicles, a local District of Columbia newspaper.
In the Virgin Islands, he contributes to a yearly scholarship in his name that is given to a male St. Croix high school graduate in recognition of service to his community throughout his high school years.
In his work afar and abroad, Johnson has focused on building the capacity to return to the territory and contribute to the community that has provided him exceptional opportunities to serve.
Upon graduating from law school, he plans to return to St. Croix to clerk for a Territorial Court judge — and thereby get exposure to issues that bring Virgin Islanders to the point of litigation. His objective is to learn V.I. law thoroughly, and thereby to identify practical solutions to the challenges facing the community.
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