Most people don’t know that James Johnson — director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, a man whose CV runs 44 pages in order to fit in all his awards, honors and publications — has a place in South Beach, the hip area of Miami, where he’s likely to rub elbows with Britney, Paris and J. Lo.
“He’s one of our faculty rock stars,” said strategy and entrepreneurship professor Jack Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute, who helped recruit Jim from UCLA to Carolina.
Florida locals may know him as “J. Jo,” but at UNC, Jim is known by his impressive roster of accomplishments — his work with disadvantaged youth in Durham, starting the Durham Scholars program and growing it into a K-through-8 laboratory school that will open in July; his co-authorship of a study on the economic impact of Hispanics in North Carolina, and a similar study of the impact of North Carolina’s African-Americans; and his social entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia as an Eisenhower Fellow, where he soaked up knowledge and put it to use as he was mentored by Henry Kissinger.
For all that and more, Jim Johnson has been selected for the 2009 Faculty Service Award.
“I don’t know anyone who works harder as a scholar,” said Richard Krasno, head of the Kenan Charitable Trust that supports the Kenan Institute and has funded much of Jim’s work. “He is one of the most thoughtful and compassionate scholars I know. His work is disciplined and always with the thought of how to make this world a better place.”
Jim was a high school football star in Falkland, N.C., when his 11th-grade civics teacher, Don Dempsey, took him and a friend to the UNC campus to persuade Jim to apply. He found it more feasible to go to N.C. Central, where he could live with his sister in Durham. “James always wanted to do the right things; that’s what made him a standout,” Dempsey said. Decades later, at Jim’s mother’s funeral last year, Dempsey sought out his former student to tell him how proud he was of all that Johnson had accomplished.
“I told him I meant for him to go to Carolina as a student, and he went as a professor,” Dempsey said.
Jim studied geography, getting his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and his doctorate from Michigan State, after which he joined the faculty at UCLA. The declining inner city of Los Angeles in the 1980s drew his interest. With the help of a mentor, he researched gang violence and teen pregnancy, ethnic tensions and economic scars, and chronicled the widening gap between inner-city and middle-class residents. He turned a grant for urban policy analysis into a multimillion-dollar center.
In 1992, UNC wooed him home. The Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise created the Urban Investment Strategy Center for him to run. In growing the center, he began working with the Durham public school system, setting up programs for teens in Durham’s roughest neighborhoods, leading midnight basketball games to keep kids occupied during the trouble hours and shepherding students through to high school graduation and for some, on to college.
“He has changed the lives of hundreds of young men and women, enabling them to have a first-rate education,” Krasno said.
Now Jim is raising $30 million to endow his newly formed Union Independent School. He believes that the greatest gift we can give is a quality education to the next generation of kids who will be the future leaders of the country.
He has participated in panels alongside California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Recently, he addressed the National Conference of State Legislatures, as well as the U.S. State Department. He currently is researching the economic impact of September 11 on U.S. metropolitan communities.
“Jim Johnson has the talent and the work ethic to make these great outcomes happen,” Kasarda said. “His talent and work ethic, it’s one plus one equals 11.”
The Faculty Service Award is presented by the GAA Board of Directors.