School of Public Policy alumnus Alex Johnson traces his illustrious career in inclusive foreign policy back to his time at the College of Liberal Arts

Alex Johnson

By Colin Bowyer, Communications Manager - April 12, 2024

Alex Johnson, ‘04, M.P.P. ‘06, is deputy director of U.S. foreign policy for Open Society Foundations, a global grantmaking, research, and aid organization that supports inclusive democracies. As deputy director, Johnson manages a global advocacy team that supports initiatives by regional and local nonprofit organizations working to improve civil society, ultimately, enhancing U.S. foreign policy.

“If you’ve seen the television show House of Cards, one way I explain my job to my family is to say, ‘I’m the Remy Danton for Justice,’” Johnson joked. 

Johnson, when boiling it down, is a lobbyist for human rights defenders and marginalized communities, including advocating for the release of political prisoners globally since he first left government service in 2017. Much of Johnson’s work is too sensitive to disclose.

But way before becoming a champion of human rights on a global stage, Johnson grew up in Portland and chose OSU for its strength in environmental studies. Johnson had a passion for the outdoors and was inspired by the late-Portland City Commissioner Charles Jordan’s own advocacy for public parks. Johnson enrolled as a natural resources major at OSU in 2000 with the goal of advancing environmental justice and driving inclusion in park system management. 

After a year as a student in the College of Forestry, Johnson noticed a troubling trend as a student of color in the college.

“My interactions with faculty and the curriculum of the College of Forestry were great and productive and the natural resources major was where my interests were,” explained Johnson. “But, at the time, the college struggled with inclusiveness, particularly with students of color.” 

Johnson’s experience at the College of Forestry motivated him to become more politically involved at OSU. He joined the Oregon Students of Color Coalition and organized conversations between students and administration on issues students of color encounter on campus. Johnson also became director of multicultural affairs at ASOSU, and, ultimately, synthesized political science and ethnic studies into his natural resources studies. 

It was mentor and public policy professor Brent Steel who encouraged Johnson to join one the first cohorts of the Master in Public Policy program. Tapping into his advocacy at OSU while an undergraduate student, Johnson’s capstone project, advised by Professor Emeritus Larry Roper, explored the history of diversity at OSU, from Oregon Agricultural College to the university as it exists today. Johnson also had the opportunity to intern with Portland Mayor Tom Potter and worked with the Corvallis City Council to revise the city’s charter to be more inclusive. 

“The M.P.P. degree program allowed me to work closely with professors I deeply respected, as well as create impact in the community through advocacy and practical experience,” said Johnson. “It was a great time to be part of the emerging M.P.P. program and it put me in the best position to excel at what I do today. I also still keep in touch with members of my small cohort.”

Johnson received a fellowship from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to be a legislative aide for the late-U.S. Representative Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL-23, now FL-20), so just a few days after graduation, he packed up his car and drove to Washington D.C.. While working as part of the U.S. House of Representatives Rules Committee, Johnson used his passion for the environment to shepherd the first Pollinator Protection Act in the 110th Congress, as well as lead the environmental justice legislative development for the Congressional Black Caucus.

Rep. Hastings then tapped Johnson for his foreign policy team, where he worked as a policy analyst for eight years on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Rep. Hastings, who became the first African-American chair of the commission in 2019, asked Johnson to be his chief of staff. Johnson, who at that point was already working for Open Society Foundations, heeded his mentor’s call and returned to manage the commission, becoming the first African-American chief of staff in the commission’s history.

“Rep. Hastings was a father figure to me,” recalled Johnson. “He was huge in my early-career development and, even after his passing, continues to be an inspiration to me in my professional and personal life.”

Founded in 1976, the independent commission of the federal government advances comprehensive security through promotion of human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental, and military cooperation in Eurasia. Johnson supported the commission in countless ways, including leading congressional trips and election observation missions; organizing congressional hearings and briefings; as well as facilitating numerous international exchanges of policy experts, elected officials, and civilians.  

Now, as deputy director at Open Society Foundations, Johnson uses experience from his distinguished career and time at OSU to lead lobbying and grantmaking to advocate for human rights to help improve livelihoods around the world. Last year, he was named one of Washington D.C.’s most influential people by Washingtonian magazine.

For OSU students who are looking at a potential career in public policy after graduation, Johnson recommended getting involved and advocating for issues that you are passionate about. “It’s easy to complain in the cheap seats,” Johnson said. “I know working in policy can be challenging, particularly in this polarized political environment, but it’s important to have mentors, like Rep. Hastings or my advisors at OSU, to encourage you to keep going and advocate for yourself and your views.”