Venus Johnson ’01 has dedicated her career as a lawyer to public service and the common good. She began her professional life as a prosecutor in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, handling some of the county’s toughest cases. She moved into policy in the California Department of Justice, serving as a senior legal and policy advisor to former Attorney General Kalama D. Harris in the areas of criminal justice reform and law enforcement. In January 2017, she accepted an appointment as Director of Public Safety for the City of Oakland. Johnson holds a degree in political science with a philosophy minor from Loyola Marymount University, and a J.D. from McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific. She sat down with the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts to reflect on her career path.
Tell us about your job as Director of Public Safety for the City of Oakland.
I work closely with the Mayor of Oakland to shape policy for the city around public safety. When we talk about public safety, we are not just talking about law enforcement, as you might think. Our goal is to reduce crime, and we understand that there are contributing societal factors that lead to certain criminal behaviors. If kids are in school, for example, and they have jobs, they are less likely to be involved in activity that leads them to juvenile hall. How do we create better pathways for people to be productive members of society? It’s looking at schools. It’s looking at job creation. It’s looking at impact of trauma and violence on communities. We take a holistic approach.
That sounds like a big job. How do you know where to start?
It can be overwhelming at times, but we just prioritize one step at a time. It’s like finals week as a student. How can I study for all the tests at once? In this case, we started by looking around for the low-hanging fruit, for places that the Mayor’s Office could stand to really make an impact. These opportunities reveal themselves through strong partnerships with other city agencies and non-profits.
What previous experiences and skills help you do this work well?
Empathy is something I have developed through each job I’ve held, and empathy is really the heart of this work. Early in my law career, as a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office, I worked with children and families through some of the worst experiences of their lives. That helps you develop that empathy. When I moved into state-level policy, you’d think it would be harder to stay in touch with everyday citizens and their real needs. But we never just sat in a room writing policy without first consulting the community. Real solutions take real work and real conversations. I learned that in the California Attorney General’s office, and the same applies here at the city level, too.
What is an LMU experience that impacted your career path?
In 2000, I got to intern at the Democratic National Convention. It was an incredible experience being so close to the inner workings of our national political process. The program was organized by my political science professor, Michael Genovese. I also had the opportunity to travel with him to Queen’s College at Oxford University to study abroad. That was also an amazing opportunity, learning a more global perspective. How many people can say they studied at Oxford? Not many! I’m very grateful to Dr. Genovese for those experiences.
My time at LMU, not just my political science major and philosophy minor but my whole experience, was really about social justice. Ensuring that when I’m at the table to make my voice heard, that I stand up for what’s right. That’s the Catholic influence, the Jesuit influence. My time at LMU made me clearer about my values, which I try to live out every day.
What is your advice to students who are interested in public service legal professions?
Follow your moral compass and find an issue that you’re passionate about: children’s rights, voting rights, whatever it is. Look for jobs that will develop your skills and ignite your passion. When you are truly following your passion, opportunities come to you.