The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Aspiring Congressman Who Wants to Bring Healthy Food to Everyone

For the month of April we're profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.
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The Jamie L. Whitten Building in Washington, D.C., houses the administrative offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Photo: Michael Kranewitter/Wikimedia Commons)

The Jamie L. Whitten Building in Washington, D.C., houses the administrative offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Photo: Michael Kranewitter/Wikimedia Commons)

Johnie L. Jones III, 27, Public Policy

In 2011, Johnie Jones was about to graduate from the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. When he heard that Kathleen Merrigan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deputy secretary, was slated to be the commencement speaker, he asked the school’s dean, Robert Hutchings, if he could get five minutes with Merrigan. Hutchings agreed to arrange that.

On the Friday night before his graduation, Jones met with Merrigan and her chief of staff. A week later, he got a call from the White House offering him a job with the Obama administration. Within two years, Jones rose to become the USDA’s deputy chief of staff for rural development.

(Photo: Johnie L. Jones III)

Johnie-Jones-photo

His job is to, as he puts it, “expand the amount of capital in rural America.” He promotes community and economic development by working with corporations and foundations; by launching local-food initiatives such as Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food; and by leading a team of 47 political appointees to raise awareness of USDA programs, resources, and volunteer opportunities.

“Broadly speaking,” he adds, “I work to advance the mission of providing our country with healthy food options, ensuring our farmers and ranchers have a safety net in times of natural disaster, and assisting families that struggle to put food on their table or have trouble securing affordable housing.”

Originally from Hope, Arkansas, Jones is the son of a pastor and the grandson of a mayor (his grandmother, Catherine Thomas, of Tollette, Arkansas). “Public service has been a passion of mine ever since I was born,” he says. “I grew up with it all around me.”

He calls his mother, Juanita Jackson, “the exemplar of what it means to be a public servant.” She’s been a juvenile probation officer and a mental health counselor for more than 30 years, rehabilitating troubled children in southern Arkansas. “The majority of those years she was a single mom,” Jones says. “It made a great impact on me to see my mother day in and day out being selfless, working with other single mothers to help them with their sons and daughters. As a result, I live my life in such a way that I’m constantly looking for opportunities to pay it forward.”

Of his many accomplishments (among others, he won the Secretary’s Service Award in 2012, holds a top-secret security clearance, and was a legislative aide for Texas state senator Troy Fraser), he’s proudest of getting his master’s degree. As a kid, Jones had trouble learning to read. High school counselors told him he wasn’t smart enough to go to college. (His undergraduate degree is from Prairie View A&M University, where he majored in agriculture economics and was the student government president.) Now he sees himself an example to young people, as proof that you can refuse to allow your struggles to get in the way of your dreams.

“I predict that Johnie is going to skyrocket in his career because he has the very rare combination of true academic acumen and stellar interpersonal and networking skills,” says Robert D. Meckel, a director of public affairs at UT. “He is also incredibly passionate and dedicated and has the quality of command and leadership that is innate to some of our country’s top leaders.”

Jones says his long-term goal is to become an Arkansas congressman. In the meantime, he describes himself as “a guy who wants nothing more than to empower low-income communities across the country.”

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.

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