An MIT Alumni Association Publication

When Michael G. Johnson MCP ’97 was growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, his high school guidance counselor discouraged him from applying to the college of his choice. It still rankles him. Now, as president and CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), Johnson works to ensure that other kids from underserved New York City communities get the encouragement and support they need to achieve their dreams.

Johnson credits his supportive parents with helping him get into the University of Virginia but recognizes that others from similar backgrounds don’t always get the help they need. “HEAF changes the lives of young people,” he says. “It’s about getting kids to believe college is the path.”

An enrichment program that provides free academic support, career exploration, and a service-learning travel opportunity, HEAF annually serves about 250 middle, high school, and college students, more than 90% of whom are African-American or Hispanic. He notes that in 2021, 100% of HEAF’s high school graduates enrolled in four-year colleges, while just 63% of NYC students overall enrolled in postsecondary education that year.

For Johnson, leading HEAF is the latest challenge in a career focused on aiding urban communities. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in city planning, he worked to build infrastructure, notably serving as vice president for an economic development corporation focused on reinvigorating the struggling city of Newark, New Jersey. “Our hard work and investment and laying the groundwork has now made Newark one of the most attractive places to come,” he says. “That’s why planning is so exciting.”

Motivated to share this passion, in the early 2000s Johnson worked with fellow alums from the MIT Club of New York to launch a city planning workshop at his former junior high in Brooklyn. The project, which focused on improving the blighted neighborhood, earned a write-up in the New York Times in 2002. Johnson found the project so inspiring that he considered starting an education nonprofit, but the timing wasn’t right.

He did shift his focus from infrastructure to people, however. He led customer operations for the New York City Housing Authority, worked in philanthropy at JP Morgan, and managed resident services for a housing nonprofit. When he joined HEAF in 2022, he saw it as an opportunity to finally focus fully on youth education. “I’ve come full circle and am living my best life,” he says.

This article also appears in the May/June issue of MIT Alumni News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.

Photo: Jen Vargas