By Meagan Harkins, Sullivan Foundation Intern
Students across the nation could not escape the news in mid-2020, as they were sent back to their hometowns to quarantine during the pandemic. Television sets, Twitter feeds and family conversations were consumed by the movement for racial equality unfolding across the U.S.
Rust College senior Eric Johnson did not give into despair. Instead, he spent his summer brainstorming ideas that he could contribute to lessen inequality and provide opportunities to his peers. He conceptualized the Rust Innovation Lab on his campus at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss.
The Rust Innovation Lab, launching in Spring 2021, will offer programming to aid students’ leadership skills and equip them to get their ideas off the ground, whether it’s a business, movement, organization or product. Pre-recorded interviews with relevant individuals, discussion sessions and practical resources will be offered through the historically black college’s program.
Johnson emphasizes to students that the Rust Innovation Lab’s leadership programming is meant “not to change you, but to elevate skills you have.” The project’s concept came from the question, “How can I meet people where they are?”
He is determined to show peers their value, capacity to make a difference and the gift of their culture. Presently focused on amplifying African-American voices, Johnson’s ultimate mission is to serve other unheard voices, such as women and the LGBTQ+ community.
These ongoing discussions and projects are Johnson’s attempt at keeping the light shining on a serious problem rather than letting awareness fade with time. He has been taught to “leave [his school] better than he found it.” Johnson hopes the Rust Innovation Lab’s programming will facilitate forum conversations that have decreased in popularity in recent years due to quick information-gathering from social media or websites.
Gathering inspiration from Amplify, a speaker series developed in a partnership between Harvard University and Yale University, Johnson asked the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation to collaborate with him on the Rust Innovation Lab. By supporting his classmates’ ideas and projects, he hopes to market Rust Innovation Lab to a larger audience in addition to benefiting Rust College.
The seed for service was planted in Johnson early on, as he began going on annual church mission trips at the age of eight, traveling the U.S. to paint houses, tear down old buildings and do yard work. He tagged along with his older cousins, creating a network of friends nationwide during his travels.
An only child, Johnson was raised by his aunt and constantly surrounded by cousins. He says his grandmother’s strong leadership has inspired him. It takes a village, though, as countless coaches, teachers and mentors have also invested time in Johnson over the years, and he does not want to let them down.
Johnson has now become a mentor to others, serving as Student Government President at Rust College and as a Sullivan Foundation Ambassador. His involvement with the Sullivan Foundation began as a freshman through study-abroad and conference experiences. Attracted to the idea of actively trying to improve a community, Johnson says his service work largely shapes his daily time commitments and thought processes.
Most exciting to him is the core value underlying social entrepreneurship. Johnson defines this as an opportunity to inspire social change, identifying a local community’s problem and working to improve the lives of the people affected by the problem. “You have to be able to use what you have to build up and make an infrastructure wherever you can,” Johnson said.
As for the future, Johnson hopes to prove that any individual can compete and excel even while living in a small town. He plans to return to school for his master’s degree and work for a corporation through which he can make a positive community impact. “I want to be on the news every other day for trying to help people,” he said.
Johnson, a Mass Communications major, said that, no matter what, he always wants to be taking classes. “School isn’t the only way to learn something, but, for some people, it is the gateway to get information and change circumstances,” he said.
Johnson’s favorite quote and mantra comes from educator Willie Anthony Jones, the late father of Van Jones, a CNN commentator, nonprofit leader and former adviser to President Barack Obama. “There are two kinds of smart people: those who take simple things and make them sound complicated, and those who take complicated things and make them sound simple. Be the second kind.”
The Sullivan Foundation will provide funding and access to speakers for the Rust Innovation Lab. Prominent speakers and large companies do not often reach out to smaller schools, so Johnson believes that in facilitating this network, the nation will hear a lot about Rust College graduates in the coming years, as their untapped potential begins to shine through.
Johnson described his Rust College classmates as “a lot of kids who have big dreams, and they’re not afraid to make mistakes and get their boots dirty and to learn.” He said they are immensely excited to make a difference in their families and respective communities.
Through the Rust Innovation Lab, Johnson hopes to “see more people turn their thoughts into ideas [to be] put into practice and not be afraid to fail. It’s the beginning of a beautiful journey.”