Distinguished Alumni

Every year Seattle University celebrates the Alumni Awards, honoring those who exemplify our Jesuit values, and excel in the areas of leadership, professional achievement and community service.

In 2014, we extend our congratulations to College of Education alumnus David M. Johnson, EdD, '87, the winner of Seattle University's Alumni Award for Professional Achievement. Dr. Johnson, a graduate of the College's Educational Leadership doctoral program, is CEO of Navos, which offers mental health services to low-income children and adults with serious and persistent mental illness.

Seeing Possibility Everywhere

2014 Professional Development Award Winner

SA leader and a visionary who is often consulted in the development of public and private health care policy, alumnus David M. Johnson, EdD, '87, received Seattle University's 2014 Alumni Award for Professional Achievement.

The recognition is just his most recent award; last year, he won a "Visionary Leadership Award" from the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare and he was the recipient of the 2013 "Evergreen Award" from Washington Nonprofits for his outstanding innovation and agility in the service of his community.

For the past 15 years, Johnson has served as CEO of Navos, one of the state's largest community health centers with a $54 million operating budget and a staff of more than 640. Navos offers a full spectrum of mental health services to low-income children and adults with serious and persistent mental illness.

As he conducts a tour of the Navos’ administrative offices in West Seattle, Johnson talks about the approach that positions his innovative organization and guides his professional practice as a mental health clinician. Johnson firmly believes in the importance of respecting and working with people to recognize and then build upon their strengths.

“My goal is helping people feel empowered and being respectful and caring of people with multiple challenges, who often live in poverty,” he says. It is no coincidence that he found the values inherent in the Jesuit education at Seattle University “exactly the values we need to be using in this world.”

Johnson’s professional journey began as a graduate of art history who taught elementary school in Vermont. He pursued a master’s degree in school counseling, and began working in community counseling when he was 27. A few years later as a director of a mental health clinic, he wanted to address the lack of community pervasive in a system that provided solutions through a naïve business or charity model. At 34, he entered the College’s Educational Leadership doctoral program in a program that built upon his background in counseling and education.

It was through the EDLR program that Johnson was introduced to the model of “servant leadership,” which focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong, helping him become “a leader who sets the stage for the staff to be brilliant and for the patient to be empowered.”

Faced with patients with severe psychosis and psychiatric problems, Johnson knew he needed a new and different approach. And while innovation takes initiative, Johnson already had a history of exploring what’s going on in the fringes to inform what will happen in the future. Johnson recalled his undergraduate thesis that explored the transition from the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock to the pop art of Andy Warhol entitled “The responsibility of the avant-garde” and began to ponder how he should lead and heal an organization.

Through SU’s educational leadership program, Johnson says he learned “to harness the best parts of myself.”
He entered Seattle University’s doctoral program feeling bereft, at a time when his professional life was not fulfilling and he had suffered personal losses as well. What he found was a program that was value-centered, respectful and empowering, and ultimately transformative. Without SU, “I would not have become the leader I am today,” says Johnson. “What I learned is that when we dream big, and when we decide that the pathway to get there is through the strengths we do have – that is when big things happen.” 
COE Dean Emeritus John Morford, who was EDLR's senior professor and first chair from 1977 through 1991, remembers David Johnson as a student: "It was always clear that David intended to make major improvements in mental health services in our area," Morford said.

After receiving his doctoral degree, Johnson began to work with a renewed enthusiasm. “Without hesitation, I can say that every day I use what I learned in my doctoral program,” he says. “It made the difference between a good career and a remarkable career.” He opened a private practice, became CEO of a small mental health center, consulted in organizational development, and taught counseling and served on the Advisory Board for Mental Health at Seattle University. He viewed all his activities as one wonderful job: “to be a catalyst; to help others be clear about what’s true, to imagine what they want and to help them get there.”
In an industry that is just 50 years old, Johnson has spent the past four decades adapting and changing. “Change is a good disruption,” that means “something cool is happening,” he says, a philosophy that prompts him to embrace innovation ahead of the curve. Johnson became an early adapter of the idea of genetic predisposition for mental illness, realizing that one in five children have a diagnosable mental illness and one in four adults experience a mental health disorder in a given year. Navos was also a leader in trauma informed care that understands and recognizes the trauma experienced in the lives of patients and provides; this awareness leads to changes for an environment more conducive to recovery. “We looked at everything we did,” said Johnson, from the way they approached therapy to replacing the locked doors and beds with restraints with a “comfort room” that features a rocking chair and therapeutic oils.

The results of Johnson’s passion for partnering with the strengths of those who are challenged and a mind that ”sees possibility everywhere”” are clearly seen in the programs he has developed:

  • The link between early mortality and the lack of access to primary care among individuals with serious mental illness prompted Navos to be one of the first in the nation to develop a comprehensive “healthcare home” where patients can receive primary care in addition to mental health treatment.
  • An Infant Mental Health program serves children and families struggling to heal from mental illness, violence, addiction, abuse and poverty.
  • A Peer Support Specialist Training Program prepares individuals with mental illness for careers in counseling, helping those with mental illness to use their experience to help others.

Attending the two graduations for the peer support specialists are Johnson’s “two favorite days of the year” because the graduates have learned to love and appreciate themselves.

Navos embraces this “journey to life wellness,” focusing on a recovery philosophy that helps clients map goals for wellness with the aim of “living a life bigger than their disease.” Working with a team composed of peer support specialists, a mental health professional and a “home team” support group, clients map out goals for wellness in seven areas, with the ultimate aim of living a life that is about all sort of things more than their diagnosis and medication regimen.

In addition to its two residential treatment programs and two children’s centers, Navos also provides staff to schools and nursing homes and hosts a consortium of more than 20 other mental health and social service organizations who contract for administrative service and clinical oversight.

SU counseling and nursing students gain experience at Navos which hosts  about 40 interns each year, especially appreciating those from SU every year, says Johnson, because “they come with the best skills.”

Walking through the West Seattle Campus, Johnson greets some of the residents who live in a few of the 280 affordable housing units that Navos owns or manages in Seattle – another way to help serve the low-income mentally ill who might otherwise be homeless. There will be more cottages on Lake Burien, close to Navos’ Mental Health and Wellness Center.  Johnson and his team took great care to choose landscaping that will promote the feeling of a sanctuary.

“It’s a place of healing,” he says of the cottages, which are filled with residents whose lives inspire him to do even more. “Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have,” he says. “Ultimately, the story of every person’s life is heroic.”