By Claire Wos St. Anthony’s High School
and Erin Ye Huntington High School
With the current Black Lives Matter movement, a new generation of leaders has emerged, targeting police brutality and prejudice towards people of color. is one of them.
At age 19, Johnson, a political science major at Suffolk County Community College, ran this year for a seat in the New York State Senate, hoping to represent District 1 in Eastern Suffolk County as a Democrat. As a new face in politics, he rallied for reform in environmental, economic, and educational policies.
Johnson, now 20, conceded in early July after he lost the Democratic primary held on June 23. However, he gained recognition from his run for state Senate, and he intends to use his newly found platform to fight for racial justice.
“Nationwide, it’s been atrocious what’s happening,” Johnson said. “It’s been devastating not only watching the systems that are supposedly there to protect us fail spectacularly and kill us instead, but also the responses to the protests across the nation. We currently have situations where people are afraid of the government. They are afraid of their police force. They’re afraid of their military. And it’s unacceptable.”
During his campaign, with a team of over 75 volunteers, Johnson raised over $30,000, mainly from grassroots contributions.
“I spend a lot of time mentoring young teenage men, and none of them are anywhere near as mature and as thoughtful and as compassionate as Skyler is,” said Amanda Siebe, a Democrat based in Oregon who ran for election to the U.S. House of Representatives and has worked closely with Johnson on disability rights. “He is on a different level.”
Johnson sought to replace retiring state Sen. Kenneth LaValle, who assumed office in 1977, before Johnson was even born. In 2019, LaValle voted against a bill to ban gay conversion therapy. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law, but Johnson said this action by LaValle pushed him to run for office.
“That really made it clear how little people we had in our government representing us, especially on social issues, and particularly 21st century social issues,” Johnson said.
Johnson was raised in Mount Sinai by his mother, Debbie, and his father, Clayton. His identity uniquely shaped his childhood.
“The Black Lives Matter movement has always been personal to me,” Johnson said. “I come from a mixed-ethnicity family. My father is Black, and my mother is white. So it has really allowed me to gain a unique perspective on the entire thing.”
While attending Mount Sinai High School, he was the campaign manager for Sarah Deonarine, a Democrat who ran in 2019 for a seat on the Brookhaven town council. Although Deonarine lost her bid, Johnson got his first taste of running a campaign.
A member of Suffolk Progressives, a group of Long Island politicians who share similar ideas about policies for the future, Johnson said he wants to get youth involved with action.
“Running as a young candidate was a really great experience, and I would encourage others to do the same,” said Johnson. “I think we need more young people involved in all fields, especially politics.”
Johnson’s policy director, Sam Levitan, a Mineola native and now a rising college freshman at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, was inspired by their closeness in age: “I really liked the idea that he was so young. I’m young myself, I’m actually just starting college, so I liked the idea that someone from my generation was running.”
Having met Johnson on Twitter and bonded with him over their mutual concerns regarding government response to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, Levitan had only good things to say about him.
“He’s friendly, but he’s passionate, and he’s a hard worker,” Levitan said.
And Johnson isn’t done. Today, he is endorsing other progressive candidates running for office who share his positions on the policies that matter most to him. He’s an activist, attending and speaking at protests and using his social media platforms to generate change.
“I have a large platform across the nation,” he said. “I have reached out to tens of thousands of people. I want to make sure that I am able to spread the message for Black Lives Matter, and also attend these protests and speak out at these protests, also to just fight alongside these people.”
Eve Neumann contributed reporting to this story.