Cover – Cydney Johnson: Following in Father’s Footsteps, Namesake Champions Youth, Education in Syracuse

By Cheryl Abrams

First and/or middle names can be familial or historical, reflecting one’s identity and place in the world. A given name can be deeply personal and help shape a child’s profound sense of self and belonging.
So imagine a young girl growing up perplexed that friends – even teachers – called her “Cindy,” while family members used her given name.

Today, make no mistake about it: “Cindy” is but a faint memory in the life of one of Syracuse’s most dedicated and accomplished champions. Named after her highly regarded father, she was raised and educated in the city she still calls home and to which she dedicates her life’s work.

From Cindy to Cydney
‘She’ is Cydney Johnson, vice president of community engagement and government relations at Syracuse University. While she now chuckles about her childhood moniker, Cydney has grown proud over the years of not merely her name, but of both her namesake, father Sidney Johnson, a long-time educator and former superintendent of the Syracuse City School District (SCSD), and beloved mother, Vivienne Jean Johnson, for their leadership in supporting youth and families in the city.

Parental Role Models
Her parents served as role models for Cydney and her older sister, Melinda Jean. Sidney and Vivienne placed a high premium on service and education. Cydney’s father served in the military with the historic Tuskegee Airmen for more than two decades. He earned the rank of Major before retirement, an almost insurmountable challenge during the days of segregation, as well as a testament to his performance in service to our country.

A Syracuse University alum and historic figure for the Syracuse City School District, Sidney L. Johnson ’59, G’65, was recently added to the list of the University’s Notable Veteran Alumni. “Like most military families, we were not originally from the area. Syracuse adopted us, and both my parents loved serving this community,” says Cydney. Her father first served as the SCSD Superintendent and was subsequently elected to the Syracuse Common Council, followed by the Syracuse Board of Education. The family lived in Syracuse neighborhoods and the girls attended city schools, graduating from Nottingham High.

Cydney is right at home on the S.U. campus, having earned her undergraduate degree and MBA from the Martin J. Whitman School of Management. She also spent seven years as an adjunct professor in the College of Human Development.

Alumna to Employee
Reporting to Vice Chancellor J. Michael Haynie, Cydney joined Syracuse University as executive director for state and local government relations in the spring of 2018. She also leads the community engagement team as it helps to advance the university’s robust portfolio of community initiatives.

Cydney’s more than two decades of experience in government relations, higher education and nonprofit/business development serve her well in her role at S.U. and in the community. She is a member of the Central New York Regional Development and Planning board; a board member of the Syracuse Partnership Council with the Syracuse City School District; a board member of Syracuse Stage; and a board member of Blueprint15. Previously, she served on the boards of the Central NY Community Foundation and the Women’s Fund.

Syracuse University leadership is, according to Cydney, “a big believer in presenting the external face of the University to the community” in academic and non-academic ways. She says that Chancellor Kent Syverud, Vice Chancellor Haynie and many others in the S.U. community are committed to educating their neighbors by providing life-enriching yet sustainable programs.

University Service in the Community
This service component is what drew Cydney to her role at S.U. “What I am privileged to do every day at the University is an extension of my parents’ belief in providing meaningful situations, especially through education, to enhance lives.”

While her father was from down south – Summerville, Georgia, – and her mother from up north, both had grown up with a “sensitivity to being denied material things and life experiences,” explains Cydney. “That’s why finding and creating opportunities for young people was so important to their mission in life – and why it’s rewarding for me now to carry on their purpose through the University’s programs for students in our area.”

The generosity of local organizations and individual donors make three summer programs available: Summer College, open to suburban high school students and SCSD students; the Internship Program for city high school students in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program; and the Job Shadowing Program, for SCSD high schoolers enrolled at the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central.

Syracuse Schools, University Partnership
SCSD Superintendent Anthony Davis applauds the partnership between the city school district and the University. “We are truly grateful to the Syracuse University community for its steadfast support of our SCSD students. Our students enjoy countless opportunities and experiences in partnership with the University that benefit them in so many ways,” he said. “These experiences help our students become more confident in their abilities and of the career paths they hope to pursue.”

As Cydney’s interactions with the Syracuse City School District have expanded, she often reflects on how fortunate she was to have Vivienne and Sidney Johnson as her parents. “I am so pleased to have the opportunity through Syracuse University to help make a difference in a young person’s life, the way my parents did for me,” she says. “The SCSD students are our future, and we owe it to them to offer mentorship and guidance.”

Legacy for a Namesake
Cydney is proud of her father’s legacy in the Syracuse City schools. Named in his honor, the Sidney Johnson Vocational Center offers impactful non-traditional educational opportunities, such as adult workplace education and GED programs.

The well-known educator and administrator reflects on the bond she continues to share with her late father. Both are Syracuse University alumni at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and she carries on his educational mission in the Syracuse community. Cydney also bears his name – forgetting how long ago she was known as “Cindy.”

Leadership and Life: Lessons from My Mother
Asked about her personal leadership style or philosophy, Cydney Johnson doesn’t invoke the latest so-called gurus or trends. Instead, she grows quiet and thoughtful. After some time, she names three women she admires: Candace Campbell Jackson, senior vice president and chief of staff to Chancellor Kent Syverud at Syracuse University; Anna Mae Williams, a community activist from Syracuse’s westside; and Kristina Johnson (no relation), former SUNY Chancellor.

Then Cydney begins to laugh and shares a story about her first job in retail at a large department store in Philadelphia, where she learned an important lesson about not judging others. Her position was in Foundations (women’s undergarments), working for manager Eva McCoy. “I figured they’d assigned me there because I was new and hers was a sleeper department,” says Cydney.

The grandmother figure, Eva, was in fact, the store’s leading buyer with the consistently highest sales performance record. Not only was Eva an exceptional professional achiever, but she was also compassionate. “She knew I was away from home at the holidays and allowed me to be off work to be with my family on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year,” Cydney recalls. “When I protested, she insisted I be with my parents. I’ll never forget her kindness.”

Finally, with a soft voice and smile, Cydney added that she was most influenced by her mother. While she wouldn’t call them leadership skills in today’s terms, Cydney referred to her mom’s words and deeds as life lessons:

Practice humility, saying to tell yourself, “I’m not so special.”
Be respectful of all people. Listen.
Practice gratitude: appreciate what you have.
Try to be patient: with yourself, with others, with situations.
Be persistent, but be nice while doing so.
Take time out to enjoy life through relationships and hobbies. (Cydney enjoys gardening, feeling working with the soil and cultivating growth is very rewarding.)
Keep learning. Cydney’s mother took up learning to play the guitar when she was 82 and continued until she passed away at 90. Cydney has followed in her footsteps, taking weekly lessons. She feels learning a new skill helps with creativity and patience.