The Texas Lyceum made history on January 14 when it instated as president Sarah Jackson, Bush School ’11. Jackson serves as the first woman of color and only the fourth individual from Dallas to serve in the position since the organization’s inception in 1980.
According to Jackson, the Texas Lyceum, a statewide nonprofit organization focused on public policy and leadership, will expand its reach into overlooked communities of Texas.
“I am proud to lead The Texas Lyceum in a celebration of our legacy and the state’s increasing diversity that will allow for various forums to promote discussions on the most significant issues impacting Texas and civil discourse,” said Jackson. “Together with our directors and alumni, I’m confident we will ensure our organization has the right infrastructure in place to serve today’s Texas, especially in such a transformative election year.”
The daughter of Sierra Leonean immigrants, Jackson was born in the Lone Star State and feels a deep connection to its future. Her career took her through Washington, D.C. and Houston before she resettled in Dallas almost eight years ago.
After graduating from the University of Missouri in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Jackson moved to Capitol Hill. She worked successively in communications for two congressmen before accepting an appointment to the Department of State’s Office of Media Affairs under former President George W. Bush. Five years in Washington left Jackson feeling disconnected from her Texas roots.
“It was great working on things at a high level, but Texas is my home,” she said. “In the Beltway, it’s hard to connect to Middle America and understand what’s going on at the state and local level.”
With a change in administrations and a candidate from an opposing political party holding the presidency, Jackson decided the time had come for her to pursue an advanced education.
She enrolled in the Master of Public Service and Administration (MPSA) program at the Bush School of Government and Public Service in 2009. Breaking from the national issues that focused her preceding career, she concentrated in state and local government and policy analysis.
“The Bush School was my opportunity to learn skills and gain academic knowledge about the inner workings of local and state government. I didn’t have that from working in Washington and I didn’t get that from undergrad.”
Jackson’s experience at the Bush School involved gaining perspective on public service in state and local government – and slogging through the technical training embedded into the Bush School MPSA curriculum, like public finance.
“Helping me understand public finance is the gift I didn’t realize I needed and wanted. It has been helpful in my large-scale policy discussions related to the financing for public entities, school districts and cities that I now do at my job at the Dallas Citizens Council. The stuff I learned at the Bush School has been critical for where I’ve ended up in my career,” said Jackson.
At first, living in Dallas, where Jackson grew up, did not present itself as her next career move.
She had worked for two years at a global company post-graduation. Although she loved the frequency of travel opportunities to far-away countries, she began neglecting herself and community to accommodate a demanding travel schedule. A call from the then-CEO of the Dallas Citizens Council (DCC) opened up an opportunity for Jackson to move into state and local government. She became the organization’s inaugural Director of Public Affairs and has since been promoted to Vice President. Jackson found herself thriving in the role.
“Life has a way of bringing about things when you least expect them,” said Jackson.
Until then, said Jackson, “I didn’t realize how much I loved working locally. You get to see the impact so quickly.”
Today, Jackson’s knowledge of local government ins-and-outs, the interconnectedness of local and national government, and opportunities for growth translate seamlessly into Jackson’s day-to-day work. She does not have to remind herself each day of the difference between strong mayor and city management forms of government, for example, or how to evaluate policy proposals.
“Now it’s so operationalized that it’s knowledge I walk around with, but really it was from the Bush School.”
Classes like Dr. Deborah Kerr’s “Performance Management,” Dr. Lori Taylor’s “Public Finance” and Dr. Ann O’M. Bowman’s “State and Local Government” gave Jackson the tools she needed to perform her job with excellence.
After eight years with the DCC, Jackson has accumulated a long list of successes. These include city-wide initiatives like Dallas Forward, a program launched during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to assist small and medium-sized businesses with short-term economic recovery, while promoting inclusive, long-term prosperity. DCC has also made a difference at the state level, advocating in support of the transformative school finance reform bill that passed the Texas Legislature in 2019.
Wearing her second hat as Texas Lyceum president for 2022, Jackson hopes to expand the Lyceum’s policy focus for statewide impact. She previously contributed to founding The Texas Lyceum Fellowship Program, in cooperation with the Mosbacher Institute for Trade, Economics and Public Policy, with the Bush School’s Dr. Lori Taylor in 2018. The Bush School functioned as the pilot program.
“My vision this year is to collaborate and work strategically, to build bridges and bridge divides,” said Jackson. “That’s what we do at the Texas Lyceum: we bring people together from opposing sides to thoughtfully talk about the issues.”
In 2009, the Texas Lyceum gave former President and Bush School namesake George H.W. Bush their highest honor, the Stewardship of Texas Values Award. Jackson says she looks to Bush’s record of public service as she manages her responsibilities at both the DCC and Texas Lyceum.
“You should never go into public service for the glamor,” she says. “It is something that you do for a higher call. All that can sustain you when you’re up at 2 a.m. writing emails is the hope that you’re contributing to a greater collective that will make the world a better place.”
By Micaela Burrow