A force for change

Natalie Johnson Lee. Photo by Emilie Richardson.

Natalie Johnson Lee. Photo by Emilie Richardson.

Some former elected officials seem to fade away. After a brief time out, Natalie Johnson Lee is still a dynamic force.


Even when she is sitting quietly in a coffeehouse reading a book, Natalie Johnson Lee has presence. Retreating from the public eye is not something that happens naturally for her, even when she’s consciously attempting it.

Johnson Lee intentionally took a year off to reflect, assess and detox. She lost a bruising re-election bid to the Minneapolis City Council (the city’s redistricting plan placed Johnson Lee and the only other African American, Don Samuels, in a newly reconstituted fifth ward). She had initially earned her four years on the Council the hard way, as a Green Party candidate against city council president and 12-year incumbent Jackie Cherryhomes. During her term on the council, she was seldom home: Trying to revitalize north Minneapolis took nearly all her time. Now that she was home again more consistently, Johnson Lee discovered that she didn’t even recognize it. “What was growing there?” she said with an easy laugh.

Re-powering women of color
But certain people in her life aren’t letting her disappear from public life, even if she wanted to. (And there’s a sparkle in her eye that lets you know she’s not done.) Her husband Travis, for one, is nudging Johnson Lee with the view that her voice is sorely missed in local politics. Longtime ally Dr. Verna Price has drawn her more fully into coaching. “Ms. Natalie is a force,” Price said. “She has an amazing heart for people and community. When she sees something that needs change, she goes for it. And she’s not afraid to say something when it’s time to say it.”

Johnson Lee is using her force in multiple ways. She is a consultant with Girls in Action, which provides mentoring for young women. She’s a speaker in St. Catherine’s Leaders of the New Millennium group. She works in youth and women’s ministry at the True Love Church. And she’s incorporating the business Sisters in Power, which is designed to re-power women, especially women of color.

“You hear about empowerment all the time. But you can give women all the tools, and if they don’t agree they have the power to use it, what happens?” Johnson Lee asked. “We’re all born with power. As girls are raised, it tends to get suppressed. That’s why we are re-powering. Just like rebooting the computer.”

Finding the strength within
Personal strength shines from Johnson Lee. It bounces off the walls when she laughs, which is often. It resonates in the way she stops occasionally to think about a question before answering, as well as the way thoughts trickle out easily responding to others. More than anything, you get the impression that Johnson Lee simply knows who she is, and doesn’t package herself as anything else.

As a councilwoman, she confidently served as both a woman and as a person of color. “It didn’t mean I couldn’t serve all,” she said. “We must not be apologetic for being who we are. We have a tendency to play small, when we’re much bigger. Women are awesome. And we need to know that we’re awesome if we’re going to draw from our own power.”

That includes helping more women learn how to lead as women, which includes trusting their intuition. “Men feel something in their gut and go,” she said. “Women can fall into a paralysis of analysis.”

Digging deep to reach that level of self-awareness and instinct is one talent that Johnson Lee brings to the people she mentors. Some of the women who find her through word of mouth are high school students. She helps them discover how they want to lead. She encourages African American, Latino, Asian, Somalian and white women interested in politics to work on campaigns with different party affiliations in order to get a more well-rounded view of their own beliefs, as well as those of others.

And not all the women she works with are young. “Awakening happens at different ages,” she said. Johnson Lee’s own awakening came with motherhood and wanting to create a better life for her children. She was a single mother for 14 years, and wanted stronger options for women like herself, as well as those coming behind her. So when the Green Party recruited her to run against the DFL incumbent City Council president in 2001, and help avoid an all-white council, she rose to the challenge in an amazing grass-roots effort that included extensive work in disenfranchised communities. Even though, she said breezily, “I didn’t know a dang thing about politics.”

One thing she learned on the job is that a particular skill set is not a prerequisite for office, as much as heart and passion are. “Men will run for office whether they have the skills or not,” she said. “They figure that ‘if he can do it, then I can.’ But as women, we tend to put ourselves in boxes. We tell ourselves that it’s not our time, or that we’re not ready.

The ones who break out of boxes of their own making have the power, ingenuity and drive to accomplish what they set out to do. Skills are not the first thing you need. So much is accomplished with on-the-job training.”

She laughed again. “Look around and you’ll see how many people in politics fake it until they make it.”

Power base
If Lee were writing a teaching manual about how to reboot one’s personal power, there would be three concepts.

First, she believes in the power of one. And that means every person has relevance. To remain engaged, she said, people need to understand their own source of power. They need to be encouraged through a campaign of personal strength and access, rather than relegated to a perpetual place of weakness and dependence.

This is something she learned early. Growing up in an upper-middle-class Oklahoma family, Lee’s role model as a child was a female cousin who stood up for fairness and equal treatment regardless of skin color or gender. Family reunions tended to focus on fighting for the underdog. At a young age, Lee was standing up against bullies.

One of the things Lee is most proud of from her Council days is not any particular project, but of the access she enabled communities, especially of color, to have to the government that is in place to serve them.

Second, her motto is: “You cannot lead the people if you don’t love the people.” Lee has a passion for people. As Price says, “She wants people to get better, do better, be better.” She’s been burned by that passion at times. Price, for one, has counseled that sometimes there is such a thing as helping “too much,” and doing for others when they can do for themselves.

But when she was on the Council, Lee was noted for her ability to speak out on behalf of people in a way that was tough and that sometimes made others feel uncomfortable.

One man has since told Lee that he didn’t vote for her because he thought she was too outspoken. But he said in hindsight he missed her voice and wishes he had voted differently.

Using one’s voice is the third concept in Lee’s power kit. She’s proud that all of the young men she has helped to raise know how to use their voices. She has two college-aged sons, two stepsons, and is mom/guardian/caretaker to a 16-year-old brother-in-law. Her 25- and 22-year-old sons, in fact, are more politically involved than she expected them to be. “I’ve taught all of my kids to know that they have a voice, and to never let it go silent. They’re all great orators who can debate anyone.”

She continues to field calls from people who are speaking out on issues and want to get her view on wording. “So my voice is out there,” she says with a wink, “it’s just not coming from me. My body might be gone, but I still have influence.”

The power of one
It’s easy to see that Lee is enjoying her life now. “I enjoyed it as a councilwoman too. But I’m in a different season. Being in office didn’t make me who I was. I held a position to serve people in an official capacity, but I still serve the public out of office. Most definitely.”

Lee is always optimistic about the future of political action, especially among independent-minded candidates. She won’t name names, but Lee is clear that women are re-powering.

“As long as there are people willing to engage, to run, there is still hope,” she says. “No one ever sees the impact of one individual’s power until later. It doesn’t take a collective movement. One person can make change happen. And I think you’re going to see some really dynamic individuals emerging locally, and nationally, in the next few years.”

One of them might even be Lee.