Alumni Profiles

Nicole Lee

Mission of social activism proves a personal calling for TransAfrica Forum leader

Lee close-up
UB degrees JD ’02 & BA history ’00; Life-changing profs Susan Kahn for the context her history classes provided, Alexis De Veaux for the excellence she demanded, Makau Mutua for his extraordinary support; Advice to younger staff “For those of us who are trying to make a difference in the world, we have to be excellent; it’s not a choice.”

Some people dream about making a difference in the world. Others get off the couch and do it. Nicole Lee, 31, is executive director of TransAfrica Forum, an international organization that promotes human rights and social justice for people of African descent. In the year since she was appointed—both the youngest and the first woman ever to hold that position—Lee has made it her job to make a difference.

“This is not something you do ‘just because’—it’s definitely a calling,” Lee says. “It takes up an unbearable amount of time.”

When the sun comes up, Lee is already answering e-mail. Once in her Washington, DC, office, she meets with members of Congress, ministers and TransAfrica partners and does at least one TV or radio interview. “Last week, I did eight interviews on six subjects,” says Lee, “from Darfur to debt to the leadership in black America.” It is often 10 p.m. before she calls it a day.

Lee knew what she was getting into. She’d been involved in the field for several years, including working for the HIV/AIDS advocacy group Global Justice and interviewing victims of human rights abuse in Haiti. She joined TransAfrica as chief financial officer in 2005.

Now in its 30th year, TransAfrica is committed to influencing U.S. foreign policy in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. It has been credited with helping to end apartheid in South Africa. With Danny Glover as chair, and Harry Belafonte and Chuck D as board members, its opinions tend to be heard. But as Lee emphasizes, those opinions come directly from the people they are trying to help. “It’s imperative to be on the ground and ask people what they think,” she says. “And since U.S. policy affects every single corner of the planet, it’s not difficult to find people to tell us what’s important to them.”

Lee spends about 10 days each month on the road, meeting with activists from Los Angeles to Nairobi. In the past year, she has focused on educating lawmakers and the public on the dangers of further militarization in Africa, as well as on some of the unintentionally negative effects of our government’s war on drugs.

Though she finds her work invigorating, Lee recognizes the potential for burnout. She makes time for herself and her husband, Marc Bayard, on the weekends. And a sense of humor? Well, for someone who has dreamed of being a human rights lawyer since the age of 12, that’s not really a priority: “The issues are life and death,” Lee says quietly.

Story by Clare O’Shea, MA ’87 & BA ’84, with photo by James Kegley