Alencia Johnson

We're both Virginia girls. What led you to the New York?

In 2012, I interviewed to serve on President Obama’s reelection campaign. A month later they told me I got the job and they wanted me to move to Chicago in a week, which meant living away from my home base for the first time. After Obama won another term, I thought "Oh, I'm going to get a job in the administration or on The Hill," but with reelection, people don’t leave. I pretty much helped my friends keep their jobs and I was jobless. A friend passed along my resume for an open position at Planned Parenthood. I'd never had to rely on them because I always had heath insurance, but realized that was a privilege. For the second round of interviews, they brought me to New York. After, a good friend of mine walked with me down 7th Avenue and said "The difference between New York and D.C. is that you could also follow your personal dreams here. You could continue to do the political communications work, but you can also expand your portfolio and yourself without being beholden to that world." While I never thought I would move to New York, I was 25 at the time I received the offer and thought why not spend my 20s taking this opportunity, challenging myself and facing my fears. Five years later, I'm still here and grateful I made that decision because I couldn't have even dreamed of where my life has gone. I know a lot of that is because I took a leap of faith and moved to New York.

Why did you decide to settle in Harlem?

I picked Harlem because I wanted to be reminded every single day of Black women and girls and what I'm fighting for at Planned Parenthood. I also remember studying the Harlem Renaissance in high school and college and wanted to be a part of the history that's in the community. One of my favorite books, Invisible Man, was set in Harlem and I wanted to be connected to all of that as well.

How has being a New Yorker impacted you? 

I am progressive and political, but it is great to get out of D.C. to do D.C. work. The climate is very pretentious. In New York, everybody is somebody in a way that levels the playing field from my vantage point. Being here exposed me to power and influence in different industries, but so often its quiet in that the person no one knows is who people should be clamoring to speak to. Also, I've learned how to network differently and more authentically. I have become more of a relationship builder versus looking at relationships as transactional. When it comes to other New Yorkers, you build relationships because it's almost like you survived something together. I tell people all the time, every single day you walk out the door in the city, it is a battle. But the energy just reminds you to hustle harder and strive for more.

You have been at Planned Parenthood for five years, what some would say is a long time for a Millennial. What has driven your decision to bloom where planted?

I think there is an inside and outside strategy to moving the needle. I decided early on the best place for my disruption is internally while others are activists in the streets. When addressing women's healthcare and reproductive rights, many think of middle aged white women when those who are dying are those left at the margins: women of color, transpeople, young people, low income folks and people in rural areas. However, there was no campaign to speak to them specifically. A large part of the reason I'm still at Planned Parenthood is because I was able to create the department I previously worked for, Constituency Communications, about a year and a half in to my time at the organization. I was recently promoted to Director of Public Engagement. I’ll be engaging political, media, social justice, entertainment and corporate influencers to shift public opinion and influence culture change among perceptions of reproductive rights, particularly among communities of color as well as young people. 
I will be honest. I did second guess why I was staying at the organization for so long. A friend helped me see there is mobility, visibility and the ability to create a structure that is needed to do our best work but also connect that with my skills and gifts to achieve the larger purpose to change peoples’ lives.


Can you share the process of creating the Constituency Communications department?

I was focusing on Black media and promoted to assistant director with a larger scope of work but no team and no budget. At the same time, one of my colleagues was focusing on Latino media. There was a huge portfolio of work that only her and I touched on the media team, so I asked "why don't we do this together?" She thought it was a good idea, so we both wrote out a job description of our dream role and pitched a broader department where I would be the director and she'd be assistant director then we would have fellows and coordinators reporting to us. Through favor and also understanding how to prepare presentations that actually show the value of investing in specific communities, the department was created in 2016.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in your work?

Not getting sidetracked by gaps in other spaces of work I know I could fill and instead, staying focused on the plan in front of me. There's so much to be done to bring equity to communities that have not had it, particularly Black communities, but I’m learning not to bite off more than I can chew. Rather that than the hard lessons of distraction and not taking care of myself.

Since you climbed the ladder swiftly at Planned Parenthood, I imagine some of your contemporaries are more seasoned than you. What are some tactics that you apply to navigate the age differences you encounter on a daily basis?

Ageism is real, but I don't shy away from being young. There’s a scripture that talks about not letting people put you down because you are young and it really resonates with me. There is an innocence we have as children and I don't think our optimism is broken until later in life after we gain experiences, so why wouldn't we invest in young leadership? I am constantly reminding folks the leaders of these great movements that changed the course of history were in the 20s and 30s. Dr. King was only 39 when he was killed. My mother is one of my best friends and she is a model of a leader that I look up to. She proved to me there are folks who are not intimidated by young folks or sitting up there and saying "Oh no. Wait your turn." One approach I try is to respect wisdom and challenge it with a new idea. Position it as elevating with fresh thought, optimism and the willpower to bring about change in an innovative way.

What is the proudest moment that you have experienced thus far in your career?

When I took my mother with me to the Ebony Power 100 after making the list a few years ago. I was able to honor her as the reason I was there.

What’s on the horizon for you?

Professionally, it's about walking boldly. This new role is something I've been fighting for, but now that it's here I'm wondering if I am ready or prepared for it. Walking into the role, there is already a big project that some of our very influential stakeholders certainly want me to take on. I'm opening myself up to the challenge, but I'm also prioritizing self-care. It's more than a manicure and a massage. It's actually doing the work to enhance your life and doing the things that bring you joy. I'm being very intentional about where I'm traveling and the things that I'm agreeing to do so I can be there for my loved ones and have new experiences. Through it all, I have to be open to what is possible through God. I could have never imagined I would be here a year ago, let alone five years ago.

How do you stay motivated as you strive to achieve your goals?

As mentioned earlier, living in Harlem and walking past black women and girls is that reminder. I also am very committed to my therapy sessions and have started acupuncture as well. I am focused on trying to destress. but also dealing with the emotions and learning more about myself.

I have a great support system with my family and friends who remind me of who I am and what I've been called to do, and I do the same for them. I had a few health challenges during the first two months of the year that had me off the road for a little bit. It's okay to say no. The work will get done or it won't get done. There are so many Black activists that are dying early because of stress-related illnesses. That is not how this works is supposed to end. Do not apologize for putting yourself first. Also, if your support system does not support you putting yourself first. then they're not your people.