Tabby Biddle speaks with Natasha Johnson, the founder of Globalizing Gender about her mission to create more ways to prevent gender-based violence and help survivors physically and mentally regain their dignity after the fact.
For nearly two decades, Natasha Johnson has been an academic, attorney, artist and activist working toward gender justice. In 2015, she founded Globalizing Gender, a non-profit organization committed to educating, preventing, and reforming gender-based violence through capacity building, rule of law, governance, and awareness. Three years later, Natasha organized New York City’s inaugural march to end female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) in the United States and is currently contributing to New York City’s first holistic FGM/C legislation.
As an artist, Natasha curates public forums and creates editorial-styled work that critiques and raises awareness of gender-based violence. As an academic, Natasha has served as Director of Academic Programs and assistant professor at Metropolitan College in New York City, adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s College and Adelphi University, and Director of Academic Support at Medgar Evers College. Natasha earned her Juris Doctorate from CUNY School of Law, her yoga certification from Breathe for Change, and her Bachelor’s Degree from Columbia University.
Tabby Biddle: I define voice in a broad way – how a woman expresses herself no matter what the medium or mode. How would you describe where you are right now with your voice?
Natasha Johnson: I’m just getting comfortable with how mine sounds. I’m just starting to get familiar with how she reverberates. She speaks before I even know that she’s going say something. I’m often like, Oh, that’s what we’re doing? That’s what we’re saying? We’re saying that here in front of everybody? I am starting to at least prepare myself for those things.
I don’t mean to sound like it’s an alter ego, or some sort of out of body experience. But I’ve always led by passion. I’ve always been led by a deeper calling than what occurs as the traditional way to get to something, or to get to some place. I’ve often been led by things that have been less clear for me, which means that oftentimes, I find myself there, after the fact, because I raised my hand, or I yelled something out impulsively. Or, I showed up at a place because it felt like the right place to be.
Tabby: Has this evolved over time?
Natasha: I’m now much more familiar with where and when she’s probably going to say something. I am much more welcoming of when she’s going to say it, and what she’s going to say. It allows for me to be a firmer stand for her as she harkens up the courage and pushes out her chest to do so. Whereas before, while there was always a foundation, the tripod was a little more shaky.
If you’ve ever looked at my Facebook cover page, it reads “Speak the truth, even if your voice cracks,” because that’s where I found myself historically. Saying it before I have even cleared my voice to say it. I think my voice now is in a place where she is tuning up for the mics. She’s adjusting her life and building her own stages if the stages are not already available to her. I’m leaning in more comfortably into that space, getting out of her way, and giving her the room to be able to do it.
“I don’t speak up because I feel comfortable. I speak up because I feel like it’s necessary. I’ve never felt like I’ve spoken in places where people actually wanted to hear what I had to say. Because if they did, I wouldn’t have to say it.”
Tabby: Where do you feel most natural and most powerful leading?
Natasha: My default is to say, always behind the scenes, because I’m a very good organizer and very good at strategizing. I’m very good at pulling people together and thinking about the things that we may have missed or forgotten, and closing up those loops. I also think that’s probably just where my comfort zone is, because it means less eyes on me. There’s also a little bit more room for there to be error — harkening to this unreal place of perfectionism. There’s a level of comfort there, like if you need to clean something up or fix something, and particularly because of the work that you and I are doing, the stakes are very high. So you don’t want to make an error. You feel like there’s very little room for that. But the reality is that it’s just not real. The reality is that more times than not, I probably should be more in the forefront. This is why I think my voice is often doing the job for me before the rest of my body and soul is ready to do it, which is why I’m often blurting things out.
Tabby: Can you say more about how you should probably be more in the forefront?
Natasha: I think that at different times, I may be better positioned in different places. Moreover, I’m also very comfortable with the idea now that because of different issues, different needs, and different places that we may be working on, we also just may need to play different roles. I’m much more comfortable, and amenable to the idea of having that immense amount of flexibility, and getting to the call of the day and getting the work done. If that means today, I need to be the person at the forefront because it makes more sense, then so be it. And if tomorrow, it means all I’m doing is folding chairs, that’s okay, too, because that too, is equally as important for the movement.
“I can pretty much guarantee that when I walked into the courtroom, judges didn’t want to hear what I had to say. I was advocating for the safety and the freedom of specifically Black women, immigrant African women who were experiencing domestic violence.”
Tabby: Let’s go back to your voice, which of course is an important part of your leadership. Where do you feel most natural and most powerful, using your voice?
Natasha: I don’t think I’ve ever felt that Tabby. I don’t speak up because I feel comfortable. I speak up because I feel like it’s necessary. I’ve never felt like I’ve spoken in places where people actually wanted to hear what I had to say. Because if they did, I wouldn’t have to say it. Like if the thing was already happening — if the issue had already been taken care of, if the wrong had already been righted and corrected — I wouldn’t be speaking. Left to my own devices, I’m happy to make flower arrangements and figure out how to make a cookie design or whatever it is.
Tabby: Tell me more about that.
Natasha: I feel like my day-to-day work is pulling me away from where I would actually be if we were really in an environment where all these things were already taken care of. I feel like as a woman of color, as a woman who identifies as Black, who identifies as queer, who identifies as youthful, who identifies as poor, who identifies from all of these places that have historically been marginalized, and where there hasn’t been a history of rhetoric where you’ve been trained to be an orator, or really to even think that there’s a need for that, because somebody cares about what it is that you have to say. I don’t think in any of those places, including the courtroom where I was trained as an attorney, that they wanted to hear what I have to say.
I can pretty much guarantee that when I walked into the courtroom, judges didn’t want to hear what I had to say. I was advocating for the safety and the freedom of specifically Black women, immigrant African women who were experiencing domestic violence. I have on the record many times when they did not want to hear what I had to say. And I had to remind them that they were on the record and that I could definitely use what was on the record, if we needed to appeal.
Tabby: That’s powerful and chilling.
Natasha: I just don’t know that there has ever been a place where I’ve had a feeling of belonging, or that there was a space made for me. That’s how most of the spaces are — including the ones that arguably identify as equitable or as a place of DEI, which I struggle to say. I often want to say DIE, because I die a little bit inside each time.
Tabby: I get that.
Natasha: I think more importantly about the people who need to hear it, and the people who don’t have the opportunity to say what they need to have said. I think about my mom, and my grandmothers, and my great grandmothers and what they’ve endured, knowing that, if they had had the opportunity, they definitely would have said something. So, every time I think that I don’t want to say something, I think about the fact that they were not able to. And I speak up anyway.
Tabby: That’s beautiful. It brings up a question I want to ask you about your female lineage and ancestors since so many women’s stories and voices — particularly women of color — have been omitted from the history books. Today there’s a growing movement to reclaim those stories and bring forth the legacy of these women. How much do you know about your female lineage, and how do you know it?
Natasha: That’s such a hard question, particularly as a Black person who was born in America, because historically the powers that be and people of whiteness were incredibly intentional about making sure that Black people, and even to some degree, Indigenous people were not connected to our lineage. So it’s a little bit piecemeal. There are certain family lines where between myself and some other dedicated cousins and family members who have had the time availability and also money – it’s incredibly expensive to track down your lineage — we know some.
It’s also because people of color can’t really depend on the biographic engines like 23andMe and Ancestry because those pools are still incredibly narrow and inclusive of people of whiteness. So we get very little information. It’ll say we’re from West Africa. That part we pretty much figured out. Thank you for your $49.99.
Natasha: So there’s very little on certain family lines, and then in some others, I’ve been able to find more. My paternal aunt has been able to track down our family up until about the 1850s on that line. So I know the name of my great-great grandparents. They are named Profit and July, which I think is just such a cool f***ing combination of names. I’m like, how did you guys find each other? I’ve already romanticized it, and very much hope that they weren’t forced and enslaved and that’s why they partnered. But in my head, they met and they were like, We got cool names. We’re in South Carolina. Let’s do this. I am actually working on a yoga line that’s more inclusive and it’s named Profit and July.
Tabby: That’s sounds exciting. Tell me more about the yoga line.
Natasha: It’s a yoga mat line that will be inclusive. It’ll be extra long and extra wide so that everyone’s bodies can feel held when they are in that practice. I named it after them.
Tabby: Is there any more you know about your family lines?
Natasha: There’s this one family line — my maternal mother’s line — my grandmother Juanita’s line where I know a lot less. From what I know about my grandmother (she was alive when I was younger), she was a rebel. And that’s partly why we know very little about her because she was excommunicated from the community because she chose to live a very different lifestyle in the 1930s and 40s, and 50s.
She’s from a rural North Carolina town, and she took few prisoners. There’s a part of me that thinks, sometimes she speaks through me. I like to think that. But you know, something as simple as her birthday, we don’t know. Some of us think it’s in September. Some of us think it’s in August. We’re not exactly sure when she was born. The breakdowns of lineage and its impact generationally are incredibly recent, and those fractures are very real. So I know little, but I hold on to the things that I do know.
“I lead from a place of curiosity. “How can we be doing this differently? How can we be doing this better? What are we not doing right? What are we doing well? How is it landing?”
Natasha: I’m right now in touch with cousins and family members who have done more work, because I want to know all that they know. There are so many family lines, it’s actually overwhelming because there just isn’t one straight path there. While I’m pleased to think that there are so many people who I could identify as family, it’s also overwhelming when I start to think about it. I mean, I have one aunt who had 21 children, and one of her daughters had 11 children. The names I do know are Easter, Excelina, Henry Sr., and my immediate grandparents Juanita and Henry Jr. I’ve jokingly said anyone who’s African American, I just shouldn’t date because they’re probably my relatives. And that’s a little bit of a joke, but it’s also a little bit true.
Tabby: It seems like you have a lot of female lineage power behind you. I like what you said about how you feel your grandmother is speaking through you. Going back to leadership, how would you describe yourself as a leader and what do you value in leadership?
Natasha: I came into leadership very happenstance. I don’t know that I’ve ever wanted to be the person responsible. I just am a responsible person. I have inherently been that way since I was a child. One time, I saw someone take someone’s pencil and I was like, Oh my god, that’s so horrible. How will they write in class? And you know, that person sat there kind of cowardice, and I was like, Go get your pencil back. And when they didn’t do anything, I was like, Fine, I’ll go get it. And I just went and took their pencil and gave it back to them. Then I was like, Now you need to tell the teacher.
I say that to say that I’ve always felt required to do those things that haven’t necessarily been because I’ve wanted to, but because they’ve needed to be done. Being in a position of leadership comes with a great amount of responsibility. I went to junior high school here in Brooklyn called Phillippa Schuyler for the Gifted and Talented. They use a Bible quote as their mantra, but it’s something that resonates very much for me. It says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” That stayed with me. I think that’s a place where my leadership lives. That in combination with what Shirley Chisholm says,“Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” My leadership lives in that space where I show up because it’s the necessary thing to do, and because it happens to be the environment where I think I can make contribution.
“Hopefully, I’m allowing people to step into a place of bigness for themselves. Hopefully, I’m leading from a place where they feel secure enough to be able to try things, but also know that I have them when they need me.”
Tabby: Is there anything more you want to say about your leadership?
Natasha: I also am a person who now recognizes that there needs to be restoration as well. And so I show up in places where I think I can be a contribution, but also, if necessary, a place where I can get contributed to. It doesn’t have to be a tit for tat, but for there to be the possibility for that to be able to exist is important to me.
Also, I lead from a place of abundance. I don’t lead from a place of scarcity. I think oftentimes leaders lead from a place where they are in these traditional top-down models, and that’s their approach to how they lead. They lead from a place of inferiority, and from a place of distress. They lead from a place of uncertainty, and from a place of wanting to hold on to their privilege and their access. They lead from a place of lack of creativity. Those are the places where I step away from as many times as possible.
Tabby: What’s it like working with a team?
Natasha: If I’m working with folx, they have to be on that team for a reason. They have to already come with a band of expertise and resources and experience, and I need for them to know stuff I don’t know. I especially need for them to do stuff that I don’t know so that that way we can get it all done. I lead from a place of curiosity: How can we be doing this differently? How can we be doing this better? What are we not doing right? What are we doing well? How is it landing? What are other people doing? How should we be working with them? Should we be working with them?
Hopefully, I’m allowing people to step into a place of bigness for themselves. Hopefully, I’m leading from a place where they feel secure enough to be able to try things, but also know that I have them when they need me. This way they can create something that we would have never been able to do on our own. Because if we could do it by ourselves, we wouldn’t need to operate in this way.
“For me, it’s imperative to operate from a place of transformation. My hope is that the people who encounter me are different thereafter. And my hope is that I’m different after I’ve encountered them.”
Natasha: It’s also imperative for me to lead from a place of transparency, and reciprocity. I think that there oftentimes is not enough information that’s shared. It starts at the top and then other people are left to scurry around and figure out what they think is happening or why they think it’s happening. That just breeds insecurity, particularly in the spaces where I operate around social justice, racial injustice, and gender injustice. These are communities that have already been fractured. They’ve already been violative.
That’s where I try to operate from. It’s what I use as my anchor. I know it’s oftentimes very non-traditional. There are many organizations that say that’s the place where they operate from, but when I look at their programs, at their intentions, where their funding goes, and at their strategic plans, they often say something quite different.
Tabby: I want to talk now about your legacy. I was reading something recently from Cicely Tyson where she said, “Folks were always asking me what legacy I want to leave. What roots beneath my soil I most hope to outlive me.” Aside from celebrities and the rich and famous, women aren’t often asked to reflect on their legacy publicly. We’re changing that. In your biggest vision, Natasha, what do you vision as your feminine legacy?
Natasha: I’ve never really thought about this. It’s something that’s been implanted in my mind before and I’ve skirted past it, because I’ve always been able to deflect it. As you know, there’s always something more urgent to work on. As long as you’re doing the good work, your work will speak for itself has really been my solace. To think about a legacy, I guess I hope that whenever I’m no longer here, that wherever I’ve left, feels like there’s more space there than there was before. For someone else to step into those shoes. Something’s been cleared so that there’s a way for someone else.
“To think about a legacy, I guess I hope that whenever I’m no longer here, that wherever I’ve left, feels like there’s more space there than there was before.”
Tabby: That’s beautiful. What projects are you creating or working on now that you feel contribute to your legacy?
Natasha: Everything … and the yoga mats. The fact that these would be mats that are more inclusive, and that they aren’t one size fits all. If you need a little bit more width, this is the mat for you. If you need a little bit more length, this is the mat for you. If you need a little bit more of both of those, this is for you, so that you can actually create your own space as opposed to having it predefined. That seems very literal in that it’s a yoga mat. So what’s the big deal? I think that for some people, it’s an opportunity for them to start to assert where they need more space in other areas. Say what they haven’t said or haven’t spoken up about — what they haven’t given voice to. The fact that you have thousands of people around the globe on these mats — assuming that everybody fits on these things is kind of ridiculous. So, the thinking is that if you could apply your voice there, even on your one little mat — what would it look like for you to apply that to other things and in other areas of your life?
Tabby: I love the metaphor.
Natasha: Yes. The other place I think about legacy is my work around female genital mutilation and cutting here in the United States. We are at the brink of two great things. One is creating policy here in New York City that would require for there to be a female genital mutilation and cutting specific bill to live and work in the mayor’s office to combat and end gender-based violence here. That would be able to help develop and create counter criminal resources that would provide medical services, vaginal reconstruction (where possible), psychosocial and mental health services (individual and family), and community education for FGM/C survivors and their families. This would be the first of its kind in the United States if it passes. My hope would be that it would start to serve as model legislation for other jurisdictions that are also impacted by FGM/C in the United States. I don’t have to tell you, but the US is, by far one of the most antiquated nations with respect to legislation on this issue around the globe. And yet, we have half a million, at least, women and girls impacted by it here.
It’s been recorded in every state, with the exception of Hawaii. So there’s a reason why I’m excited about this legacy. And there are two other bills that have been written by two other council member, that if they pass, they, too, would make history requiring better services for all gender-based violence service providers in New York City to work with FGM/C specific-service delivery. The combination of those two hopefully would send a bright light and maybe even a wave throughout other jurisdictions and other sister organizations to really serve as a model that you can work from, and replicate and tweak it and see how it lands in your jurisdiction.
Tabby: This sounds groundbreaking. Is there anything else you want to share related to your legacy?
Natasha: My work with some IT professionals and tech professionals to create an FGM/C specific app. I’m pointing to my wrist because that’s where I see it living for people — on their watches. The app would be able to not only track this issue in real time, but also provide individual service delivery to folx at their own availability and in spaces where they feel the most safe and where they feel like they are at their best to be able to receive the services.
If that means just providing information. If that means actually having police intervening. If that means medical attention. If that means just asking a question so that you’re better informed, or providing mental health services — all of that could get provided for you on an app where, particularly for folx who are experiencing FGM/C, who might still be minors, just don’t have the ease to be able to phone up that 1-800 number or go to the most immediate hospital or service delivery space. This app would be able to really provide folx with some of those resources in a way that they would be able to best receive them, and hopefully in a way that’s most safe, particularly during COVID-19 when folx are still practicing shelter in place.
Tabby: There are many women who want to use their voice and their leadership more for social change social justice. What advice would you offer women who are trying to grow their impact or their influence on whatever their particular issue?
Natasha: I think the first thing is: say it even if it’s a whisper. You want to just get yourself in the practice of of being able to speak your truth. Then I think the other thing is to really start to ask yourself, What’s your purpose? What’s your goal or goals? Why is what you have to say necessary for people to hear? I think if people can anchor themselves in that, that will then help them figure out all of those other things like, what their strategies are, what their approaches are, who their audiences are, what they’re call to actions are and everything in between.
Also, it’s important to know that there isn’t necessarily always a right person or right time to practice using your voice. When I was organizing the march to raise awareness around female genital mutilation and cutting here in New York, I told everybody, including the coffee guy. My point is that you just don’t know where your voice is landing. We often aren’t actually aware of our impact on people. We don’t know who they know, we don’t know what their stories are. We don’t know what their fears are. We don’t know what their joys and their expectations are. So you don’t know who you’re landing on.
If you’re operating from a place of abundance, and you have something that needs to get said, it’s your place, it’s your business to share it. So even if it comes across as a whisper, be in communication. Then from those two places, you can operate and figure out all of the other pieces.
Tabby: That’s such great advice. Anything else you want to share about this?
Natasha: The system is flawed. There is so much to be done. While this is a sobering truth, don’t let that stop you from being involved, from being engaged, and from being enrolled in something. You don’t have to be able to fix everything. Mechanics can’t do heart transplants, but they do have a certain set of skills that are necessary and important and required at a particular time at a particular place.
Tabby: Do you have a call to action for the readers?
Natasha: My call to action for folx is to do some inventory on themselves, and on where they are in the world, what’s important to them, and what it would look like for them to use their skills to create a different kind of legacy. That would be a legacy that would be void of power, and instead vested in freedom and integrity. What would that look like? And what would you need to do then to be able to help create that? Whatever shows up for you now may be very different for you six months from now, because you have new information, new opportunities and new experiences. Give yourself that space to be able to get curious about yourself and where you are and what your role and what your impact can be.
Tabby: I love that call to action. Natasha, if you had a loudspeaker that could reach every woman around the world, what message would you want to impart?
Natasha: If you’ve thought about it, you’re ready for it.
Learn more about Natasha’s organization Globalizing Gender.
Natasha Johnson Doesn’t Speak Up Because She’s Comfortable first appeared on tabbybiddle.com.
Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed. works at the intersection of women’s leadership, feminine spirituality and social change. She is the co-founder of 50 Women Can Change the World in Media & Entertainment, the bestselling author of Find Your Voice: A Woman’s Call to Action, and an internationally celebrated women’s leadership coach, educator, strategist, and group facilitator for her unique approach to activating women’s leadership. Learn more.