Alexis McGill Johnson Is Making Her Mark on Planned Parenthood

The president and CEO's life has prepared her to lead the reproductive health organization at a crucial time.

7/21/2021 8:40:00 PM

“My job is to think about how I can use Planned Parenthood’s power and influence differently,” PPact president and CEO alexismcgill says. “How do I create a framework that is going to be expansive and inclusive?'

The president and CEO's life has prepared her to lead the reproductive health organization at a crucial time.

to discuss the procedures.McGill Johnson emerged from the wings in the midst of the chaos as a steady and trusted presence after a decade as a board member, including two years as chair. “When Planned Parenthood had their trouble, I was really relieved when Alexis took over,” says Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. So much so that he asked her to stick around. “When she was acting president, I called her and I said, ‘We both love this organization. You’re needed to stay.’ And I felt so good when she agreed,” Schumer tells me. “She’s smart, politically savvy, she’s such a pleasure to work with, she’s great at grassroots organizing—she’s got it all. I think she’s a fabulous head of Planned Parenthood at a very important time.”

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You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others, and McGill Johnson knew in order for Planned Parenthood to stand strong for their patients in the face of external threats—namely the record number of abortion restrictions working their way through state legislatures and a Supreme Court decision that will almost certainly put the final nail in

Roe v. Wade’s coffin next year—she would first have to dig deep into the roots of the organization’s problems. “What does it mean to show up unapologetically for your staff? To be able to say, ‘We’re going to talk about race, about intersectionality, about Margaret Sanger?’” McGill Johnson says. “We are going to do the things that we have always known are central to our work and our mission, but we thought we had to organize the support first in order to get them done. Nope. We are free. We’re going to do them right now. We are going to make a big bet on equity. It’s our moonshot, really. We’re going to make that bet on ourselves. Yes, there is potential for fallout, but if we truly believe addressing issues of systemic discrimination and racism in the movement is critical, then we’re going to put our money where our mouth is and do it.”

McGill Johnson was named president and CEO at Planned Parenthood on June 26, 2020, after serving as the organization's interim leader for a year.The Tyler TwinsMcGill Johnson has been inadvertently preparing for the work that lies ahead of her now for her entire life. She was born Lori Alexis McGill in August 1972 (“I’m a Leo,” she is sure to add, in true Leo form), in Morristown, New Jersey, the city her grandmother landed in after Baltimore. Her mother, Kay, was born there, too, while her father was born and raised in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. “Literally

In the Heights—so if you watch how beautiful that movie is, that’s exactly what it felt like going to my grandmother’s every Sunday,” McGill Johnson says.Both her parents are Black. McGill Johnson calls herself “a movement baby,” and says her mother, who instilled a “fierce fighting spirit” in her, was a worker by day and an organizer by night and “so radical for her time.” At age 17, her mother started as a secretary at AT&T Bell Laboratories. “That was the best she could do,” McGill Johnson says. “Even though she was top of her class, the guidance counselor was like, ‘You should go and become a secretary.’” But she didn’t stop there—her mother worked her way up over 40 years, ultimately becoming the company’s VP of human resources. She also paid her husband’s way through medical school; he is now a urologist.

Her parents divorced in the 2000s, and she isn’t close with her dad. But McGill Johnson is clearly marked by the women who raised her, talking often of her grandmother and her mother, who she says left the “strongest imprint” on her and her three sisters—all of whom have left New Jersey for Georgia over the years. (“One day I woke up and Thanksgiving was a flight instead of a drive across the bridge,” she says.)

McGill Johnson at age 4, 1976.CourtesyWhen McGill Johnson was in high school, Condoleezza Rice, who at the time was a national security advisor in the George H. W. Bush administration, “was on TV every day, talking about Gorbachev, and the fall of the Soviet Union.” She was obsessed, watching Rice every chance she got and one of her mentors, an uncle-like figure, told her, “You know, that could be you. You’re really good at arguing. You’re really good at making a case. And I really see you being like her.” “At the time, I didn’t have language for what representation meant,” McGill Johnson says. “But seeing her redefined what an expert is and to me that was extraordinary.”

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After graduation, she enrolled at Princeton in 1989, majoring in politics and Latin American studies and spending a year in Colombia learning how to organize. “We would take classes by morning which could range from learning how to shoot a gun—you’re in Colombia, you never know what you need to do—to learning how to have a persuasive conversation with your neighbor,” McGill Johnson says. After an afternoon siesta, she and her fellow scholars would go into the “pirate barrios”—neighborhoods where residents had to pirate electricity because they were not fully incorporated into the city. “We would help community members connect the dots between what they needed to formally become part of the city, but also in so doing, help them understand who was advocating for them.”

She wrote her senior thesis on political incorporation in Colombia and it caught the eye of none other than Condoleezza Rice, who at the time was serving as the director of Graduate Studies at Stanford University, one of six or seven graduate schools where McGill Johnson had applied. “It was a full circle moment,” McGill Johnson says. “Condoleezza was recruiting me into the program and it was a moment where I was able to say, ‘I can’t tell you what it means to me as a Black woman that you are the one who called me to say I’m worthy, that I am deserving, and that a school like Stanford would be interested in continuing my career.’ I was a kind of a stalker, like, ‘I’ve seen you on TV for the last 10 years,’ but in essence what I was saying was, ‘Your representation really, really mattered to me and it’s why I’m here and why I’m doing this work.’”

McGill Johnson and Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, 2008.CourtesyMcGill Johnson ultimately chose to attend Yale University—she wanted to work with a particular professor there—and began teaching during her second semester in 1994. Standing at the front of the class on the first day of Intro to Black Politics, she was terribly nervous and, on a whim, blurted out a whole new identity for herself.

Until then, she had always gone by her first name, Lori. “I had never taught before and they just threw me into the water and I felt like I needed to stand on something, to differentiate myself,” McGill Johnson explains, adding that because she skipped a grade as a child, she was barely older than many of her students. “So kind of like Sasha Fierce is to Beyonce, I introduced myself as ‘Alexis McGill’ and it just became who I was,” she says. (“I had Alexis before Beyonce had Sasha, just saying,” she adds.)

She earned her masters in 1996, and stayed in academia for a handful of years, teaching at both Yale and Wesleyan University. One of the theories she taught in her Black politics course was the potential power in organizing young people of color. “It was about recognizing the fact that every Tuesday, the record industry used to turn out people in person at Virgin or Tower records to buy a record. It was very systematic because the Billboard results came out on Wednesday,” McGill Johnson explains, referring to the industry’s efforts to raise an album’s place on the pop charts. “So I just had this idea that if we could organize the hip hop generation to come on a Tuesday—election day—we could completely transform and take back power.”

One day McGill Johnson happened to be sitting around a kitchen table at a friend’s house with Andre Harrell, the late founder of Uptown Records, who gave Sean “Diddy” Combs his start. “I told him what I thought we needed to do to organize the hip hop generation and he gave me his blessing and connected me to the community,” McGill Johnson says. She served as political director for Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and then became executive director of Citizen Change, where along with Puff Daddy, she launched the 2004 Vote or Die campaign, which worked with local influencers like barbers, stylists, club promoters, and DJs to turn out new voters.

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“She’s a kingmaker, but she’s not pressed about being the king.”That McGill Johnson would find herself in the right rooms with the right people at the right time many times throughout her life is no accident. “I often turn to her for introductions because she’s very good at maintaining relationships,” says Melissa Harris Perry, professor and media host, who has known McGill Johnson for roughly two decades. She says she and McGill Johnson met because they were “absolute contemporaries and there’s just not a lot of Black girls doing that kind of work,” and that she’s a great texter. “I’ll say, ‘Alexis, can you introduce me…’ and she is always able to do it.” McGill Johnson’s networking is not ego driven, though: “She’s not a person who needs some kind of title,” Harris Perry says. “She’s a kingmaker, but she’s not pressed about being the king.”

She says what she admires most is McGill Johnson’s political savvy. “What I mean is, Alexis is able to be in rooms with people who I would make faces at, yell at, and walk out on,” Harris Perry says. “And not only can she be in rooms with them, but she can often work with them in really productive ways.” Pointing to McGill Johnson’s work with music industry titans, “On the one hand, I get it, it’s kind of cool, but you’re also dealing with a lot of sexism coming at you at all times. Sometimes I’m like, ‘How are you around these people’” Harris Perry says. “But Alexis understood the power of positionality and of that group relative to young people who needed to be brought into the political system. ... It’s a particular kind of skill to go into places that have a long history of being a little angst filled toward Black women and actually be able to do good work.”

The next chapter of McGill Johnson’s career began in 2008, the night then-Senator Barack Obama gave his now famous race speech, “A More Perfect Union” in Philadelphia. “Something just clicked for a lot of us around the ways an Obama presidency would challenge the way we grappled with issues of systemic racism,” McGill Johnson says.

“It’s a particular kind of skill to go into places that have a long history of being a little angst filled toward Black women and actually be able to do good work,” says Melissa Harris Perry.The Tyler Twins Read more: ELLE Magazine (US) »

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PPact alexismcgill PPH when I was young was the only place young girls could go to get education on our health and i even had my own daughter go to get her first pap smear and learn about contraception. Please keep strong and carry on!! Woman need PPH!

Alexis McGill Johnson Is Making Her Mark on Planned Parenthood“My job is to think about how I can use Planned Parenthood’s power and influence differently,” PPact president and CEO alexismcgill says. “How do I create a framework that is going to be expansive and inclusive?'

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