Reneé Johnson’s On A Mission To Get More Women Of Color Into Politics
This is part of a series of profiles I’m writing on black women in leadership this February in honor of Black History Month.
Renée Johnson is the National Training Director for the United State of Women, an initiative started in 2016 by the White House Council on Women and Girls. Last June, they launched by hosting the first-ever “United State of Women Summit,” which made headlines and sparked conversations about gender equality across the world. Over 5,000 experts, advocates, and business leaders (myself included!) gathered to take part in the first summit of this magnitude in American history.
But before Johnson was helping other women break into this traditionally male-dominated industry, she started her career serving in government herself.
I caught up with Johnson in the days following the historic Women’s March on Washington to hear more about her ambitious plans for reshaping the political landscape ahead and to learn how her own career pivot put her in a prime position to follow her passion and change the game for women following her path into government.
Emilie Aries: So tell me first about your role with the United State of Women (USOW). What are you focused on this year?
Reneé Johnson: Sure. The USOW is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that emerged from the the White House Council on Women and Girls 2016 United State of Women to serve as a megaphone for the gender equality movement. We’re focused on giving the next generation of women in politics the tools needed to get more involved in civic life and championing the causes they care about. As the National Training Director, I’m excited to be teaming up with partners like you at Bossed Up to bring local programming and development resources to women across the country in 2017.
Aries: As someone who got their start in government, helping get more women into the political pipeline must feel like your career is coming full circle, right?
Johnson: Exactly. I’m honored to be serving in this role, but it’s actually quite a pivot away from my career as a government official focused on legislation and policy.
Aries: Interesting. Tell me how you first got started in government.
Johnson: I was 25 years old when I first joined a House office on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide. I had already finished my BA and master’s degree, and was concurrently working on a third degree when I started this job. It wasn’t easy, and I honestly believe that because so many people of color have been told we need to be twice as prepared to get half as far, I pursued a ton of higher education — perhaps more than I needed.
Soon after I started on the House side I was offered a position in the upper chamber (a Senate Office), and realized that I was the only woman of color in the office. I was constantly reminded of my minority status in a sea of faces that were not similar to my own in the capitol building. Although I lived in Baltimore, I needed to be in at 7 am every day to make coffee for the rest of the office, and part of my job somehow included bringing fresh fruit for a weekly breakfast. I worked diligently and always looked for opportunities to prove myself worthy, but I still felt like an outsider. It also broke my spirit when a senior staff member once told me I’d been hired especially because I was black but “sounded white” on the phone. They honestly believed they were giving me a compliment.
Aries: Are you kidding me?
Johnson: Nope. When I transferred offices to work for a Member of color, the staff was certainly more welcoming and diverse, but the office leadership were all white. The Senator himself wasn’t even fully aware of the way staff were treated until one day I was driving him to an event and he asked me how much I made, since he saw how much I was hustling for him. I told him — $28,000 a year — and he was horrified. Only then did he call for a full review of compensation across the office, which he learned was extremely top-heavy. My pay more than doubled as a result.
Aries: Wow, that’s excellent. But how sad that things weren’t more transparent to him to begin with. Did you gain confidence through that move?
Johnson: Yes, absolutely. And I was supported by many women of color in both the House and Senate who saw me struggling along, too. They empathized and wanted to help me hustle smarter — not harder.
Aries: What did that look like, exactly?
Johnson: Well, these mentors took me under their wing and helped me get clear on my long-term career goals, which then better informed how I spent my time. During these early years I was living in Baltimore because I couldn’t afford to live in D.C., so my commute plus the pressure of hitting up every single networking opportunity left me depleted. Plus, I had a few family crises that were pulling at me: my mom had two knee replacements and my father suffered a stroke during those first few years on Capitol Hill.
Because this handful of key women took an interest in my development, I got clear on my end game, started to network more strategically and learned how to feel confident that I belonged in these halls of power — even when I was the only woman of color in the room.
Aries: That’s great to hear. Everyone needs mentors and sponsors to help level up – especially early on in your career.
Johnson: True that. And uniting with other women of color reminded me why I care so much about legislation to begin with: most government policy disproportionately affects the communities of color I come from, more so than the people of privilege who are shaping it. Too often we’re not given a seat at the table — we have to take it.
Aries: Is that why you were drawn to the United State of Women? How did you end up leaving government to pivot into a training role there?
Johnson: Right. This job isn’t even close to legislative work, but I feel like your passion will always shine through. I’ve never been a training director before, but I knew I could learn. When I heard about the opportunity, I felt like it was meant for me — so I went for it. We tell ourselves all the reasons why we can’t possibly go for it too often, instead of focusing on all the reasons we can.
Aries: Totally. After all, research shows that we women more often report feeling the effects of The Impostor Syndrome — that sneaking suspicion that we’re not qualified or deserving of success. But it can be hard to tell the difference between self-doubt and an actual lack of experience though, can’t it?
Johnson: I like to ask myself W.W.B.D. or What Would Bob Do? My “Bob” is an average white guy, with even less skills and education than I have. Would he go for it? Because if Bob can go for it, why can’t I?
Aries: Hah! I love it.
Johnson: And let me be real: it’s not going to be easy, but it’s so worth your happiness. When I applied, I made it clear how my past experiences and passion for this mission made me an ideal candidate for this role, and I was confident that I could learn what I needed in order to be successful.
The women I work with at the USOW inspire me every day. They’re about the work. They’re about results. And they’re inclusive. They know that we’re better together. I feel as a woman of color that we need to make sure our voices are included and make sure we have a seat at the table. Here at the USOW, I’m honored to be a part of this effort for the advancement of all women.
Want to hear more from Reneé about how you can make your voice heard this year? Catch this webinar we recently co-hosted on how you can hone your advocacy on behalf of all women this year: