Nkenge Harmon Johnson ’93

The head of the Urban League of Portland talks about keeping her perspective in Washington, D.C., returning to Catlin Gabel as a Trustee, and why it’s best to stop when the President is walking by

Interview by Ken DuBois

You came to Catlin Gabel for high school and graduated when you were sixteen. How did you know, as a pre-teen, that this was the right school for you?
I visited Catlin Gabel along with a number of other schools, and it was the one that interested me the most. I was good at school, but grades didn’t mean anything to me. At Catlin Gabel, they didn’t have grades, so I liked that idea. It was a small school but you had access to a lot of different kinds of activities. If something interested you, you could have a club of one at Catlin Gabel, and you could have a faculty adviser who would advise that club, which doesn’t happen at other schools. That was why I chose Catlin Gabel: anything that you could dream of, you could create.
But at the time I was getting ready for high school, I wasn’t really excited about school in general. My sophomore year of high school at Catlin Gabel, I told my parents I want to graduate, just get my GED and go to college. I was ready to just keep it moving. I had a lot of interests. I was in a lot of activities.

What were some of the activities that were important to you at the time?
In high school the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X was coming out, and Lloyd Center Cinemas refused to show it because they were scared of black people coming to the movies in droves, learning some history, and being angry. And we, as freshman and sophomores, said, “That’s outrageous.” I was an NAACP youth member at the time, and we organized–wrote letters and made phone calls, showed up at City Hall, got some adults involved. And as a student at Catlin I could tell my teachers, “Hey, listen, I’ll be downtown today working on this.” Either they would say, “Okay, that’s great, write a paper about it,” or they’d say, “Okay that’s great, tell us about it when you get back.” So I didn’t have to worry about, you know, you have to be at fifth period. That wasn’t the way Catlin Gabel is. And we won. Lloyd Center end up showing Malcolm X and they gave us free tickets that we then got to give away to students all across the city. So Catlin Gabel sort of allowed my activism, and didn’t get in the way of it, because our rules are just different.

With your experience and education you have a lot of career options, but you’ve chosen public service. When did you decide that responsible action was going to be your focus?
Well, I knew that I wanted to help people, and I went to law school because I want to be a lawyer for people who couldn’t afford a lawyer. But when I decided to work in the public interest, in service and in other ways, rather than practicing law, was after 9/11. Patriotism was being renewed everywhere and certainly, being in D.C., I was in the heart of a lot of that sentiment. I was born to a captain in the army, my mom, and have many other members of the military in my family. So the first thing I thought was, “I’m going to go be a Marine.” And my mother said, “You know, that’s an idea, see if you can think of any others.” My mom, she’s a Jedi. And I did. I looked up one day and saw the U.S. Capitol as I was driving away from court, and I said, “Oh, I can serve my country right there.” And that’s when I decided that I would work as a staffer in Congress.

Working in politics must be gratifying when you win, and see results and help people, but difficult when things don’t go your way. How did you stay motivated?
It’s the same with the job I have now, quite frankly. Even on my best days I can’t help everyone who needs to be helped. Working in politics you don’t win on all the issues that you know with all of your heart that you should be winning on. And even if you do win you know it’s not a big enough victory to help all the people who need your help. Being passionate about the underlying issue is important. Knowing that the people that you are able to help matter makes all the difference on the days when you’re not successful.

When I worked in in the Senate, we were working to pass the Affordable Care Act, now known as Obamacare, and it was during a set of snowstorms in D.C. I literally walked from my apartment three miles to my office a couple of days in the snow because transit was shut down, and we were working in my office just days before Christmas. And the goal was to get this thing passed before Christmas or it was never going to happen. The Majority Leader at the time, he wasn’t going to let anyone leave until we got the vote to the floor. I brought clothes with me so I could sleep in my office. And we did it, but we didn’t win on everything. We fought hard to make sure mental health coverage was in the Affordable Care Act, and there were people were fighting against us. There were some things we won on and other things we didn’t win. But overall it was a victory for millions of people. So I think that keeping that perspective makes all the difference.

You had some big wins when you worked for the White House as well. Would you share an Obama story?
When I worked for the White House, I worked in global trade, and on one occasion we were victorious in a case over China. They had been cheating on trade and we sued them and won, and we won big. It was a big deal. And the president held a press conference in the Rose Garden, and my boss, who was the U.S. Trade Rep at the time, was with him, and I’m there as well. We were going to be doing press all day about his. It’s not very often that the president is reading my words or talking about something that I had worked on. And when the press conference is over, I went to get my boss because I need to get him three blocks away to the next press event at the studio. And then the president walks out, he’s coming from the East Wing, and I was like “Oh, it’s the president, we better move.” My boss says, “No, I think when the president’s coming you have to stop and let him pass.” “No, that’s not a thing. You only do that if it’s the motor pool. Let’s go, we have to be there on air live in seventeen minutes.” He said, “No, I think we have to stop.” So we stopped. Now, this is ridiculous of course, because I should’ve wanted to, but I was focused on my job. We stop, the president stops, and he introduces himself, which is hilarious. I introduce myself likewise, again, and he’s talking about what I’m working on that day, he’s talking about this victory in China, he’s talking about the press event that we’re about to do, he’s talking about the substance of our victory. And we talked for just a few minutes, but it was very cool because he knew what I was working on and took the time to engage and discuss it with me. And my boss laughed at me and said, “You see, I told you you’ve got to stop when the president is walking by.”

Last year, you accepted Tim Bazemore’s invitation to join the Catlin Gabel Board of Trustees—an enormous commitment of time and energy. Why was it important to you to give back in this way?
I did have a good experience here and there’s some things I’d like to give back to current students and families. There’s a good concentration of Catlin Gabel alums working in a field similar to mine, working in social responsibility, working nonprofit. I go to some of these trainings, I run into Catlin Gabel people and it’s weird, because there’s not that many of us out there in the world, and yet we’re doing this do-gooder stuff. That’s something special that we really have to be proud of. We’ve got a secret sauce.