Black women are building movements in Memphis. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is spotlighting women whose names may not be easily recognizable but who are forces in the fight for voting rights, access to health care, criminal justice reform and other critical issues. Kendra Lee is the fourth of six women in our series, “Unsung, Unbowed, Unstoppable,” who are being profiled over three months, all nominated by their peers and our staff.
Kendra Lee’s extended family was her first beloved community. The huge clan had to organize get-togethers so every soul got a seat and a full plate. It was an early baptism for her work as policy and equity manager for The Equity Alliance, a Tennessee-based nonprofit that seeks to engage and empower Black communities.
Lee’s mother, Martha Lee Miller, had 14 siblings, so family gatherings involved intricate planning, communication and consensus-building. “We could not make individual decisions because there were so many of us,” Lee said about the meetups that included more than a dozen aunts and uncles and literally scores of cousins.
Getting a seat at the table of political power is a priority for The Equity Alliance. Top of the agenda is voting rights, which determines the quality of life for everyone in a community, Lee said.
Unsung, Unbowed, Unstoppable
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Tennessee ranks low in voter registration among communities of color. The state’s largest concentration of Black residents is in Shelby County. With nearly 950,000 residents, more than half are Black.
Lee joined the Alliance in December. Then last month, she pulled up a seat at another table when she was appointed to the Shelby County Election Commission, bringing her even closer to the issues that drive her activism. Chief among them — “direct assaults on democracy” from voter suppression laws across the country.
“I am excited to have a direct impact on decisions being made,” Lee said about the appointment to the board responsible for conducting public elections in the county.
The 33-year-old Memphis native, a Spelman College and Dayton (Ohio) School of Law graduate, has never been far from her roots. They have defined her path and given each step a purpose.
Lee has worked in numerous local and national political campaigns, including for Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer and City Councilman Dr. Jeff Warren. She was a community organizer for Elizabeth Warren for President, and community organizer training manager for the Jon Ossoff for Senate campaign in Georgia.
The title “community organizer” does not do justice to the nature of work that it takes to make meaningful change, Lee said. A successful campaign is based on vital issues in people’s real lives — individuals toiling together for a common purpose. “The concept of ‘village’ is very important to me,” she said. “I do not do a thing by myself.”
Part of the hard work involves re-engaging people who have checked out because of the perception that their voices will not be heard and “very real voter suppression,” she said.
Voting power is a cornerstone of the Alliance’s mission, which it uses as “a weapon in the fight for social and economic justice,” according to its mission statement.
Lee was not shy in her approach to the Alliance job. “What you guys need is me,’” she told them last year. Organization officials agreed.
Lee feels she has found a home. “This was a Black female-led organization doing the work in the Black community,” she said. “They had first-hand knowledge of the barriers faced.”
Even though it is clear now that community organizing might be Lee’s calling, that path was not always apparent.
Before law school, she had a “big, bright-eyed dream” of a six-figure salary and a powerful law firm. “But God has a funny way of doing things,” she said.
“I grew up in a (Black majority) city, I attended a college, Spelman, that was crafted for Black women,” Lee said. Then, culture shock: law school at Dayton College in Ohio.
The “microaggressions” against people of color — racism the psychology major knew about intellectually — was suddenly real and personal in an atmosphere where she was in the minority. “To feel them in practice was another deal altogether,” she said.
Lee felt isolated. But instead of shrinking into the background, she thrust herself forward. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to sit in front of the class, I’m going to be the one raising my hand and answering every question…’”
She drew closer to other Black students on campus, who not only made life more socially comfortable for her, but who exposed her to others and to areas of law that emphasized social justice.
Still, Lee was not sure what she would do with this newfound knowledge. After graduation, she worked as a consultant for LexisNexis, a company that provides legal, regulatory and business information and analytics to companies and law firms. “I got really good at legal research there,” Lee said.
She moved back to Memphis in 2016, unsure of where she wanted to land. She worked as a substitute teacher, then discovered Stand for Children, an education advocacy organization. That was an important step, as it marked Lee’s introduction to the nonprofit sector and her first foray into organizing and advocacy.
Lee started part time as an outreach coordinator then moved to the political side with the endorsement committee, where she discovered that “I love doing political organizing.” Lee emphasizes that she means love. “I mean, knocking on doors. In August. In Memphis. I absolutely just loved it.”
Lee enjoyed the on-the-ground so much, she did not mind doing a “really random” job, working as a seasonal, full-time voting machine technician for the Election Commission for four months in 2018. Now that she is a commissioner and looking forward to her first meeting this month, the path does not seem so random; the alignment had a pattern.
“I really learned the technical nuances and the workings of the commission itself from start to finish,” she said.
When Lee was tapped by the Tennessee Democratic Party to be the West Tennessee Regional Voting Protection director in 2018, she found a place where she could “talk about how important it was to be engaged and hold election officials accountable.”
Then coronavirus struck. But it was an election year. There was work to do. Lee conducted virtual training sessions with community stakeholders and leaders.
Underpinning all of her work is a belief that local people should be empowered to lead their own communities. Lee used her skills as an organizer and engagement expert for the Warren presidential campaign, and her training experience for the Ossoff for Senate campaign.
The work of scores of community organizers got national attention in 2020 when Democrats Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their U.S. Senate elections in Georgia, assuring a crucial Democratic majority in Washington.
The wins were very satisfying for Lee and others. “Even though I was exhausted after the campaign, I was still energized about the work here in Tennessee,” she said.
Today’s activists are taking lessons from the civil rights era and “reimagining” them for today, Lee said. They are having discussions about replicating Georgia’s voter registration and turnout success in Tennessee and other states.
“What state is going to be the next Georgia?” Lee asks. “Of course, I have great hopes for Tennessee.” But she also has eyes on the prize of Mississippi, the state where her large family is originally from.
“Will we be able to replicate Georgia’s massive efforts” at getting voters registered and to the polls that translate to wins? “We can do it,” Lee said with confidence.“We are starting to see so many organizations align.”
Of course, a goal is the passage of national voting rights legislation as well, Lee said.
Meanwhile, she will continue to fight for her beloved village. “We are here, day in and day out. There is no off-year, there are no off-days. I’m just grateful to operate in a purpose-driven situation every day.”
Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.
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