Nicole Lee’s interest in human rights was piqued as a child in the ’80s growing up in North Buffalo, watching television ads that pitched relief efforts for starving children. The sixth-grader told her mother she wanted to save the children.
And after she saw Bishop Desmond Tutu for the first time on network news, Lee wondered why the peaceful man seemed so upset.
“He looked very angry and I did not know why,” she recently recalled. “I was very affected by what I saw on television about apartheid.”
As she grew into adulthood, Tutu’s inspiration stayed with her, and she worked as a human rights advocate in South Africa and Haiti. In 2005, TransAfrica – the oldest African-American policy organization in the United States – hired her as its director of operations and the 37-year-old woman now is TransAfrica’s first female director.
So when dignitaries gathered at Washington National Cathedral to eulogize Nelson Mandela in December, the South African government asked Lee to plan the somber yet jubilant service, which included tributes from Vice President Biden, Jessye Norman, Andrew Young and folk singer Peter Yarrow.
And Lee gave the eulogy that capped the three-hour memorial service.
“Nicole was approached by the government of South Africa when it became clear that Mandela might pass on,” said Makau Mutua, dean of UB School of Law, where she graduated in 2002. “TransAfrica led the movement to free Mandela. Standing in her shoes is an incredible story. She is without question one of the most successful people to come out of this law school.”
Mutua first met Lee when she was a first-year law student. The year was 1999, and Mutua recalled the young woman smiling confidently as she spoke of her ambition to become an international human rights advocate.
“She knew right off the bat why she came to law school, and she spent the next three years single-mindedly pursuing that particular dream,” said Mutua. “You don’t get first years coming to tell you that.”
Lee, who attended Nardin Academy and Buffalo Seminary, said she was often the only African-American in her class.
“As a child, I think everyone wants to conform, and I think I was very aware that I was different – not worse but different,” said Lee. “Growing up as an African-American with a lot of opportunities in the city shaped how I approach people who are the minority of minorities because I did spend a lot of my youth feeling alone and isolated.”
Growing up on Parkside
Lee and her older sister, Kim, grew up on Parkside Avenue in a turn-of-the-century Victorian across the street from the Delaware Park playground. Her mother, Grace Lee, attended Bennett High School, where she was an excellent student. A religious woman, Grace Lee worked in counseling at an area hospital and eventually became a nondenominational Pentecostal minister. She now lives in Charlotte, N.C.
“Her grades were great, and people told her she would make a great domestic,” Lee said about her mother. “But she was a fighter. Her career trajectory made me believe anything was possible.
“My father, Delmar, managed Record Theater for years,” Lee said. “My mother did not love all of what she considered secular music, so my father would sneak records to me all the time. At the time ‘Free to Be You and Me’ was very progressive music for kids, very interesting stuff.
“After my mother became a minister, she began to travel around the continent of Africa,” Lee said. “So I spent most of my childhood with my father. People say I have my mother’s personality but my father’s skill set.”
It was during her grammar-school years at Nardin that she began to feel racially isolated. From the third to eighth grade, Lee noted, she was the only African-American in her class.
“My hair didn’t do the same thing as everyone else’s hair,” Lee said. “My family didn’t look like everyone else’s family. As a young person, the standard of beauty was set by someone totally different than me.”
In 1990, Lee started high school at Buffalo Seminary, where she took part in a program that matched freshmen students with seniors to help ease the transition for the new enrollees.
Freshman Kimberly Cabbagestalk remembered meeting freshman Lee at a Buffalo Bisons baseball game.
“Nicole’s sponsor and my sponsor were best friends,” explained Cabbagestalk, who is also 37 and black. “They took us to a baseball game one week before school started.”
Cabbagestalk and Lee became best friends and remain so to this day.
“Some of my earliest memories would be going on road trips during summer with Nicole and her dad to visit her sister in the D.C. area,” said Cabbagestalk. “Nicole was president of Amnesty International Club. She also took part in moot court.”
Still, the best friends felt pressured to succeed.
“We were very aware that we were representing a community beyond ourselves,” Cabbagestalk said. “There were very few black students in our school. It put a lot of pressure on us to present ourselves in a way that our families would be proud.”
Buffalo Seminary history teacher Harry Schooley remembered Lee as the one student who took every history course the school offered, including “History of China,” which only had three or four students.
“She always approached everything with a great mind,” Schooley said. “She was never annoying in any way. She had a genuine curiosity.”
Now a trustee for the school, Lee visited Buffalo recently to take part in strategic planning meetings for Buffalo Seminary. Cabbagestalk, who today lives in Washington and works as a consultant for TransAfrica, also traveled to Buffalo and helped care for Lee’s 1-year-old daughter, Alexandria Zindzi Bayard.
Cabbagestalk, an engineer with a background in science and technology, works for TransAfrica on public health projects, most recently in the area of water sanitation.
Human rights advocate
Lee first visited South Africa in 2001, when as a second-year law student she interned in Capetown and worked on class-action lawsuits, representing black South Africans and their claims relating to a sulphur dioxide disaster seven years earlier.
“I arranged for her to go to South Africa,” Mutua recalled. “I was so involved in that career, I almost remember every step that she’s taken.”
After graduation from law school, Lee continued to practice human rights law in Port au Prince, Haiti, where she researched and documented claims of human rights abuse during the 1991-94 military coup.
“It wasn’t just about talking to victims, but I also had to talk with the perpetrators. I worked directly with the office of President Aristide and the Haitian Ministry of Justice. It gave me the backbone to deal with opposition,” Lee said. “I wanted to do traditional human rights work, but what I found is the victims had a lot of other problems, too. It’s all right to talk about witnessing a massacre or that you were raped. But these people also had TB because they didn’t have proper shelter or cholera because they didn’t have clean water.”
Unplanned career move
Her work with the Bureau Des Avocats Internationaux in Port au Prince prepared her for the contentious terrain of Washington, she said. Landing a job with TransAfrica, was not planned, according to Lee.
“I never thought I’d be running TransAfrica,” she said. “I figured I would spend most of my career outside the United States in some back room typing up my human rights reports and I would be happy.”
Lee remembered watching Randall Robinson, the founding director of TransAfrica, on television.
“He was the first African-American I ever saw on television talk about international issues,” she said. “I was floored by him.”
Dean Mutua interned for TransAfrica as a student in Harvard University Law School in 1984. It was the height of the anti-apartheid movement, and TransAfrica was deeply involved in motivating Americans against South African apartheid.
“I watched people get arrested at the South African embassy in D.C.,” Mutua recalled.
TransAfrica was incorporated as a nonprofit organization at the behest of the Black Leadership Conference convened in 1976. Its mission today remains to focus U.S. economic and humanitarian aid to Africans and African descendants. Actor Danny Glover is board chair of TransAfrica. Harry Belafonte and Chuck D are board members.
Lee spends about a third of her time on the road at meetings from Los Angeles to Nairobi. She saves weekends for her husband, Marc Bayard, and their two daughters: Alexandria Zindzi and Madison Zuri, 4.
Lee said her contact with Mandela was minimal.
“I met him in a crowd of people once,” she said, “but I know his children very well.”
Lee’s youngest daughter is named in part for Mandela’s youngest daughter. Zindzi, she said, means “one who brings peace to the family.”
“We’re social justice people,” Lee said. “Marc right now is working on the impacts of the recession on people of color in the United States. He works for Georgetown University and is former director of Cornell’s labor program. He’s a brilliant guy. When the zombie apocalypse hits, I want to be with Marc.”
Lee, meanwhile, has sprouted a shocking yet premeditated streak of purple in her shoulder-length hair.
“I was starting to feel old,” she explained. “I started to feel like I needed to pay more attention to my creative side. I’ve always been so clean cut. I made sure my appearance never got in the way of my message. But now my record also stands for itself. Purple hair should be OK for a little bit.”