Owing to her upbringing, Nicole Lee, BA '99 and JD '02, always envisioned helping marginalized people around the world. Her mother, an Evangelical minister, traveled the globe when Lee was younger, showing her the possibilities open to women who want to affect change. Her father has been equally influential, as well as her older sister, who has been involved with the anti-apartheid movement. "Growing up knowing that injustices can be stopped by getting people together and working towards a resolution was extremely important," Lee says. "I never thought, ‘I don't know what we can do to help' or that there is nothing that we can do, because I had learned otherwise."
Her passion for activism propelled Lee to the top of one of the leading human rights advocacy organizations in the world. Last December she was named the first female Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum, which promotes justice and progress for the international African community. "I think that many times women take leadership roles in organizations, but they may not be the leading spokesperson," Lee notes. "While women truly are the backbone of movements, they are not always able to rise to the positions that they should be in. I am just grateful to get an opportunity to help make that less of a reality."
UB also played a role in shaping Lee's politics. The Buffalo native was determined to make the most out of her undergraduate experience. "I think UB delivered for me and I really enjoyed it. I found a place for myself having a lot more to do with activism," she says. Among many other organizations, she was a member of the Black Student Union, student government, and the Women's Center. Lee notes that her campus involvement led her to spend as much time sitting outside of then President Greiner's office as she did in the classroom. "Being at a diverse institution like UB taught me how to speak to a wide audience about issues people may not readily think about or care about," Lee says.
A history major, Lee calls Professor Susan Kahn an important mentor. She also took numerous women's studies courses, which she describes as integral to her education. "Professor Alexis DeVeaux taught me how to write and how to think critically. Women's studies was essential in helping me to see the value of questioning and thinking for yourself, of having your own vision of what the world could look like, instead of just taking the vision that is put in front of you by others," Lee says.
Pursuing a law degree was another step toward Lee's goal to aid women and children internationally. Law professor Makau Mutua, who heads UB's Human Rights Center, helped influence her decision to enroll in UB's School of Law. There she served as the International Law Fellow and interned in South Africa for a summer, working on an environmental class-action suit. Lee states that her time at the university contributed to her current success and says, "UB is definitely part of my heart, and I believe that the education that people receive at UB makes them unique."
After graduating from law school Lee moved to Haiti. There she worked for a human rights organization that investigated and prosecuted the human rights violations of the military during the 1994 coup. Returning to the U.S. in 2004, Lee worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., eventually serving as Director of Operations of TransAfrica Forum. Now in its 30th year, the organization seeks to influence U.S. foreign policy on behalf of the African world. As its director, Lee travels abroad often, not only to the African continent, but also to countries with large African populations such as Brazil, Kenya, Venezuela, Haiti, and Columbia. She spends her time talking to people on the ground and then communicating with politicians, policy makers, and other agencies on issues that impact the global African population. She says, "I think that the most important thing an organization like TransAfrica Forum can do is not to give their opinion, but to make sure that people understand the opinions of those who are personally impacted by U.S. foreign policy."
Lee, who has returned to UB to speak at the law school and at a history department commencement, will be in Buffalo this summer for her July wedding. Both she and her fiancé Mark love to travel. Lee is featured in the May issue of Ebony magazine as one of the 150 most influential African Americans, and this spring received the UB Law Students of Color Distinguished Alumni Award. Ultimately, for Lee, advocacy is both a career and a passion. "I love talking with people and listening to the needs of people on the ground in the different counties that I visit," Lee says, "and figuring out in what small way we can make a difference. I love seeing the wonderful work that people are doing with absolutely no resources. This is the best job that I could have ever asked for."
Written by Jessica Dudek, BA '94