N’dea Johnson was 12 when her mother, who had always encouraged her to “reach for the sky”, died of breast cancer.
The youngster responded by establishing an organization that, to this day, provides a space for children grappling with loss and raises funds to support families beset by medical bills.
Using loss and adversity as a spur to help others — through a commitment to social justice, public service and, ultimately, politics — has since become a defining motif for Johnson.
She was elected class president the year she lost her mom. She subsequently served on the City Council Youth Commission in her home town of Fairfield, California, from eighth grade through her graduation from high school, honing her skills as an advocate, public speaker and event organizer.
While interning in a local Congressional office during her sophomore year at Diablo Community College, Johnson attended a statewide Democratic caucus and decided on the spot that she would one day seek public office. She transferred to UCLA, where she majored in Political Science & Government, and spoke publicly about her bouts of depression following her mother’s death. Today she serves as Director of Community Relations at the Contra Costa Boys & Girls Club near Fairfield.
It was at UCLA, weeks before the start of her final semester, that Johnson was again tested by a soul-wrenching episode. On New Year’s Day, 2019, she was raped — and though she told a few close friends, she did not report the attack to the police.
“It was cognitive dissonance,” she says. “I was an R.A. [Resident Assistant] — I’d been trained in rape crisis. I knew how to help other people. But now I was the victim.”
It was cognitive dissonance. I was an R.A. [Resident Assistant] — I’d been trained in rape crisis. I knew how to help other people. But now I was the victim.
— N’dea Johnson (M.A., ’20) founder of the Yellow Heart Committee for trauma survivors
Three months later, Johnson entered a hospital for pre-scheduled jaw reconstruction, and when she came out of surgery, she couldn’t walk.
“Theories flew that I might’ve had a stroke on the table or nerve damage, but it was really Conversion Disorder,” she would write later. In reality, “I had been so traumatized from my rape that my body converted the psychological stress into a physical reaction and caused the weakness in my legs.”
As she underwent a week and a half of rehab, Johnson again responded in her trademark way, envisioning a non-profit devoted to the mental health needs of trauma survivors.
The day she left the hospital, she filed a police report and went on social media to share her plan for the Yellow Heart Committee — so named, as she explains on the organization’s website, “in honor of my mother’s favorite color … The color yellow represented sunshine, happiness, and joy to her, and that’s what we are trying to bring to survivors everywhere.”
“My Facebook blew up,” she recalls.
During the past two years, Yellow Heart has become a sounding board and support outlet for victims of physical and sexual assault. The effort has encouraged several women to bring the details of their own assaults to the attention of the police.
“Helping other women summon the courage to report their rapists is why I do it,” Johnson says.
During the same period, Johnson has been taking decisive steps to make good on her political ambitions.
Last spring she received her master’s degree in Politics & Education from Teachers College, where she worked closely with Sharon Lynn Kagan, the College’s Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood & Family Policy and Co-Director of its National Center for Children and Families.
Centered, dedicated, and ‘good’ driven, N’dea takes the tough stuff of life and turns it into fuel to power her intellect, charisma, and passion. She knows what matters and magically bypasses ambiguity and animosity to grasp the essential and move the agenda!
— Sharon Lynn Kagan, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood & Family Policy
“Centered, dedicated, and ‘good’ driven, N’dea takes the tough stuff of life and turns it into fuel to power her intellect, charisma, and passion,” Kagan wrote in a recent email. “She knows what matters and magically bypasses ambiguity and animosity to grasp the essential and move the agenda!”
Meanwhile, just around the time she was preparing to come to New York City, Johnson was invited to share the Yellow Heart story with delegates to California’s 2019 Democratic convention, where then-Senator Kamala Harris was in attendance. A year later, Joe Biden tapped Harris to be his running mate.
“You know what this means,” a friend told Johnson following that announcement. “It is a big deal for you.”
Johnson needed no prodding.
“Oh, I knew what it meant,” says Johnson, the first Black and youngest-ever president of the Costa Contra Young Democrats Club. “It meant that things were about to shift politically in Northern California in terms of who can move from one seat to another. It created an opportunity for me and my friends to run for public office.”
Assisted by Emerge, a non-profit that provides support and candidate training for female office-seekers, Johnson is now laying the groundwork for a campaign to represent the California Third District in the U.S. Congress — possibly as early as 2022, which, should she win, could make her the youngest member of the House of Representatives.
Johnson has no doubt she’ll get there.
“I don’t know if it will happen in ’22 or ’24,” she says. But, either way, look out – because I’m coming.”