Lenai Johnson (MGA ’22)

Author: Anna Romandash

Lenai Johnson is a second-year Master of Global Affairs, International Peace Studies student. Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. Lenai is passionate about studying gender, indigeneity, and the causes of mass atrocities and working at the intersection of these topics.

Below, Lenai shares some impressions from her current field experience and highlights her professional aspirations and goals.

What drew you to the MGA-IPS program?

I feel like I was building up to it. As an undergrad, I majored in legal studies and criminal justice and psychology because I was really interested in going into law.  However, when I interned with the public defender's office, I realized that the legal system wasn't the best way toward justice, and that there were many other ways. 

After undergrad, I went to the Peace Corps because I didn't exactly know what I wanted to do. My work there showed me that human rights and peacebuilding were a better avenue for justice. I started looking into grad programs because I realized that if I wanted to go into global affairs and peacebuilding, a Master's degree was necessary. The Kroc Institute was one of the best programs that I found.

What was your experience with the Peace Corps like?

I served in the Philippines, where I was a youth development facilitator. I worked at a shelter for survivors of gender-based violence, mostly doing trauma-informed care programming. I designed a behavioral management program for the center. We had a lot of therapeutic activities, planned a lot of camps, and then did advocacy sessions for different organizations around the province, trying to advocate for better laws and policies to protect survivors of gender-based violence.

You are currently interning with Survival International in Oakland. What kind of work are you engaged with?

When I got to Notre Dame, one of my interests was studying mass atrocities and genocide specifically. As I took my courses, I realized that talking about genocide without talking about the original genocide of Indigenous people leaves out a really important part of history. So, for my internship, I wanted to explore that a little bit further. 

My internship organization, Survival International, is focused on doing advocacy for Indigenous and tribal groups across the world. I was especially interested in that international focus on Indigenous people, and that drew me to the work I'm doing here. For the internship, I'm mostly helping out with grant writing and a lot of social media and research for a particular campaign called #MayflowersKill. We’re working on a few other campaigns and trying to cover more Native groups within the Oakland area as well. 

In relation to this, I'm working with the Accomplice alongside a few other MGA students. It is a decolonial project where we promote dialogue about the history of the University and history of the Indigenous people on whose land we study. It's been really interesting to see how the work that I'm doing with Accomplice overlaps and differs from my work with Survival International. With Accomplice, we have a more local focus, and at my internship, the focus is more global.

What is your current research project for the MGA program?

It is not set in stone yet, but I think I'm going to explore the interconnection between different movements for liberation. I'm really interested in exploring the idea of collective liberation and what opportunities for solidarity exist between historically oppressed groups when their end goals and broader ideas of liberation may be quite different from each other.

What would you like to do after graduation?

My internship experience has given me a bit more clarity on what I want to do, so I am looking into organizations that explore topics on the intersection of gender, indigeneity, and mass atrocity.

I'd like to work with an international peacebuilding organization, or an organization that does genocide prevention, or the one that focuses on women's rights or Indigenous rights. I know that's very broad, so I have a very long list of organizations that I'm applying to for jobs and fellowships at the moment.

Where would you place yourself on the strategic peacebuilding wheel?

I would say justice and healing as well as violence prevention, conflict response, and transformation. In addition, I see myself somewhere around transitional justice, restorative justice, and dialogue and conflict resolution strategies.