Carrie Mae Covington was born in 1908 to a family of sharecroppers in Rockingham, North Carolina. Her father wanted her to join the family business, but all Carrie saw was a dead end. When she was 24, the man she loved asked for her hand in marriage, but her dad told him to get off his porch or he would shoot. So Carrie got on a bus bound for Baltimore and eloped. After she arrived, she cut off her long braid and mailed it, along with her marriage license, to her father as a way of saying, “I’m free.”
Earlier this year, Carrie’s granddaughter, Alexis McGill Johnson—the president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America—followed in her grandmother’s footsteps by charting a bold path for herself. In an opinion piece published in The New York Times, McGill Johnson reckoned with the organization’s founder Margaret Sanger’s association with white supremacists and eugenics, writing, “In the name of political expedience, [Sanger] chose to engage white supremacists to further her cause. In doing that, she devalued and dehumanized people of color.” She went on to connect Sanger’s legacy to present-day systemic racism in health care, promising that under her leadership Planned Parenthood would closely examine how it may have perpetuated its founder’s harms. “What we don’t want to be, as an organization, is a Karen,” McGill Johnson wrote. “And sometimes, that’s how Planned Parenthood has acted. By privileging whiteness, we’ve contributed to America harming Black women and other women of color.”
Calling out a long dead founder is one thing; calling the organization you currently lead a Karen in the nation’s most prominent newspaper is another. But McGill Johnson says she felt no fear. Reflecting on her column about two months after it was published, she echoes her grandmother when she says, “I will never be as free as I am in this moment.” And how does that feeling of freedom manifest itself in her life as she charts the way forward for the 104-year-old Planned Parenthood? “It means that I don’t have to apologize. I don’t have to shrink for being Black, for being a woman,” McGill Johnson says sitting in the front room of the townhouse in upper Manhattan that she shares with her husband and two daughters. “I have expertise and I’m going to bring it. The worst they can do is fire me, right?” (“And I pretty much knew that wasn’t going to happen,” she adds of the odds of being ousted for publishing the op-ed.)
Until her article, Planned Parenthood had danced around the Sanger elephant in the room. “The first conversation I had with my team about it, the line that popped into my head was, ‘First came Margaret, then came Karen,” McGill Johnson says. “Like, Margaret is Karen’s godmother basically.” McGill Johnson says the organization has “always had a working group” on Sanger, and she herself waffled when asked about Sanger in an interview with The Root in 2019. “We had been tying a bow around centuries worth of questioning and just saying, ‘Oh, that’s not us anymore. We’re over here now. And we’re all such great people.’” McGill Johnson tells me. “A hundred years later, to not be able to name the fact that Sanger legitimately created harms and that we are still grappling with her harms—I felt like this was the time.”
When McGill Johnson took the helm at Planned Parenthood—as interim president two years ago this month, and a year ago officially—the organization was reeling, with longtime staffers heading to the exits, after months of internal turmoil following the hiring of public health expert Dr. Leana Wen as president in September 2018. Wen reportedly alienated employees, putting forth a vision for the organization that deemphasized abortion and using language to discuss the procedures.
McGill Johnson emerged from the wings in the midst of the chaos as a steady and trusted presence after a decade as a board member, including two years as chair. “When Planned Parenthood had their trouble, I was really relieved when Alexis took over,” says Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. So much so that he asked her to stick around. “When she was acting president, I called her and I said, ‘We both love this organization. You’re needed to stay.’ And I felt so good when she agreed,” Schumer tells me. “She’s smart, politically savvy, she’s such a pleasure to work with, she’s great at grassroots organizing—she’s got it all. I think she’s a fabulous head of Planned Parenthood at a very important time.”
You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others, and McGill Johnson knew in order for Planned Parenthood to stand strong for their patients in the face of external threats—namely the record number of abortion restrictions working their way through state legislatures and a Supreme Court decision that will almost certainly put the final nail in Roe v. Wade’s coffin next year—she would first have to dig deep into the roots of the organization’s problems. “What does it mean to show up unapologetically for your staff? To be able to say, ‘We’re going to talk about race, about intersectionality, about Margaret Sanger?’” McGill Johnson says. “We are going to do the things that we have always known are central to our work and our mission, but we thought we had to organize the support first in order to get them done. Nope. We are free. We’re going to do them right now. We are going to make a big bet on equity. It’s our moonshot, really. We’re going to make that bet on ourselves. Yes, there is potential for fallout, but if we truly believe addressing issues of systemic discrimination and racism in the movement is critical, then we’re going to put our money where our mouth is and do it.”
McGill Johnson has been inadvertently preparing for the work that lies ahead of her now for her entire life. She was born Lori Alexis McGill in August 1972 (“I’m a Leo,” she is sure to add, in true Leo form), in Morristown, New Jersey, the city her grandmother landed in after Baltimore. Her mother, Kay, was born there, too, while her father was born and raised in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. “Literally In the Heights—so if you watch how beautiful that movie is, that’s exactly what it felt like going to my grandmother’s every Sunday,” McGill Johnson says.
Both her parents are Black. McGill Johnson calls herself “a movement baby,” and says her mother, who instilled a “fierce fighting spirit” in her, was a worker by day and an organizer by night and “so radical for her time.” At age 17, her mother started as a secretary at AT&T Bell Laboratories. “That was the best she could do,” McGill Johnson says. “Even though she was top of her class, the guidance counselor was like, ‘You should go and become a secretary.’” But she didn’t stop there—her mother worked her way up over 40 years, ultimately becoming the company’s VP of human resources. She also paid her husband’s way through medical school; he is now a urologist.
Her parents divorced in the 2000s, and she isn’t close with her dad. But McGill Johnson is clearly marked by the women who raised her, talking often of her grandmother and her mother, who she says left the “strongest imprint” on her and her three sisters—all of whom have left New Jersey for Georgia over the years. (“One day I woke up and Thanksgiving was a flight instead of a drive across the bridge,” she says.)
When McGill Johnson was in high school, Condoleezza Rice, who at the time was a national security advisor in the George H. W. Bush administration, “was on TV every day, talking about Gorbachev, and the fall of the Soviet Union.” She was obsessed, watching Rice every chance she got and one of her mentors, an uncle-like figure, told her, “You know, that could be you. You’re really good at arguing. You’re really good at making a case. And I really see you being like her.” “At the time, I didn’t have language for what representation meant,” McGill Johnson says. “But seeing her redefined what an expert is and to me that was extraordinary.”
After graduation, she enrolled at Princeton in 1989, majoring in politics and Latin American studies and spending a year in Colombia learning how to organize. “We would take classes by morning which could range from learning how to shoot a gun—you’re in Colombia, you never know what you need to do—to learning how to have a persuasive conversation with your neighbor,” McGill Johnson says. After an afternoon siesta, she and her fellow scholars would go into the “pirate barrios”—neighborhoods where residents had to pirate electricity because they were not fully incorporated into the city. “We would help community members connect the dots between what they needed to formally become part of the city, but also in so doing, help them understand who was advocating for them.”
She wrote her senior thesis on political incorporation in Colombia and it caught the eye of none other than Condoleezza Rice, who at the time was serving as the director of Graduate Studies at Stanford University, one of six or seven graduate schools where McGill Johnson had applied. “It was a full circle moment,” McGill Johnson says. “Condoleezza was recruiting me into the program and it was a moment where I was able to say, ‘I can’t tell you what it means to me as a Black woman that you are the one who called me to say I’m worthy, that I am deserving, and that a school like Stanford would be interested in continuing my career.’ I was a kind of a stalker, like, ‘I’ve seen you on TV for the last 10 years,’ but in essence what I was saying was, ‘Your representation really, really mattered to me and it’s why I’m here and why I’m doing this work.’”
McGill Johnson ultimately chose to attend Yale University—she wanted to work with a particular professor there—and began teaching during her second semester in 1994. Standing at the front of the class on the first day of Intro to Black Politics, she was terribly nervous and, on a whim, blurted out a whole new identity for herself.
Until then, she had always gone by her first name, Lori. “I had never taught before and they just threw me into the water and I felt like I needed to stand on something, to differentiate myself,” McGill Johnson explains, adding that because she skipped a grade as a child, she was barely older than many of her students. “So kind of like Sasha Fierce is to Beyonce, I introduced myself as ‘Alexis McGill’ and it just became who I was,” she says. (“I had Alexis before Beyonce had Sasha, just saying,” she adds.)
She earned her masters in 1996, and stayed in academia for a handful of years, teaching at both Yale and Wesleyan University. One of the theories she taught in her Black politics course was the potential power in organizing young people of color. “It was about recognizing the fact that every Tuesday, the record industry used to turn out people in person at Virgin or Tower records to buy a record. It was very systematic because the Billboard results came out on Wednesday,” McGill Johnson explains, referring to the industry’s efforts to raise an album’s place on the pop charts. “So I just had this idea that if we could organize the hip hop generation to come on a Tuesday—election day—we could completely transform and take back power.”
One day McGill Johnson happened to be sitting around a kitchen table at a friend’s house with Andre Harrell, the late founder of Uptown Records, who gave Sean “Diddy” Combs his start. “I told him what I thought we needed to do to organize the hip hop generation and he gave me his blessing and connected me to the community,” McGill Johnson says. She served as political director for Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and then became executive director of Citizen Change, where along with Puff Daddy, she launched the 2004 Vote or Die campaign, which worked with local influencers like barbers, stylists, club promoters, and DJs to turn out new voters.
That McGill Johnson would find herself in the right rooms with the right people at the right time many times throughout her life is no accident. “I often turn to her for introductions because she’s very good at maintaining relationships,” says Melissa Harris Perry, professor and media host, who has known McGill Johnson for roughly two decades. She says she and McGill Johnson met because they were “absolute contemporaries and there’s just not a lot of Black girls doing that kind of work,” and that she’s a great texter. “I’ll say, ‘Alexis, can you introduce me…’ and she is always able to do it.” McGill Johnson’s networking is not ego driven, though: “She’s not a person who needs some kind of title,” Harris Perry says. “She’s a kingmaker, but she’s not pressed about being the king.”
She says what she admires most is McGill Johnson’s political savvy. “What I mean is, Alexis is able to be in rooms with people who I would make faces at, yell at, and walk out on,” Harris Perry says. “And not only can she be in rooms with them, but she can often work with them in really productive ways.” Pointing to McGill Johnson’s work with music industry titans, “On the one hand, I get it, it’s kind of cool, but you’re also dealing with a lot of sexism coming at you at all times. Sometimes I’m like, ‘How are you around these people’” Harris Perry says. “But Alexis understood the power of positionality and of that group relative to young people who needed to be brought into the political system. … It’s a particular kind of skill to go into places that have a long history of being a little angst filled toward Black women and actually be able to do good work.”
The next chapter of McGill Johnson’s career began in 2008, the night then-Senator Barack Obama gave his now famous race speech, “A More Perfect Union” in Philadelphia. “Something just clicked for a lot of us around the ways an Obama presidency would challenge the way we grappled with issues of systemic racism,” McGill Johnson says.
After he won, she got together with a group of academics who had conducted research around implicit bias that was “still sitting in the academy and hadn’t really become mainstream” to co-found a research institute called Americans for American Values. (Its name was changed to the Perception Institute in 2012.) “At its core, Perception was focused around understanding how powerful stereotypes are in our brains and how they inform the framework through which we see everything,” she says. McGill Johnson served as co-founder and executive director there for about a decade, working with school systems, police departments, healthcare providers, and companies like Starbucks and Prada after high-profile incidents of racism.
“Alexis has a brilliant ability to be absolutely lovely while she’s calling you out,” says Maya Harris, lawyer and public policy advocate (and Vice President Kamala Harris’s sister), who has known McGill Johnson since they bonded over gnocchi at Barbuto in the West Village in 2009. “And that’s exactly what we need all across the country right now: people who can speak to a broad audience of people about things that are difficult and long overdue that we need to confront in a real and meaningful way. To do it with grace is a skill—it’s a gift—and Alexis has that.”
McGill Johnson is now utilizing her gifts—as a connector, a communicator, and a mindset-changer—in her position at Planned Parenthood. She was walking down a street in SoHo one afternoon in 2011, when she saw a billboard with a little Black girl’s face on it. “Thw girl was cute, so I got closer, and saw the words underneath her read, ‘The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb,’” McGill Johnson says. She expected to see such things when she visited her family in the South, but this was New York City. Soon enough, she once again found herself in the right room, attending a dinner with then-Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards, where she had a chance to tell Richards she needed to do something about those signs. Richards told her, “No, you do.” McGill Johnson joined Planned Parenthood’s board soon thereafter.
As a board member, McGill Johnson had a front row seat as Richards increased Planned Parenthood’s influence in Washington. “When I look back at what Cecile accomplished—and I am so lucky to have ridden side saddle—she built a powerhouse of an organization,” McGill Johnson says. “When she started, politicians didn’t want Planned Parenthood’s endorsement, and near the end of her leadership, we broke ground and endorsed Hillary Clinton right out of the gate in January 2016.”
McGill Johnson honed her own political prowess in Washington along the way. “Alexis knows how to build alliances with members of Congress that would be unlikely allies,” says Representative Barbara Lee, the former chair of the Black Congressional Caucus. “She knows how to put people together and really educate members of Congress and help reduce their fears and trepidation about what Planned Parenthood is really all about. She’s able to break it down and convince you—she’s very good at convincing members of Congress to join whatever issue she’s working on at the moment.”
But “growing power has unintended consequences,” McGill Johnson says. And as Planned Parenthood’s political might grew, so too did complaints that the organization sucked up all the oxygen in the abortion rights space. Notably, in 2014, activists published an open letter to Planned Parenthood, asking for more recognition of and collaboration with women of color led reproductive justice groups. “My job is to think about how I can use Planned Parenthood’s power and influence differently,” McGill Johnson says. “How do I create a framework that is going to be expansive and inclusive and ensure that we don’t take up all the space inside of the movement?”
Silvia Henriquez, co-president of All* Above All, an abortion advocacy campaign, says McGill Johnson’s hiring was well-received among groups like hers. “It was a huge course correction for Planned Parenthood that we were all relieved about,” Henriquez says. “Alexis is a collaborator. She always asks, ‘How can I be helpful? Does it make sense for Planned Parenthood to lead on this one? Or should I be stepping back? So there’s a thoughtfulness and intentionality around when it’s okay to step into an agenda-setting mode. It’s not just, Oh, Planned Parenthood needs to be in the driver’s seat at all times.”
Henriquez’s first impression of her came about 10 years ago when McGill Johnson gave a presentation before the all-white board of a foundation where Henriquez worked at the time. “She did a whole lot of unpacking privilege and advantage and what it meant to be a foundation that centers people of color in their grant making,” Henriquez says. “The way she was able to talk to white people with money around their racism was amazing. She has such a clear frame and narrative around it to make people feel uncomfortable, but not in a divisive way. It’s more like, ‘We should all feel uncomfortable—this is how we break open this conversation.’”
McGill Johnson says it’s all about reframing the narrative: “How do you have that conversation in a different way?” She wants to have a different conversation about abortion, too. “My friends and family always say, ‘Why do you talk about abortion so much? Don’t you want to talk about the cancer screenings and the STI tests and all the other things Planned Parenthood does that people love?” McGill Johnson says. “They would rather me talk about chlamydia than abortion, quite frankly, but honey, abortion is healthcare.” And not talking about abortion, or downplaying it as minor portion of Planned Parenthood’s work, is stigmatizing. “Not being able to have a meaningful conversation around the role abortion may play in someone’s life makes them more vulnerable to making decisions that will truly harm them in their lives,” McGill Johnson says. “So I think it’s really important to be candid and full-throated in our support.”
But don’t expect her to be on TV saying that every night. McGill Johnson has a quieter presence than her predecessors and plans to keep it that way. “I feel like I’m comfortable being in this role in a way that is, if I’m noticed, it’s intentional, like for the New York Times op-ed or something like that where I’m laying down the gauntlet on who we are because that, to me, is a tool I can use to hold the organization and the movement accountable—and have the movement help hold us accountable in return.”
Last spring, when the country was in the early stages of the racial reckoning spurred by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and she was approaching her one-year anniversary as interim president, McGill Johnson says she “felt a calling” to stay. “We were in a moment where I just felt like I had to step in and name equity as our guide—our North Star—and say we were going to do this work,” she says. Her intent since then has been to “to name race explicitly, to name intersectionality as our framework, and to decenter white women as the default in a movement that has traditionally been led by white women in order to build a more expansive, inclusive organization.” Digging deep into the science of how bias and racial anxiety impact their health centers will allow “Planned Parenthood to show up differently, not just for ourselves and for our movement partners, but for our patients,” she adds.
Being able to address race head-on—to name it, she says—is key. “I know what it looks like when folks are not able to have hard conversations—when they are literally not able to use language around race for fear of getting it wrong,” McGill Johnson says. When doctors have a high degree of racial anxiety, she explains, they don’t look patients in the eye, they cut appointments short, they don’t ask the right questions. In patients such behavior triggers a stereotype threat that means they won’t answer questions like, “How many sexual partners have you had?” honestly.
“This is going to be the framework for my tenure—that I’ve bet big on equity,” McGill Johnson says. Two years in, she says she feels more comfortable leaning into her assets. And when people one day evaluate the mark she will leave on Planned Parenthood, she’s hoping, “my imprint is that I have transformed the organization for this moment—and for the next 10 years.”
“If we succeed,” she adds, “That’s going to be freeing for all of us.”
Carrie Mae Covington died in 1985 at the age of 76. She had a hard life; she may have escaped the South, but she couldn’t escape being a Black woman in America. She became a domestic worker; she was abused at home. But when McGill Johnson thinks of her, she sees a “fierce fighting spirit” that carried forth for generations. And the world her granddaughter is living in where she can have candid conversations about race with white people? Lori Alexis McGill Johnson says it would “completely blow” her grandmother’s mind.