MGA graduate raises awareness of nuclear issues among new audiences

Author: Laureen Fagan

Lenai Taylor Johnson '22 MGA
Lenai Taylor Johnson '22 MGA

Lenai Taylor Johnson (MGA ’22) isn’t sure how much people know about peace and security issues related to nuclear weapons, but she is working to ensure they know more—even using Instagram and TikTok to broach the topic with younger, more diverse groups.

Based in Washington D.C., Johnson is a communications associate with ReThink Media and the organization’s Peace and Security Collaborative. Peace and security is a core focus at ReThink, an organization that channels media and communications strategies to power social movements. Since graduating from Notre Dame with a master of global affairs degree, Johnson has focused on raising awareness of both the history and future of nuclear weapons use, as well as current threats and efforts toward nonproliferation and abolition.

“At the moment we work with a few different organizations, really pushing for peace on the [Korean] peninsula and making sure the United States is open to negotiations,” said Johnson, referring to the North Korean nuclear threat. While Pyongyang has long claimed attention in the nuclear space, recent developments with Russia, Ukraine, and NATO partners also spark discussions on messaging.

“We had some conversations last week about the need to work with more organizations in Europe,” said Johnson, who primarily works with partners in the US to influence domestic policy decisions.

For Johnson, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in the Philippines, her work at ReThink is a departure from working directly with impacted communities. She didn’t have previous experience in communications but saw an opportunity to better understand the foreign policy sphere.

At the same time, Johnson says her approach is shaped by prior work with indigenous communities and, through the Keough School’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the influence of instructor Garrett FitzGerald (now an assistant professor of peace and justice studies at Pace University in New York). FitzGerald, who had prior experience working for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, taught a master’s level course on colonialism and peace that sharpened Johnson’s vision for inclusion when advocating policy.

“It shifted my perspective on the field of peacebuilding and working with communities,” she said. “A lot of conversations in that class were about knowledge systems, justice, and the lack of diversity.”

For example, there’s a racial legacy attached to the historic use and testing of nuclear weapons—not just in Japan, but in the Marshall Islands, where sixty-seven US nuclear tests occurred. Those affected by displacement or radiation exposure continue to call for recognition and compensation for the harms.

“Nuclear issues feel like such an abstraction and the nuclear legacy isn’t really in our education,” said Johnson, who urges a more intersectional approach to engage younger people and activists on nuclear issues. She credits Maura Policelli, the executive director of the Keough School’s Washington Office, with helping her to understand the political landscape in Washington and how to influence media.

To that end, she works to see more women, people of color, and early to mid-career experts quoted in the media, and to ensure journalists connect with people rather than their talking points. For Johnson, that may mean reaching out more on Instagram, Twitter, or Mastodon—a microblogging platform similar to Twitter—to talk about nuclear weapons.

In her work with groups affected by nuclear weapons, Johnson is seeing the call for justice expand to include Native Americans affected by the 1945 Trinity tests in the American Southwest. But it’s a current issue, too: last month, radioactive waste from a Manhattan Project uranium processing site was found to have contaminated an elementary school near St. Louis, Missouri, where about 80 percent of the students are black.

“People think things like nuclear testing are in the past, without understanding the history,” Johnson said. “It needs to be talked about more—it’s part of our present reality too.”


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