by Constance Garcia-Barrio
Mt. Airy has spiritual yeast, a 4’ 11” stash of energy who helps create solutions to problems. “I have that kind of start-up mentality,” said Nathea Lee, 58, photographer, arts administrator, seeker of social justice and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism.
Born in Washington, D.C., Lee follows a spiritual tradition that lets her see past barriers to aiding others. “One of the most fundamental lessons of Buddhism, regardless of the tradition, is to treat others with compassion and loving kindness,” Lee said. “That has helped me to think more broadly about how I can be of service.”
Lee also draws on the cultural riches of her childhood to envision possibilities. “I grew up in a middle-class home,” said Lee, mother of three adult children and grandmother of two girls and one boy. “I took piano lessons and ballet lessons and grew up visiting the museums that make Washington a world-class city.”
Her work in supporting the performing arts seems a natural step. She served as the first executive director of the U Street Theatre Foundation, the nonprofit arts organization established to operate the historic Lincoln Theatre on “Washington’s Black Broadway,” which hosted African American performers in the Jim Crow era. Lee also worked at a public relations firm specializing in public interest advocacy.
A position as audience and community services manager at the Kimmel Center opened up at just the right time for her. “I had been on a personal sabbatical and needed to get back to work,” Lee said. “It was the right position because it brought me to Philly when my youngest had left home for college, and I could spread my wings beyond D.C.”
Mt. Airy attracted her for several reasons. “The economic and cultural diversity in this area are an important part of what make it special, and this part of Philly feels very familiar because the trees remind me of where I grew up and where I raised my family.”
Meanwhile, life took a sharp left turn when her job was eliminated due to budgetary constraints, but she was immediately offered a position as grants manager. She helped to secure a million dollars in support from major institutional funders. “Running a nonprofit is about relationships,” Lee said. “Funders must feel confident that you’ll use their investment in your organization wisely. When I meet with funders, we don’t talk as much about money as about mission and programming.”
Lee faced other challenges. Her father had dementia, and she moved him from Washington to Philly in June of 2011 and cared for him until his death in December of 2013. She still found time to deepen her Mt. Airy roots with Weavers Way as a focal point. “I’ve shopped at co-ops all my life. Cooperative economics resonate with me, and the fact that co-ops are democratically controlled. I ran for the board because Weavers Way is such a vital part of the Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill community, and it was a way to get to know my neighbors while doing something worthwhile.”
Lee thought she had only a slim chance, but fellow co-operators surprised her. Elected to the board in 2011, she honed in on the issue of wholesome food for all Philadelphians. “Let’s face it. The Co-op could easily be an elitist organization,” Lee said. “You either pay $30 a year to build equity or a lump sum of $400. Either way, you have to have the money available. Why should only our middle-class or wealthier neighbors have access to local organic food? That excludes so many people.”
Lee didn’t let matters stand that way. Weavers Way could make nutritious food available to low-income households, she felt. Lee and board member Sue Wasserkrug founded and co-chaired the Food Justice Committee. Begun two years ago with the support of general manager Glenn Bergman, the Food Justice Committee took a three-pronged approach.
“We concentrated on education, information and access. It seems counter-intuitive, but shoppers at the Chestnut Hill store represent a more diverse group than those in Mt. Airy. You have bus lines on Germantown Avenue — the L, the 23 and the 77. We can tell by the EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfers] receipts for food items. The Mt. Airy store is a little more insular. You have to know it’s there.”
Rabbi Mordecai Liebling gave a series of workshops on food justice issues for Weavers Way members. This month, Weavers Way has unveiled its Food For All program, which lowers the bar for membership. Lee resigned from the board of Weavers Way just as her vision bore fruit.
After five years as managing director of Philly’s Kulu Mele African Dance and Drum Ensemble, a 45-year-old folkloric African dance company, Lee accepted a position as managing partner with Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women. Begun in 1984, UBW has garnered a New York Dance and Performance Award, a Capezio Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance and a tour of South Africa as a part of DanceMotion USA. “I’m not giving up my home here,” she said, “I’m splitting time between Brooklyn and Philly, but I didn’t feel that I could prepare for board meetings.”
Another interest anchors her here. In 2009, Lee launched a freelance photography business, NatheaLee/PhotoBravura, in her home. “I did self-directed study and taught myself what it means to be a professional photographer,” Lee said. After exploring different kinds of photography — architectural, nature and travel — Lee decided on portraits, special events and performing arts. “I want to continue to develop my photography and work with Urban Bush Women,” she said. “The company is doing exciting work with a social justice bent and the founder/visioning partner, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, has a wonderful vision for the company’s future.” With Lee’s energy for new enterprises, one imagines both endeavors flourishing.
You can contact Nathea Lee at email@example.com