Tonya Lewis Lee is a very busy woman. The former corporate attorney is a best-selling author, a television and documentary producer, multi-media production company owner and recently became a spokesperson for the CDC's Office of Minority Health’s Infant Mortality Awareness project — in addition to being a wife and mother of two. Recently, she shared with EBONY how exactly she keeps it balanced and how she's trying to help our people live better:
TONYA LEWIS LEE: [Laughs] I manage it all by not doing it all at the same time! I am really lucky that I’ve been able to pace things throughout my children’s childhood. Since my kids are older and more independent, I can do more things, but I still don’t do everything at once. When I feel like things are getting a little topsy turvey, I’m lucky to be able to scale back to get a handle on things. I love all of the things I get to do.
EBONY: One of the things you’re working on right now is your Health You Now initiative. Tell us more about that.
TLL: Right now, we just re-launched our website, HealthyYouNow.com. I started it in 2009 with a desire to create a women’s health community that would connect regular women who wanted to get healthy with the proper resources to do so. This is also a place where women can share their own health stories and support each other on their journeys and I’m really excited about that.
The desire to create something like this came from when I first started my work with the Office of Minority Health (OMH) focusing on Infant Mortality Awareness. Working on this project, I learned that too many black women are having babies born prematurely or too small and so something is going on with our health that needs to be addressed. So I created this site to try to find easier ways for Black women to get our health under control.
EBONY: Many people have been eating unhealthy foods for years and those food choices are not only habits but traditions, even for people who have access to healthier food choices. Do you have any advice for how people can break those habits?
TLL: Breaking habits is difficult. It really comes down to you making a personal choice to want to change your life. You have to want to be healthy and you have to think about what it means to be healthy and why that’s important to you. That goes back to self-esteem and trying to get people into the mindset that they matter and how choices in food and exercise convey that mindset.
And then it’s about getting people to make small easy changes that lead to bigger changes later. One day you decide not to order fries and order salad instead. Start one day at a time and look for support. I’ve had my own journey to manage and maintain my weight and make sure I’m healthy and I’m always looking for support. I’m looking for a book or a community or someone to cheer me on. And that’s what women will find at HealthyYouNow.com.
EBONY: Support when you’re trying to make lifestyle changes is very important. And sometimes when you’re so excited about the changes you’ve made and you want to share them with other people and they’re not receptive to making the same changes, that can be difficult.
TLL: You’ve got to be careful about the people around you. If you want to make a change, sometimes there are people who are uncomfortable with your change. Sometimes you have to put a little force-field around yourself to protect against people who might want to interfere with your growth.
But it’s also important to understand that you don’t have to change everyone around you just because you’ve changed. But maybe when people start to see how much better you look and feel, they’ll pick up and start wanting those changes too. But it’s a very individual choice.
I’m vegan and my family thinks I’m crazy, but every now and then they try something vegan I make. Sometimes they turn up their noses and sometimes they think it’s great!
EBONY: Speaking of family, you’re giving your husband Spike Lee a run for his money with your new production company. You were a very successful television producer and documentary filmmaker and now you’re moving into independent feature films. What can you tell us about the film projects you’re working on?
TLL: Well, I’m really thrilled because I have just joined forces with a producing partner of mine and we’ve started a production company that will produce independent films based on books. Our first is based on the book The Watkins Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis. It’s a story about an African American family living in Michigan who travels down to Alabama and happen to be there when the 16th street bombings happen during the Civil Rights Movement. We will be shooting that this fall and we have Chris Rock attached to play the dad.
We are also producing another film based on the book Monster by Walter Dean Meyers. That is a contemporary story about 15-year-old African American boy on trial for his alleged part in a felony murder during a robbery.
EBONY: What would you say has been the most challenging thing you’ve faced as you set out to bring these books to life?
TLL: Both of these films really deal with issues of identity with black boys. As the mother of a Black boy, I will tell you, having an opportunity to work on this right now is giving me such clarity about what it might mean when my son is out in the world without me. If he’s driving our car somewhere with his music up loud and he has his hoodie on, I worry about that. I worry about him. People in our neighborhood know who he is, but what if one day there’s a cop who doesn’t?
I think our boys think about what it means to them to be a Black boy. When my son was 3 years old, I remember him touching his hands to his face and saying “I’m brown.” I’m watching him now coming to terms with what that means to him and what that will mean for him in society. I’m excited about being able to explore the identity of a young black boy. We rarely see stories from their points of view so this is a challenge. And I’m grateful that authors like Walter Dean Meyers give us these perspectives because it is important for these young men and this society to see these images on a larger scale.
EBONY: Speaking of creating diverse images, your husband has been very vocal about his dislike for Tyler Perry’s productions, dismissing them as “coonery and buffoonery.” Do you agree with that characterization and are your projects a response to those productions in any way?
TLL: I don’t want to knock Tyler Perry because evidently there are a whole lot of people that really like Tyler Perry’s work. That is completely their option. He can do the work that he wants to do how he wants to do it. There is definitely an audience that his work is serving. There is silly entertainment, like The Three Stooges — and I’m not equating Tyler Perry to The Three Stooges — but the problem is that there are just not enough other kinds of material out there to provide a balance.
So the real issue for me is, how do I get my stories out there? I need to be able to push my points of view out the way that he does. It’s so hard because it feels like what Hollywood goes for and the audience seems to go for seems to be more of that escapist kind of film. So the challenge for [our production company] is we have to be smarter about how we get our messages out.
EBONY: You’ve written books with your husband, but do you ever consult each other on film projects?
TLL: We are really lucky to be working in the same fields and to also have different mindsets and provide different points of view for each other. Every now and then I consult him and I know he’ll always be really honest with me. But we’re actually very shy with each other when it comes to seeking out advice because we know that we’re our toughest critics as well as each other’s biggest cheerleaders. So before I come to him, I make sure I’ve dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s.
EBONY: In addition to the books you’ve written with your husband, you’re also a best-selling author of the novel, Gotham Diaries. What does it take to be a best-selling author?
TLL: It takes patience and perseverance because nothing happens overnight. For me it is a process you and you have to really hang in there and enjoy the process because you never know if your book will get sold. For a writer, sitting down and working on something is fun but getting out in to the world and really hustling it and getting other people excited about your work is the hard part. But if you’ve got a compelling story and you’ve got perseverance, you’ve got all you need. With e-books there really are no more barriers to book publishing and success.
EBONY: What is the end-goal for your books? Are you considering turning your own books into films?
TLL: I would love to do a children’s series off of Please, Baby, Please. That is something I’ve been thinking about for years and something I long to do and will do at some point.
But right now, we’ve just published our latest children’s book, Giants Steps to Change the World, with the intention of inspiring people to find what their passion is and really work at that and aim to leave the world a little bit better than when they got there. So with all my books and films and future projects, that’s what I hope to do: leave the world a little bit better and bring some good to someone somewhere.