A Justice Advocate Grounded by the Community She Serves
Practicing Law with a Battery in Your Back
Tracie Johnson was born and raised in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, PA. She had many chances and opportunities to go elsewhere. Even with all of the thinking she has done regarding her path, Tracie feels that her life has been divinely guided. She recently graduated from Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law and plans to stay in Philadelphia to work on issues she has cared about for a long time. Though her career formed over time, she could not be a better fit for serving the community in Philadelphia.
Connecting the Spirit of Service
Tracie attended school twenty-five miles away from her hometown, at Ursinus College. Despite the short distance, she went through culture shock upon arrival. Away from her family and in an environment she was not used to, she struggled to feel like she truly belonged. Then she joined Bonner and started to find her place. “Bonner really emphasized the importance of finding out what is in your heart and what you are good at, and combining it." Through the process of community engagement, coupled with inward reflection, she found belonging at Ursinus College. Over time, and through hard work, she grew into the ambition and confidence that an education at Ursinus instilled in her.
Her first interest in a career in law came while serving at a women’s prison where she helped female inmates with GED tutoring as an Ursinus College Bonner. Through her service, she first became aware of issues specific to the justice system and how they uniquely affected women, and specifically women of color. Her passion for criminal justice reform grew from there. After earning degrees in Philosophy and Media & Communications in 2013, she started work with Philadelphia VIP, a pro bono legal services organization. She got to know and share the powerful stories of low-income Philadelphians with critical legal needs who were able to stabilize their homes, families, and livelihood with the help of pro bono attorneys recruited by Philadelphia VIP. After a year of working at Philadelphia VIP, she realized she “wanted to do the work, not just write about it.” She went on to volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and then worked as a Community Outreach Coordinator at a small communications design firm, Social Impact Studios, before starting law school at Temple University in 2015.
Advocacy Armored in Knowledge
By the time Tracie started law school she was ready for it. She found there was more time studying and less time in the community. She explained that, “Bonner had put a battery in my back.” So, while she readily embraced the rigors of law school, she missed her connection to the community. Her first summer internship brought her back to the engagement she loved. In 2016 she worked at the Juvenile Law Center, where she conducted legal research and writing on the constitutionality of youth policing tactics, while visiting juvenile detention facilities and sitting in on delinquency proceedings.
During her second summer of law school, she worked with Community Legal Services helping young people gain and maintain access to social security benefits and helping young people clear up their criminal records through expungement proceedings. “Even just being accused of something creates a stigma and destroys your reputation and credibility,” she elaborated. She observed how young women of color, in particular, were being barred from accessing higher education, employment opportunities, and licensing opportunities such as a cosmetology certification. Tracie stated that for many of the criminal restrictions in place, “There is no real rational relationship between the protection and the preclusion. The issue the law is stated to address creates an unnecessary legal barrier for a wide net of people who do not need to be excluded. These aren’t the people the law meant to protect against.” Her firm statements often sound like formal legal briefs, but they toll with purpose.
The Need to be Proximate
As a 2018 law school graduate, Tracie is studying for the Pennsylvania Bar Exam in Philadelphia. Afterwards, she will return to Community Legal Services as an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig. Currents that have flowed throughout her life are finally pooling together as she starts a career she already loves. Past experiences are being organized into coherent missions. She says that as a Bonner at Ursinus College, “Seeds were being planted. I was hearing it, I was feeling it—but I didn’t have the context to really identify the issues and solutions. And now I am finally getting to do a project on issues I have cared about for a very long time now.”
She has thought about practicing law in a different area, or working in a different sector, but she prefers to be among the people she is serving. Quoting her legal hero Bryan Stevenson, “There is a need to be proximate,” she suggests, if you truly want to address the needs of vulnerable communities. Tracie is born and raised in Philadelphia, and will work there on the needs she has seen in and around her community.
To learn more about Tracie, check out:
- The Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
- Her article about her work—Expungements Can Erase the Stigma that Haunts People of Color
Written by Taylor Clarke, Bonner Leader Stetson University ‘19