May 12, 2021
As an undergraduate student and Bonner Leader at Ursinus College, Tracie Johnson ’13 latched onto something that directly led to her career: finding passion in purpose.
“We really homed in on finding that match between what you’re skilled at and what’s in your heart,” said Johnson, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia. “Uncovering that sweet spot so that you can go on to live a purpose-filled life was something that really stuck with me because it allowed me to be intentional about what I wanted to do with my life.”
Johnson began to harness the power of legal advocacy as a certified legal intern on CLS’s Youth Justice Project after completing her second year at Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law. Upon graduating, she joined CLS as an Equal Justice Works Fellow working on a project geared toward creating career pathways for women and girls of color who face barriers to employment and higher education because of their juvenile and adult criminal records.
Upon completing her fellowship, she stayed on at CLS as a staff attorney in the employment unit and on the Youth Justice Project. In her new role, Johnson helped to establish a Youth Action Board comprised of young people navigating the legal systems CLS works within. The board works on outreach and special projects aimed at providing valuable information to young people in Philadelphia. She’s also a part of a bipartisan effort with two state representatives working on a college access bill that could help “unlock access to higher education for vulnerable youth of color.”
“It’s an effort to really help fight against intergenerational poverty and to allow people to change the trajectory of their lives and open up doors and not lock them out of opportunities. It could absolutely allow communities to thrive for generations,” Johnson said.
She’s also working to make meaningful change to the reentry space to address the unique needs of women and mothers as they return home from incarceration. Women often cite housing, job placement, family reunification, counseling, and more as needs that go unmet. Johnson is part of a coalition led by directly impacted women called the Incarcerated Women’s Working Group. It’s sponsored by CLS and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and it aims to generate concrete strategies and policies, including improving conditions inside Philadelphia’s women’s prison and reforming and reimaging diversionary programs in Philadelphia.
“Everything we do needs to be rooted in and guided by the people closest to the issue,” Johnson said. The group interviewed directly impacted women and used their testimonials to guide the report’s focus on barriers to accessing and completing diversion programs and recommendations as to how to remove these barriers.
“I’ve been reading a lot about transformative justice and this idea that we need to fix the problems that are playing out—to transform the environment surrounding many of these people. And that is inherently going to change behaviors, thought processes, dynamics, and interactions. I couldn’t be any more supportive of that given all that I’ve learned just by talking to people about their experiences,” Johnson said.
Johnson traces her work all the way back to her early days as a Bonner Leader at Ursinus doing G.E.D. tutoring in a women’s prison in Eagleville, Pa. She says the experience “showed me the importance of just listening to what people are going through, where they are, and what they need.”