Work That Makes a Difference – Michele Johnson (’94)

As the Executive Director of the Tennessee Justice Center in Nashville, Tennessee, Michele Johnson has an exhaustive set of responsibilities.

But she doesn’t consider her workload as a public interest attorney a burden. As an eight-year-old, she decided she didn’t ever again want to witness individuals being institutionalized because their families couldn’t assist them. She now works to ensure that assistance is available.

Describe the work you do and what a day on the job might involve.

We focus on improving the laws, policies, and programs that provide security, dignity, and opportunity to families struggling with illness or financial trouble. We also train health care providers, social service providers, and community leaders to ensure that those in their communities can get what they need.

  • We help Tennesseans master the maze of health and nutrition resources. Our caseworkers help individuals navigate complicated systems to get health care and food. Our one-on-one service to vulnerable Tennesseans allows us to stay close to the people impacted by policies; their courage, experience, and voice drives all ofour system-focused work.

  • We train health care providers, social workers and local community groups to better understand the complex healthcare system and the laws that govern it.  We also work directly with TennCare and other public programs to make sure that services are available and work as they are supposed to.

  • When systemic issues affect lots of people, we find the root cause and address the laws, practices, and policies that create those issues.  Sometimes, current policies stand in the way of our state’s ability to honor the rights and dignity of every Tennessean. In these cases, our legal team works to achieve systemic change through the courts. We also help equip regular Tennesseans with the tools they need to understand legislation and public policy, and to make their voices heard on issues that affect them.

Why have you made advocacy such an important part of your legal career?

I was raised in a big Catholic family and at a young age was shaped by the experience of my two cousins born with severe intellectual and physical disabilities who had to be institutionalized in order to get their health needs met.  They desperately wanted to be with the rest of their family and their mother was heartbroken to leave them, but it was the only way that their health needs could be addressed. They both died in their teens of preventable causes common to people who are institutionalized.  I decided on that day, at the age of 8, that the system shouldn’t divide families and should give every child a chance to thrive at home. I decided to spend my career making sure of that.   

What are some of the frustrations that come with this work?

  • We are always outnumbered and out-resourced.

  • Lasting change is slow. It is often so slow that it will be too late for the clients we love. Real change requires us to appeal to the light within others even on days when it feels unfair (and a smidge infuriating) that leaders’ harmful decisions are needlessly damaging the lives of precious Tennessee children.

  • Often decisions are made based upon short-sighted, self-interested politics and not on what decisionmakers know is best for the state or our kids.

  • So much of public opinion is based upon myths and echo-chamber news watching. Folks blame the wrong people for their challenging plights. Sadly, too many people are drawn in and distracted by division and fear, leaving so much potential power for good on the table.

  • If you have loads of power, it’s easy to shoot the tiny & poor messengers. I have years of scares from said shootings. It’s much harder to engage in constructive problem solving. But as they say, you can’t clap with one hand. Finding ways to encourage our leaders to engage in solution-focused conversation is often difficult.

What are some of the rewards that come with this work?

The rewards are too many to name.

  • Watching my clients’ graduations and other milestones (whether it’s Kindergarten, 6th grade, high school, college, or law school);

  • Watching former clients go on to run their own organizations or thrive serving others;

  • Watching clients find their voices amidst heartbreak and discover the transformative power of speaking out to change policy so no other family has to suffer in the way theirs did;

  • Watching volunteers and co-workers figure out how to use their unique gifts to make life better for others;

  • Winning a major policy reform;

  • Feeling the power of being completely dependent on the goodness and righteousness of others;

  • Hearing from your teenage children that they want to find a career where they can change the world.

If you could talk to law students who are considering a similar career path, what would you tell them about your work in advocacy and what advice would you give them?

Choose to practice law in a way that will both make you proud and bring you joy.  So few lawyers are happy. I love my job. I love my clients. I love my co-workers and partners. I get to change the laws in a way that makes our state stronger and healthier. People will tell you a career in public interest law is impossible. They will tell you to “go to social work school instead.” They will tell you just pay your dues and then you can change the world once you are older. Ignore them. Listen to to the tiny voice inside you that calls you to change the world now. The sacrifices you make are beyond worth it.

This is the fourth in a series of interviews originally published in the May 2019 issue of Tennessee Law.