Alice Marie Johnson on building community in prison

“Focusing on darkness literally paralyzes you,” she said. “Stop focusing on what happened in the past. We've had some turbulent times, but it's time to move forward. And the only way that we can move forward as a country is together.”

Growing Up in Community

Community has always been key in Alice Marie Johnson’s life. Growing up in the small town of Olive Branch, Mississippi with nine siblings, Alice’s church and local communities were very important. Much of this came down to her mother. “She was a woman ahead of her time, because she was very much a community builder.” 

That focus would remain with her in unexpected situations. That led her to build her community in unexpected ways that can inspire and encourage anyone interested in getting involved at a local level. 

Building Community Behind Bars

When Alice was given a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, she promised God that she would never give up hope. But, all around her, she saw women who felt hopeless despite having shorter sentences. She helped by volunteering her time in different ways, such as building community through artistic expression. She started writing plays for her fellow inmates.

“The whole atmosphere in prison changed. Even the staff was asking me ‘Miss Alice, when are you going to do another play?’ because the women would act differently after performing.” Many of these women had never been applauded, but being in the play gave them a chance to succeed and shine. “Even in a dark place like prison, we came together as a community. And we were able to cross race lines, religious lines – all kinds of lines.”

Learn what inspires Alice

Serving Communities “to Build and Not Burn”

After having her sentence commuted in 2018 (she would receive a full presidential pardon in 2020), Alice worked with grassroots organizations like Heal America.

She knew she had found a brother in Heal America’s co-founder Bishop Omar Jahwar and began speaking with him when he visited different communities. “I started seeing something happen when he went into those cities,” she recalled. “People actually did want their communities to come together. Bishop would bring together law enforcement and people in the communities. And I saw the same thing that I saw in prison – whether it was prison guards, prisoners, police officers or impacted communities, we had to be able to bridge that gap so that people can see each other as human beings. We could not be judged by the color of our skin or the color of our uniform. I really saw something unifying taking place around the nation.”

Read Alice’s practical solutions for nonprofit leaders to create change

When people work together to help their community, everyone has a vested interest. That’s a point of commonality from which great coalitions can be built.  “The police officers and city leaders we spoke to were glad to see someone who was there to build and not burn.”

Alice knows it’s at the grassroots level that things can really get done. “It starts with community,” she said, “because they’re the ones living it. We hear about things that are going on in the nation that will affect us overall, but it is the people in the community working together who are going to make the change really happen. If you can’t make changes in the community, you can’t make changes in the nation.”