INSPIRED FROM A YOUNG AGE
Growing up in a tight-knit community in Olive Branch, Mississippi was a major part of Alice Marie Johnson’s formative years. “One thing that my mother taught us was to be a community builder,” Alice recalled. “She was a woman ahead of her time.” Her mother inspired many people in the community, including Alice, to take care of one another and strengthen bonds.
While her mother was her initial inspiration, Alice stays inspired by young Changemakers in communities around the country who won’t stand for injustice, and refuse to give in to hate. “They don’t want things like this,” she said. “Some of them are refusing to be influenced by things that are totally negative. I’ve seen some young people that are breaking away, stepping forth and taking that leadership role.”
Seeing others around you fighting for the same thing is a reminder that you’re not alone. You have a community working with you towards the same goals. That’s inspiring – and motivating.
FOCUSING ON HOPE
Alice has never been one to focus on negativity. Many people who are sentenced to long terms in prison for a nonviolent drug offense, like Alice, may find it difficult to stay encouraged, but she did things differently. “I made a promise to God that I would never give up hope,” she explained. With that, she started bringing that hope to other women in her prison by helping them work on computer skills, volunteering in the hospice, creating a Special Olympics for special needs prisoners and even writing plays for the inmates to perform. There was a transformation. The women began acting differently because they had a purpose, were growing and being applauded. “Even in a dark place like prison, we came together as a community,” she said.
She kept up hope that she would get out of prison one day while fighting for prison reform from the inside. Through video calls, she spoke at universities and on Google and YouTube. It was when she did a video Op-Ed for Mic.com that she caught the attention of Kim Kardashian, who decided to put a team together to help her achieve freedom. “For seven months, they worked on my case. And [Kim] got an audience with the president. Seven days later, the world watched as I ran into freedom,” Alice said.
While Alice was incredibly grateful for her own freedom, she wanted to give others that same feeling. “I will never forget the women and men who I left behind. As I was leaving the prison, they were in all of the windows, stomping, screaming and beating the bars and saying, ‘Miss Alice, don’t forget about us.’ It sounded like the whole ground was moving like an earthquake,” she recalled. “And when I looked at the windows, and I made the motion of throwing my heart to them, it was an explosion. They started stomping and screaming even louder. So when I left, that day, I took that image with me that these women are dependent upon me to help them.”
SHARING THE INSPIRATION
The women she had left inspired her to tell her story, which echoes the story of so many still incarcerated. By putting a face on the issue of criminal justice reform, she helped to pass the First Step Act, a significant piece of criminal justice reform legislation that has helped more than 20,000 people like her leave prison. She also personally worked on clemency petitions so others could have the second chance she did.
Part of helping people get that second chance is breaking stigmas around people who have been incarcerated. When meeting with local business leaders, she explains how giving someone an employment opportunity would not only be good for the person needing a job but for the company and the community. “I could actually see right then, and to see how it changed a family to have that person employed to feel that self-esteem again. But I’ve seen many situations like that, where I’ve had the employer come back and thank me for convincing them to hire those who are ex-offenders.” Healing takes time, but every single victory keeps Alice inspired.
It also helps her to inspire others to focus on the light instead of the darkness. “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.”
Sometimes, when traveling with Bishop Omar Jahwar and Heal America, people would recognize Alice and want to tell her their own stories. Some people would ask what she was doing in their town. Alice would tell them “I’m here to do what my mama used to say: ’I came to see about y’all.’”