After prison: Working toward systemic change After prison: Working toward systemic change After prison: Working toward systemic change

Her experience in the criminal justice system drives Michelle Brownlee toward her goal. “I want to go into government and change policies,” she says.

By Omari Amili | Photos by Meron Menghistab | December 2020

This is part of our “After Prison” series of interviews by Omari Amili. Go here to see all of the stories.

Based on her background and upbringing, no one would have expected Michelle Brownlee to succeed at Tacoma Community College; however, she thrived. From there, she went to The Evergreen State College to complete her undergraduate education, then to the University of Washington for grad school. The future looks bright for the current Master of Social Work student, an award-winning honors scholar. She is getting close to her dream of working in government and doing her part to create systemic change.

Omari Amili: What inspired you to continue your education and get involved in politics?

Michelle Brownlee: I have mentors who believed in me telling me that, ‘I am are smart enough. You’re good enough.’ when I got to Evergreen, Gilda Shepard told me, ‘You must keep going. You cannot stop. You’ve got to keep going to make change for others and yourself.’ Just having strong people who believe in you helps. I have mentors that will always be on my team.

When I first got out, I was on Policy Council, where I met Clair Wilson who is now Senator Wilson. She has changed my life forever! Clair is always willing to give me a seat at the table. She asks my opinion, and always lets my voice be heard by inviting me to have conversations and attend meetings that make changes. She is the one who inspired me to do the application for the Emerge training.

Amili: Tell me about the Emerge training.

Brownlee: Emerge is a program that supports and trains progressive Democratic women for office. They take 25 people per year, and I got in the Lisa Brown class of 2020. They teach you how to get your campaign set up, how to fundraise, and support you on running a campaign.

I figured I just needed to go as far as I can with education. I never thought I'd get a master's degree.

Michelle Brownlee

Amili: What do you think your desired role would be if you do run for office?

Brownlee: Senate. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed that I see, especially in the behavioral health field and prison reform. There are too many gaps in services with the same disadvantaged groups of people falling through them.

Amili: In my opinion, education is one of the top ways out of the vicious cycle for formerly incarcerated people. However, it takes time, and of course there is a financial burden. How did you know that education was your path?

Brownlee: I have always held myself back; always thinking I was not smart enough or good enough. So, once I found out that I can succeed with education, sky became the limit! I never thought I’d get a master’s degree.

Amili: When you finally do earn that master’s degree, what’s going to keep you going at that point?

Brownlee: My desire to change policies. I want to work crisis.

Amili: It’s great when people like you and I can share our stories and use our experiences to create systemic change. We might not even benefit from the work that we do, but people coming behind us will. When you’re done with your education, what do you want your life to look like?

Brownlee: I will probably be doing therapy two or three days a week in my own private practice and work in government, making changes.