Born on the heels of the civil rights movement, Tracey Brame, an associate dean and professor at West Michigan University Cooley Law School, always had a passion for activism.
The first time she felt that her voice needed to be heard was when she was about 10 years old. Brame led a demonstration by her lonesome for higher wages.
“I went on strike at my house because I thought I should have gotten a larger allowance,” she said. “I made a picket sign and walked up and down, in front of my house. The picket sign read ‘equal rights for kids.’ I was doing typical kids’ chores like washing the dishes, vacuuming the house on Saturday mornings and dusting the furniture. I am sure my mom was giving me a nominal amount of allowance to teach me the value of money, but whatever the amount was, I didn’t think it was enough.”
Even though her protest didn’t result in any major changes, she realized the importance of her voice, which she has used ever since to create a successful career.
That success has not gone unnoticed. Brame recently was named Michigan Lawyers Weekly’s 2020 Lawyer of the Year. She is the associate dean of Experiential and Practice Preparation at Cooley, as well as director of the law school’s Access to Justice Clinic, which provides legal representation to those seeking to expunge their criminal convictions.
Most recently, she became director of the law school’s Innocence Project, which is a part of the Innocence Network. It provides legal assistance to individuals who are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit by working to obtain post-conviction DNA testing of material evidence and unreliable forensics.
Brame said her success was molded by her parents. Her father was an airman who retired last year after working for 53 years at Ford Motor Co. Her no-nonsense mother worked at a bank and later at Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Organization: West Michigan University Cooley Law School
Position: Associate Dean of Experiential and Practice Preparation
Birthplace: Great Falls, Montana
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband, Kenyatta; son, Kamau and daughter, Kimani
Business/Community Involvement: Immediate past president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, board member of LINC UP, board member of Samaritas, president of Greater Grand Rapids Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, member of Michigan Indigent Defense Commission
Biggest Career Break: Getting a job at the Public Defender Service office in Washington, D.C.
Brame was raised on the northwest side of Detroit during a “tumultuous” period in the nation when it was grappling with the crack epidemic in the ’80s and early ’90s.
“Two blocks, one way, was a housing project and two blocks the other way was an upper-middle-class neighborhood and we lived right in the middle of those two areas,” she said. “I had friends that span the spectrum and as I got older, I had friends in the neighborhood, some of them I remain good friends with and they are doing great things, but quite a few of them didn’t make it. They were stereotypically imprisoned or died violently. Some of the guys that I grew up with, in particular, are no longer with us, so I had a mixed upbringing. I grew up in the middle of that but didn’t fall victim to it in large part because of my parents. My mom was serious business. I had to be home before the streetlights came on. She didn’t allow me to hang out with certain people or do certain things and, of course, I thought she was so strict, but she tried her best to keep us out of trouble.”
Brame’s parents remained overly protective of her even after she went off to the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, where she had the intention of pursuing journalism.
When she was a sophomore, however, Brame said she took a class that focused on African American female literature, which was taught by Professor Buzz Alexander, who changed her life.
“I walked into class and the professor was about 6-foot-2, a hippy-looking white guy,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘What in the world is Buzz Alexander going to teach me about Zora Neale Hurston, William Attaway?’ Like, how in the world is this guy going to teach me anything about African American female writers?
“I loved the class. I loved the class so much that I became so close to him. I took just about every course he taught. In the second semester of my sophomore year, I became one of his youngest teaching assistants for a class he taught called ‘Vietnam and the Artist.’ That was a life-changing class for me in a couple of ways. He taught the class from a totally left-wing, hippy perspective. We studied the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese and of the Black soldiers who were drafted into the war. We read books and poems, we watched documentaries and films like ‘The Deer Hunter,’ so we studied the Vietnam War from a very liberal perspective. It was eye-opening for me. We learned about Black history as kids, but this class was in-depth. We watched a documentary called ‘No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger,’ which was about the Black experience of being a soldier in Vietnam and coming home to discrimination and racism. The content was just mind-blowing.”
Between taking Alexander’s classes and classes about constitutional law, the 14th amendment, and seeing the outcry that followed the Rodney King beating, Brame found her passion for using the law to help people.
She went on to the University of Michigan Law School where she met Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer who represented individuals on death row in Alabama. He also is a social justice activist and the author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which was turned into a movie, “Just Mercy,” in 2019.
Brame said he talked about the death penalty, something she didn’t know much about because Michigan doesn’t have the death penalty. That, she said, was the life-changing part of law school. She wanted to do what Stevenson was doing, work with people on death row. She took an internship in Alabama at Stevenson’s office.
“It was everything I thought it was going to be,” she said. “I got to do everything. I got to watch attorneys from his office argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. I got to visit former jurors and interview them. I got to do research on the cases. I got to meet Walter McMillian, who was the subject of the movie ‘Just Mercy.’ He was released just before I got (to Alabama). I took paperwork with me to his house. I just really got to work alongside Bryan for three months and it was life-changing.”
Brame also got the opportunity to draft racial-justice legislation for the state of Alabama.
With her mind made up about becoming a public defender, Brame was determined to return to Alabama after graduation. That was wishful thinking, however, because her mother, who is family-oriented, didn’t want her to go so far and Brame was respectful of that.
She settled back in Detroit where she clerked for Judge Julian Abele Cook Jr. in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan. She was a public defender for about nine years, working with individuals who were convicted of crimes. Brame was an assistant defender with the State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit and she later became the research and writing specialist at the Federal Defender Office.
Brame later became a staff attorney for Public Defender Services for the District of Columbia. She returned to Michigan after a few years and moved to Grand Rapids where her husband grew up. She worked as a family attorney for Legal Aid of Western Michigan, helping low-income families with legal issues.
Brame got the opportunity to join WMU-Cooley Law School in 2006 and since then she has taken on numerous roles. She was initially involved with family law and then she ascended to become a member of the administration, becoming associate dean and a professor at Cooley’s Grand Rapids campus.
In January, she took on the additional role of director for WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, which is the only post-conviction DNA innocence organization in the state. The school’s organization has been responsible for the exoneration of five men, most recently in February.
“I am really excited about that,” she said. “This has brought me full circle, back to the social justice work I was doing at the State Appellate Defender Office.”