Tracey Brame wants to be a guide for the next generation of lawyers, and a role model especially if they’re minority students.
shouldn't be difficult for a woman who has been involved in everything
from helping prepare a death row appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court
to representing low income families and sexual assault victims here in
Kent County. But she concedes it requires a delicate balance of
commitments to students, the community and her family.
38, is using years of research and court experience in federal district
court, state and federal appellate and public defender offices in
Washington D.C. and Michigan to teach, advise and create awareness.
She’s using her talents to encourage minorities to think out of the box
when it comes to career choices. Within Reach
a role model, Brame, says she can show by example that a law career is
not out of reach. She does that through her positions as assistant dean
and assistant professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s campus in Grand Rapids
Brame has an open door policy and you can talk to her about
everything,” says Moraima Ruiz, 26, who is starting her third year at
Cooley. The New York City native is the first college graduate in her
family, who came to this country from the Dominican Republic.
has lived in Grand Rapids for 10 years and considers the area her
second home. Brame’s success has been a tremendous influence in her
class choices and approach to a law career.
“I see what (Brame)
has accomplished and it encourages me as to what I can do, too,” Ruiz
says. “There are a lot of barriers to overcome, but she shows you what
things have worked for her.”
Brame came to Cooley in 2006 from Legal Aid of Western Michigan.
She has quickly moved up the ladder because of her enthusiasm and get-things-done attitude.
Thomas M. Cooley Law School is the largest in the country, with three
campuses in Michigan. In addition to Grand Rapids, schools operate in
Lansing and Auburn Hills. Cooley is ranked first for the number of
African-American students among the country’s 195 American Bar
Association-accredited law schools. In Grand Rapids, the campus has
more than 600 students, with 25 percent minorities. About 7 percent are
African-Americans.Access For All
began her work at the school as the first director of the Access to
Justice Clinic, which is a hands-on program staffed by students who
serve as lawyers under the supervision of faculty. Brame helped develop
the project to serve primarily family law cases that fall through the
cracks of the Legal Aid system. She speaks fluent Spanish, which has
been essential for clients with language problems.
been advocate for the poor since law school at the University of
Michigan. An internship in the early 1990s at the non-profit Alabama
Capital Resource Center, now called the Equal Justice Initiative
, in Montgomery, Alabama, “changed my life.”
worked on racial justice legislation and did a lot of research on death
penalty appeal cases,” Brame says. She was 23 at the time and under the
“brilliant” mentorship of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard educated lawyer
who established the center and continues to direct its efforts for the
poor and underserved.
“I drove around a lot of the backwoods of
Alabama trying to find old witnesses and jurors,” she adds. “That work
really opened my eyes and set the tone for my whole career.”
the first generation in her family to graduate from college and move
into law, Brame feels “somewhat humbled” by her quick rise in a job
both varied and challenging, she says.
“I want to get more
involved with the Grand Rapids community and do as much as I can for
the kids,” she adds. “Every problem seems to be more acute for
African-Americans and the underprivileged.”The Work of an Advocate
Brame has been involved in many civil law cases, her passion is in
criminal law and defense cases because of her past experience.
have a disposition toward advocacy work because there’s far too many
African-Americans in prison who didn’t have the money or right
representation,” Brame says.
Brame hopes to
establish a teen court in Grand Rapids, similar to the Lansing Teen
Court in Lansing, a division of the state’s Child and Family Services.
She serves as a volunteer judge for first time youthful offenders
charged with misdemeanors and judged by their peers. The kids admit to
their conduct and must go through mentoring, counseling or academic
tutoring. The “jury” decides their fate, be that community service,
paying a fine or reimbursing a retailer for stolen merchandise.
love kids and feel it’s my mission to help keep them out of the
criminal justice system,” she says. “Early intervention can really make
the difference.” An effort is underway to sell the program to the Grand
Rapids judicial system, Brame adds, “but we’re on the ground floor
Cooley law students can attest to that. Ebony Holden says
that Brame “has had a profound effect on my law school career.” The
Chicago native is in her third year as a part-time student at Cooley
and hopes to specialize in family law, primarily domestic violence
mediation and children’s rights.
“As (Brame) climbs the
corporate ladder, she often times makes me feel as if I’m strapped in
for the ride,” Holden adds. “She is the guiding light behind the
campus’ Black Law Student Association. It is her zealous and diligent
advocacy and contributions that help to maintain the organization’s
Indeed, Brame’s support has helped the association
become the largest and most active group on campus, says Nelson Miller,
associate dean.More Than an Advisor
is not only an advisor, but also like a mother,” he adds. “With about
42 African-Americans on campus, the association is a very special
organization and she even opens her home to the students. She is
committed to our minority population.”
Brame also is committed
to her family, which includes her husband, Kenyatta Brame, 38, also a
lawyer and vice president of business services at Cascade Engineering.
The couple has two children, Kamau, born in 2006 and Kimani, who
arrived in September, at just about the same time Brame was appointed
assistant dean. At times, Brame’s office holds almost as many toys as
law books, when the children are in tow.
“I’m passionate about
finding a balance between motherhood and my profession,” Brame says,
thankful that Cooley allows her to work from home one day a week. “I
value the idea of staying home, but not at this point in my life.”
is working with Miller and other colleagues to establish another clinic
in collaboration with the Kent County Public Defender’s Office, where
students will team up with lawyers in that office. Brame would teach
the class and course work. A proposal is being drafted for Kent
County’s consideration, which Cooley officials hope to implement by the
“Tracey is a creator and innovator and she fits
so well here because one of Cooley’s points is innovation,” Miller
says. “We try to offer many different options and programs and clinics
and she’s been wonderful in that respect.”The Other Side of the Law
an under-represented population, minorities need to be drawn into law
careers to help level the playing field. The local bar association has
been supportive of efforts by Cooley to do just that, Miller adds. The
idea is to graduate more minorities and encourage them to practice law
in Grand Rapids.
“Tracey has been a leader in getting to law
firms with programs,” he says. “It will only benefit Grand Rapids if we
can change its reputation that we’re pretty homogeneous. Actually, we
have some very special diversified resources here.”
actively trying to recruit more people of color for adjunct faculty
positions and wants to work more with high schools - especially inner
city schools – to expose them to “the other side of the law.” That
could include workshops at Cooley, use of the school’s library and
“Grand Rapids has come a long way, but the
more diversity we can achieve, the better,” she says. “If we have a
school that actively recruits and sets an example, it will help keep
people here. Sometimes the access to the majority culture can be hard
to come by and it’s important to show young blacks there’s not really a
whole lot of difference between ‘me’ and ‘them’.”
A veteran journalist formerly of The Grand Rapids Press, Mary
Radigan is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids. She most recently
wrote for Rapid Growth about the FIRST Robotics competition.
Tracey Brame, assistant dean and assistant professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s campus in Grand Rapids
. (3)Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved