“I really enjoy my work; it’s very creative. I have a lot of latitude in figuring out how I am going to solve a particular problem and I’m fortunate to have a lot of tools at my disposal to solve a problem.”
By Desilon Daniels
At the age of 10, Linden-born Marcia Johnson entered the Georgetown school of St. Rose’s High. For the
young girl who had spent her childhood growing up in Amelia’s Ward, this was an adventure outside of the humdrum of her life.
However, a new adventure again came her way less than two years later when her family migrated to the United States. Since then, Marcia has grown from a wide-eyed young girl to a confident and successful woman.
And though many Guyanese would never set foot again in the land that gave them birth, Marcia does not only visit, but is determined to help her country in any way that she can.
As a highly successful voters’ rights lawyer in the US, Marcia is able to help thousands of persons, particularly minorities, through her work and hopes to replicate her successes in Guyana.
Now 46 years old, Marcia lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two daughters. Though she has lived in America for more than three decades, Marcia said that she had never forgotten her roots. In fact, she said, her Guyanese childhood laid the foundation for a successful adulthood.
“I really enjoyed my time as a Guyanese child and I think it really helped me when I moved to the States. In Guyana when I was growing up, we had a really strong education system; we had a strong sense of self and community, so when you move to a country where you apparently learn that maybe being black has a negative connotation and that there’s racism in the US, having had that foundation growing up in Guyana really helped me,” Marcia said.
She added that when she moved to the US in 1980 she had already attended almost two years of high school in Guyana. However, she was placed in the sixth grade in the US due to her age.
“I just sat there learning things I already knew, so basically for about four years I sat in class reading novels then taking the tests,” she said. Fortunately, Marcia said, the situation changed and she was fortunate enough to attend university.
“As an immigrant child who’s successful in school my parents said, ‘OK, you need to become a doctor or a lawyer,’” Marcia said with a laugh. She continued, “Studying to be a doctor was too long, so I decided to be a lawyer.”
It is ironic that a career path that Marcia admitted that she did not initially like turned out to be the one that motivates her each morning to head out into the world to help others.
She said that after she became a lawyer, she had a number of different jobs in the legal field: she tried her hand at litigation, policy and lobbying.
Finally, something stuck: Marcia got the opportunity to be a part of the first Election Protection program, the US’s largest non-partisan voter protection program.
The position was meant to be a temporary assignment but, a decade later, Marcia
is still working on the program.
Through her work, Marcia has been able to help countless persons who experience problems in the elections administration in the United States. Marcia’s particular interests are minorities who are disadvantaged during the electoral process and youths.
“Essentially, my voting rights work involves doing litigation where necessary, enforcing the Voting Rights Act in the US which require minorities to be able to vote freely and programs such as the Election Protection program to empower voters,” she explained. She went on, “In 2004, 10,000 attorneys went to the polling places to be there to answer questions and if there were problems, help resolve them.”
Over the years, Marcia has risen in the ranks and is now the Co-Director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
With her high-ranking job, Marcia is able to play an integral role in the establishment of election laws. In 2005 when the Voting Rights Act came up for renewal, Marcia was tasked with having hearings across the country to get a record of whether there is still discrimination in voting. She put together a national commission of prominent people and travelled around the country hearing from voting attorneys, citizens, and advocates about their experiences with discrimination in voting.
“We were able to amass an extensive record – over 3,000 pages – showing that discrimination still existed in the US and that the Voting Rights Act should be reviewed,” she said.
From there, the record was taken to Congress where the act was successfully renewed. Marcia was even able to attend the signing at the White House. “It was great,” she emphatically said.
However, Marcia’s career has not only been smooth sailing; she explained that in America, elections are decentralized so, instead of a national elections body that governs elections for the country, each state along with the District of Columbia has its own elections laws.
She said that these different laws pose a problem in truly tackling the discrimination present in the electoral process.
“If you wanted to change a law in a state, you have to go to that state’s legislature to get it changed,” Marcia said.
She also recalled one occasion when the renewed Voting Rights Act was challenged by a jurisdiction in Texas. Though Marcia and her team managed to successfully protect the law, they were not as fortunate a second time around; the law was challenged again and the US Supreme Court struck down the provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
“So now, I’m at the start again. We’re trying to get a new law passed and the way things are in the US, when the law is passed it’s going to get challenged and challenged again before the Supreme Court,” Marcia said. “It seems that whenever you think you have a problem licked, those who are trying to create barriers come up with something else.”
Nonetheless, she is adamant that her work must continue, especially when states across the US continue to pass laws that are burdensome to minority voters.
Though Marcia has been able to impact and motivate thousands of persons through her work, she said that her clients motivate her just as much as she motivates them.
She has managed to travel all across the world for her work and met many persons over time. She fondly remembers an engagement she had with young persons from the US organisation, Black Youth Vote. She was invited by the organisation to share her wisdom and talk to the young people about the work she was doing.
“I ended up scrapping my talk and we ended up having a brainstorming exercise…The thing is that these young people were willing to challenge assumptions and engage me and work with me to help me grow in how I do my work,” Marcia said. She continued, “I’ve been doing this for over 10 years now and I felt like, ‘Ok, I got this down’ and you can become complacent so that really helped me. I was touched by these young people challenging and engaging me to do my work.”
She said too that many persons take risks in bringing the issues that affect their lives to light. She noted in particular the ID law in Texas, which she said keeps hundreds of thousands of registered minorities from being able to vote. Marcia said that persons have bravely stepped forward to indicate their willingness to be the faces of the litigation.
“That has an impact on their daily lives when they put themselves out there. All of these persons, I think, are heroes; I live in Washington D.C. but they are the ones who live in their communities and they’re the ones that have to face the adverse consequences of being in litigation. I’m so very proud of their ability to step out,” she emphasised.
“I really enjoy my work; it’s very creative. I have a lot of latitude in figuring out how I am going to solve a particular problem and I’m fortunate to have a lot of tools at my disposal to solve a problem,” Marcia said. She added that no day on her job is the same, something that keeps her exhilarated and excited about her job.
RETURN TO ROOTS
More than 30 years after Marcia left Guyana as a child, she is adamant that she can make a difference in the lives of her countrymen and countrywomen as she did for those in her adopted country.
Marcia said that her work on the US nationwide program has enabled her to return to Guyana to talk about her work, her lessons learnt in working with legislature and people, and how voter education practices taught in the US could possibly translate to the Guyanese situation.
As recently as last week, Marcia, who is also an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Centre, was in Guyana as a guest speaker for a civic fundraiser hosted by the Guyanese Women Roundtable (GWR).
“I’m hoping that I can share my experiences, lessons learnt and best practices from my work that I’ve been doing,” Marcia said. She went on, “Here in Guyana, we don’t necessarily have the infrastructure and resources that we do in the States, but with technology there is a lot you can do and there are the different ways that we’ve learnt to affect various communities in the US that we can bring here to Guyana.”
Marcia also noted that the US is an over 200-year-old democracy, but it nonetheless faces challenges in ensuring that everyone can vote free from barriers.
“So I say, let’s give Guyana a chance; it’s going to be 50-years-old next year so it’s a very young democracy,” Marcia said. “From my work, I’ve seen that democracies have growing pains; no gain is permanent: you have to keep working to ensure that the gain is protected and that you have the infrastructure and a support that can continuously be there to ensure that gains are maintained and that you can fight against attempts to push back against those gains.”
Furthermore, Marcia opined that civic education, just like in America, is important in Guyana. “These are not just issues in emerging democracies but also in established democracies,” she added.
She said too that voter apathy and cynicism were issues facing both nations. “If you don’t go out and vote and engage the people you’re electing then your voice will be silenced,” she advised.
She also believes that listening and working with communities was important. “We need to stop having this thing where people go to the communities and say that we have this problem and here are the solutions. We need to identify the problems and discuss how we can fix those problems,” she said. “By this approach, you empower people and you’re not just doing something for them but helping them to work out issues and problems for themselves.”
Meanwhile, though Marcia’s job is indeed an important one, her personal life is not much different from that of most people. She is married to an Argentine and from their union came two girls – one 13-years-old and the other 9-years-old.
Marcia also enjoys travelling in her “downtime” and loves learning about new cultures. She said too that she has been trying to learn multiple languages.
“But it seems like I’m stuck; I can only speak two languages at the same time so right now it’s English and Spanish so that I can talk to my relatives,” she said.
Marcia also expressed her love for Zumba dancing. “I’m a Zumba fanatic!” she laughingly said before adding, “That’s how I de-stress and enjoy myself.”
Though most of this stress probably is a result of her job, Marcia maintained that there is nothing else she would prefer to be doing.
“Knowing that I’m doing something to improve the country on behalf of minority voters makes me feel very lucky and privileged to do so.”
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