Staff

Michele Johnson

Michele Johnson, TJC Attorney- Photo by Jude FerreraMichele is co-founder and Executive Director of the Tennessee Justice Center, where the focus of her nationally-recognized legal work has been children with special health care needs. In that role, she lobbied successfully to extend health care coverage to uninsured children in working families and participated in a landmark case establishing appeal rights for TennCare patients who are denied care by their HMO. As lead counsel, she negotiated a class action settlement requiring comprehensive reform of health care for 665,000 Tennessee children enrolled in TennCare. She also continues to represent scores of individual children.

Michele grew up in Nashville, graduating from Father Ryan High School. There she began her career in public service volunteering at a pre-school for children with special health care needs. Father Ryan’s magazine, Irish Ayes, named Michele one of five alumni “dedicated to improving life for the next generation of their family.”

She attended the University of Tennessee and graduated with Highest Honors 1990. After a year of volunteering at a legal services program through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, she returned to Knoxville to attend University of Tennessee College of Law. While in law school, she volunteered at a shelter for battered women and led the public interest law association. She also clerked at Legal Services of Middle Tennessee and the National Health Law Program.

Upon graduation from UT, Michele received a grant from the Southern Community Partners, a project of the Lynhurst Foundation, to educate low income families about their children’s legal rights and to help them obtain the medical care the law and their doctors said they should have. In 1996, she left Legal Services to begin the Justice Center with a grant from National Association of Public Interest Law (now Equal Justice Works).

Michele is the winner of the 1999 Child Advocacy Award by the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. She was the Lawyer’s Association for Women 2006 Nashville ATHENA Award nominee and Tennessee Alliance for Progress Long Haul award winner. Tennessee Voices for Children has also recognized her work by awarding her a Lifetime Achievement Award for advocacy. Most recently, HER magazine Nashville, published an interview with Michele and the work she does at TJC. In 2014, Michele stepped up as Executive Director of TJC.

Michele is President of the board of Tennessee Voices for Children (TVC), and chair of the group’s policy committee. She serves on the Board of Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, and was recently elected to the Nashville Bar Association Board of Directors. Michele has served on the Board of Directors of Tennessee Hemophilia and Bleeding Disorders Foundation, and on the Advisory Board of Family Voices of Tennessee. She is also the past chair of the Christ the King School Board and served on the Parish Pastoral Council at Christ the King Church.

Michele is married to Jeff Hill, an Oak Ridge native. They are parents to three school aged boys. She is an avid runner and spends her free time with her large extended family.

You can reach Michele at mjohnson@tnjustice.org.

Photo Credit: Jude Ferrera

Gordon Bonnyman, Jr.

“By making the plight of the least in society more visible, Bonnyman has raised the bar for all Tennesseans. The state is forced at least to look at how its fiscal and social actions affect the poorest among us before it makes a move.” – The Tennessean, naming Gordon Bonnyman Tennessean of the Year in 2003

Gordon Bonnyman staff photoGordon Bonnyman grew up in a large Knoxville family. The family’s religious values and deep Tennessee roots have shaped his career.

Gordon has a BA from Princeton University and a law degree from the University of Tennessee. Since his admission to the bar in 1972, his entire career has been devoted to serving low-income clients.

As a Legal Services attorney for 23 years, Gordon represented thousands of low-income clients in a wide variety of civil matters. He earned a national reputation for his expertise in health policy. His advocacy work in housing, consumer, public benefits, disability rights, nursing home reform, juvenile procedure, civil rights, constitutional rights and health law not only changed the law in significant ways, but also changed lives throughout the nation. In 2007, Gordon was honored with the War Horse Award by the Southern Trial Lawyers Association.

In 1996, when Congress restricted the ability of Legal Services to handle class actions and other cases for the poor, Gordon joined Michele Johnson in co-founding TJC. He served as the executive director until 2014, when he stepped down to return to the full time practice of law as a TJC staff attorney.  At present, his advocacy is focused primarily on achieving access to health care for the poor and uninsured.

Gordon has written and lectured extensively, particularly on matters of health law and policy. (See “Unseen Peril: Inadequate Enrollee Grievance Protections in Public Managed Care Programs,” co-written with Michele Johnson and published in the Tennessee Law Review, as well as The TennCare Cuts: Plunging Into the Unknown, written for for Tennessee’s Business, a publication of Middle Tennessee State University’s Business and Economic Research Center.) He has served on numerous state and national boards, including Families USA, the National Juvenile Law Center, National Citizens’ Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, the Nashville Bar Association, and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services. He has served on advisory commissions on Medicaid and public health under several Tennessee Governors and has consulted with Governors and legislators in other states. He served as a member of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Commission on the Future of the Tennessee Judicial System.

A nationally-recognized advocate on health policy, Gordon has received awards for public service and advocacy from numerous organizations, including the American Bar Association, the American Cancer Society, the Tennessee Conference on Social Welfare, the ACLU of Tennessee, the Tennessee Primary Care Association, Families USA Foundation, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the Tennessee Bar Association, the Nashville Bar Association and the Metropolitan Nashville Human Relations Commission.

Gordon was named Tennessean of the Year by The Tennessean in 2003. The Tennessean praised Gordon’s work on behalf of low-income Tennesseans: “By making the plight of the least in society more visible, Bonnyman has raised the bar for all Tennesseans. The state now is forced at least to look at how its fiscal and social actions affect the poorest among us before it makes a move.”

During a 1978-1979 sabbatical, Gordon and his wife, Claudia, who is a state court judge, served as Volunteers in Mission for the United Presbyterian Church, working for a human rights organization in the Middle East. During a 1994 sabbatical, they worked under the auspices of the American Volunteers in Democracy program helping to staff a human rights organization that combats hate crimes and racial discrimination in Eastern Europe. They have one son, Houston, who is a medical resident in family medicine in Chicago. Continuing a family tradition, Houston and Gordon get away whenever they can to hike the mountains of East Tennessee.

Gordon is thankful for his family, whose sacrifices and support have sustained him and his work. He is also grateful to his colleagues and to TJC’s inspiring clients. “I get to work each day with colleagues of exceptional compassion, dedication and skill,” Gordon says of his work. “We serve families who, in the midst of poverty, misfortune and injustice, inspire us with their courage and generosity of spirit. Working through the law, we have a chance to make a huge difference in their lives. And by ‘speaking truth to power’ on their behalf — compelling powerful government and corporate institutions to respect the legal rights of the powerless and the poor — TJC is working to fulfill our nation’s pledge of Equal Justice for All. To get to work for such people and ideals is a privilege.”

You can reach Gordon at gbonnyman@tnjustice.org.

Chris Coleman

Chris ColemanChris graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 1993.  He then attended the University of Virginia where he received a master’s degree in English literature.  In 1997-98, Chris served as a VISTA volunteer at the Central Alabama Fair Housing Center in Montgomery, where he conducted research on housing discrimination and organized community education programs on fair housing issues.  This experience sparked Chris’s interest in the history of social justice movements in the South, a topic he went on to specialize in as a graduate student in history at Northwestern University.  He received his master’s degree in history in 2000.

While attending law school at Northwestern, Chris worked in the Children and Family Justice Center and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic and was associate editor of the Northwestern University Law Review.  He was awarded the John Paul Stevens Public Interest Fellowship, the Leonard S. Rubinowitz Fellowship and the Joan Marie Corboy Scholarship.  He also studied International Human Rights at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.  He graduated cum laude and was inducted into the Order of the Coif.  Following law school, Chris clerked for the Honorable Joan Humphrey Lefkow on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

After returning to Nashville, Chris joined the firm of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, where he represented plaintiffs in antitrust and mass torts litigation. He has participated in the Harry Phillips American Inn of Court and the Young Leaders’ Council and has served on the Board of Directors of the Young Lawyers’ Division of the Nashville Bar Association and the Nashville Chapter of the American Constitution Society, for which he served as chapter President in 2008-09.  He is co-author of “Social Movements and Social Change Litigation: Synergy in the Montgomery Bus Protest,” published in Law & Social Inquiry in 2005.

Chris is married to JuLeigh Petty, a Senior Lecturer at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health and Society.  They have two children, Sam and Lucy.

You can reach Chris at ccoleman@tnjustice.org.

Jane Beasley

Jane BeasleyJane grew up in a farming community in Kansas. Her interest in social justice began when, as a teenager, she spent part of a summer studying social issues as part of a church youth project. She feels forever grateful for the summer evening she sat in Dr. Martin Luther King’s study listening to Dr. King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy discuss their desires for a peaceful movement to equality.

She graduated with a B.A. from Kansas Wesleyan University and did her graduate study at Sangamon State University (now named the University of Illinois at Springfield).

Every day, Jane answers the calls of clients who need help with Families First and TennCare. An expert in the complex rules of eligibility for public programs, she also counsels and advocates on behalf of those clients who have lost their benefits. Her compassion is equal to her expertise.

“It’s hard to maintain hope when people are suffering so badly,” said Jane. “But by telling our clients’ stories, maybe we can shame the people in power into doing the right thing.”

Prior to joining TJC in 1998, Jane worked for the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee as the coordinator of the Insurance Counseling and Assistance Program. She assisted clients on issues surrounding Medicare, TennCare, long term health insurance, and Medicare supplement policies.

Jane and her husband of over 40 years, Jim, have lived in Nashville since 1986. Prior to moving to Nashville, they lived in Knoxville with their two daughters. One of their adult daughters lives in Nashville, so Jane gets to spend special time with two grandchildren in Nashville. Two other granchildren live in Pittsburgh, and Jane visits these youngest two whenever possible.

You can reach Jane at jbeasley@tnjustice.org.

John Orzechowski

John OrzechowskiAs a college student, John had the privilege of taking three trips to Swaziland to volunteer at an orphanage for AIDS-infected/affected children. John lived on the orphanage and spent most of his time tutoring and playing games with the orphanage children. John also assisted other volunteers and health professionals in building and setting up a hospice facility which continues to offer end of life care, which is a great need in the country with the highest HIV rate in the world. In Swaziland, John saw the tragic effects that poverty and the lack of access to medical care can have on people’s health, dignity, and quality of life. This experience led John to consider health care issues and the need to increase access to care for so many individuals—not just in Swaziland.

In 2008, John graduated with honors and received a B.A. in English and Religion from Southeastern University. He was named the most outstanding graduate of the College of Christian Ministries and Religion and received the Southeastern University Award for excellence in both academic achievement and community service. After graduation, John moved to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where he focused on ethics and philosophy.

John is excited to work with TJC and to support some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable individuals. He is extremely grateful to serve in a position that is both intellectually challenging and emotionally fulfilling. Outside of work, John likes to ride his bike, watch movies, and go for walks with his wife Erica.

You can reach John at jorzechowski@tnjustice.org.

Rob Watkins

Untitled2Rob was born and raised in central Illinois. He received his BA in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his JD from St. Louis University School of Law. He is currently licensed to practice law in Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee.

Rob began his legal career as a prosecutor in Decatur, Illinois prior to becoming Assistant Counsel to the Illinois Secretary of State. In addition to being an attorney, Rob has business operations experience and has been actively involved in the entrepreneur community in Nashville.

At TJC, Rob is a staff attorney, and works on special projects. He is the creator of “Ask Jane”, a system that links the uninsured to healthcare coverage.

You can reach Rob at rwatkins@tnjustice.org

Katie Alexander

Katie AlexanderKatie is from a small town in the beautiful Hudson Valley in New York. She moved to Nashville in May 2013 from Washington, D.C., where she studied Literature and the African Diaspora at American University. During her junior year, Katie had the opportunity to study abroad for a semester in Ghana. Katie was also able to spend a semester in New Zealand where she tutored refugee high school students (and tried some rock climbing).

During her time in D.C., Katie had the chance to intern at various organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Earth Day Network, and the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Katie is thrilled to be a part of the TJC team, and to help Tennesseans receive the health care they need. In her free time, Katie likes to ride her bike around Nashville, read, make pottery, and cook.

You can reach Katie at kalexander@tnjustice.org.

Rachel Clifton

Rachel CliftonRachel was born and raised in the Nashville area. In 2010, Rachel graduated from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she majored in English Rhetoric & Composition and Spanish Hispanic Studies. After graduation, she joined the United States Peace Corps, where she was assigned to live and work for 27 months in the Central American republic of Panama.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Rachel specialized as an English teaching consultant for the Panamanian Ministry of Education. She worked directly with the Ministry’s English teachers on student-centered lesson planning and classroom management, as well as co-planning seminars for English teachers in the region.

In addition, Rachel partnered with the Ministry of Health as a community health promoter. Together with government agencies, active community members, and youth, they hosted health seminars, organized a HIV/AIDS awareness march, and gathered resources lacking in the community health center. These experiences helped Rachel understand the importance of interpersonal relationships between parents, government officials, advocates, and community members.

Furthermore, Rachel’s two years of community development work granted her the time and personal involvement required to analyze the nuances of those relationships. This insight informs and inspires her lifework to unite the various community entities in order to empower under-served populations.

Now, back in her home state, Rachel is armed with a mission to serve her fellow Tennesseans, and is so excited to be a part of the TJC team!

You can reach Rachel at rclifton@tnjustice.org.

Emily Jones

Emily JonesEmily was born in Highland Park, IL, a suburb just north of Chicago. Emily began as an intern at TJC prior to her graduation from Vanderbilt University in May. At Vanderbilt, Emily studied Anthropology, Spanish, and Human and Organizational Development with a focus on human rights. During her junior year, Emily studied abroad for a semester in Cape Town, South Africa volunteering with an HIV/AIDS outreach organization called Yabonga: Children, HIV and AIDS. She created and implemented a gender-based violence prevention program, which became the focus of her senior honors thesis. Emily graduated from Vanderbilt magna cum laude with honors in the College of Arts and Sciences as well as within the Anthropology Department.

Emily is delighted to be able to continue her work with TJC and help people across Tennessee obtain access to the health care they need. In her free time she loves to cook, hike, travel, and spend time with friends exploring Nashville.

You can reach Emily at ejones@tnjustice.org.

Margaret Ecker

MargaretMargaret Ecker graduated from Vanderbilt University with a major in Philosophy in 1970.  For the first few years after graduation, she worked with the Student Health Coalition in Appalachia.  The Coalition, a team of medical, nursing, and law students, worked with rural community leaders in east Tennessee to empower people around health care issues.  Inspired by this work, Margaret left Tennessee to earn a master’s degree in Nursing and completed one of the earliest nurse practitioner programs in the country, at the University of Texas.  She returned to east Tennessee and eventually Nashville to work in community-run primary care clinics.

In 1984, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a master’s degree in Fine Arts.  She worked in a variety of hospital administration jobs and retired from Kaiser Permanente in 2011 after serving as Director of Nursing Quality at their flagship tertiary care hospital in Los Angeles.

In October 2013, Margaret returned to Nashville at first as volunteer, then as a full-time staff member at TJC, to support the roll out of the Affordable Care Act.  At TJC, she recruits and catalogues client stories–from Tennesseans who are celebrating the success of enrollment in the ACA, and from those who suffer the consequences of the Medicaid Gap.

“The work at TJC has provided a powerful reminder of the motivation to practice nursing in the first place.  I’m privileged to be in the company of TJC staff members whose responsiveness to individuals in crisis, and whose tireless devotion to shape public policy accordingly, serves to remind us what real service looks like.”

You can reach Margaret at mecker@tnjustice.org

Babs Tierno

photoBabs graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with a triple major in Psychology, Legal Studies, and Sociology. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she was selected as an intern for a public defender’s office in Washington, D.C working on both the Juvenile and Felony teams. When the internship ended, she moved back to Knoxville where she was employed at a police department while working on her Master’s Degree.

Her husband’s career change brought them to Middle Tennessee. Here, she used her education and experience working with at risk families to manage a non-profit serving abused and neglected children for several years. Recently, her family moved to Gallatin, TN and she found her way to TJC. Babs is looking forward to experiencing all the ways TJC makes a difference in the lives of Tennesseans.

Babs has no free time; she has a 4 year old son. But seriously, Babs enjoys spending free time on the golf course with her husband.

You can reach Babs at btierno@tnjustice.org

Erica Waters Orzechowski

ericaErica grew up in rural North Central Florida, so her earliest memories are of grazing cows, scraggly pine trees, and beautiful natural springs. She earned a B.A. in English at Southeastern University and spent her semester abroad at the University of Oxford, where she took courses in modern British literature and women’s writing. Erica studied religion and literature at Vanderbilt Divinity School before earning a M.A. in English at Belmont University.

Most of Erica’s professional life has been spent as a content editor in educational publishing and as a university writing tutor. However, she has also spent time working and volunteering at various nonprofits. In college Erica was part of a campus group that served in nursing homes, juvenile detention centers, and children’s programs. She also worked for the YMCA for many years, primarily in programs serving low-income students. More recently, she has volunteered as a reading tutor for the Nashville Adult Literacy Council.

When she’s not at TJC, Erica enjoys writing fiction, drinking tea, and spending time with her husband John and their dog Nutmeg.

You can reach Erica at eorzechowski@tnjustice.org

Marysa LaRowe

Marysa Marysa grew up in the Chicago suburbs and earned her B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2009. During her time there, she worked in the office of a public interest law firm specializing in health care advocacy, where she learned a great deal about Medicaid programs, Social Security disability programs, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act. She enjoyed helping people navigate complex bureaucratic and legal systems to secure often life-changing services. After graduation, Marysa continued to live and work in Wisconsin, where she also taught writing classes in a men’s prison. She moved to Nashville in 2011 to pursue an MFA in fiction writing from Vanderbilt University. When she’s not writing, working or teaching, Marysa enjoys running, hiking, biking, reading, and spending time with friends.

You can reach Marysa at mlawrowe@tnjustice.org

To read what staff has said about their time at TJC, read here!