“Defense, Offense, and Dreaming” to meet the impacts of mass incarcerationQ&A with Amanda Alexander: Nonprofit Journal Project

Amanda Alexander is the founding executive director of The Detroit Justice Center (DJC), which opened in 2018. The nonprofit law firm works alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities. A racial justice lawyer and historian from Michigan, Alexander has worked at the intersection of racial justice and community development in Detroit, New York, and South Africa for over two decades. After years of building DJC, she is stepping down from her role this July, transferring leadership to two new co-executive directors. Alexander talked with Model D about the origin of DJC, its vital work, and its future.

How did The Detroit Justice Center begin?

I started DJC after five years of listening and relationship-building. In 2013, I moved home to Michigan to serve families like mine that had been divided by the prison system. After Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, there was all this talk about its comeback. I saw my clients — people saddled with court debt, returning citizens struggling to find work, and families facing the impossible choice of taking a phone call from a loved one upstate or putting groceries on the table — were being shut out of the state's future. It became clear to me that we couldn't build an inclusive Detroit without addressing the impacts of policing, criminalization, and incarceration.

At the same time, The Movement for Black Lives was starting. We saw young people with bold visions for their society take to the streets. Many of us were doing movement lawyering and protestor defense work after hours to support this. We needed an institution that could match the power and energy of these young organizers.

Detroiters are some of the most visionary people on the planet. In the face of economic devastation, residents have created solutions for how to build a resilient local economy. When grocery stores left, Detroiters started urban farming and built a local food system. People had ideas for community land trusts, solar projects, and cooperatively-owned businesses that would benefit from legal support. Those five years of community legal experiences helped me create our defense, offense, and dreaming approach.

Can you tell us more about DJC’s three-pronged approach?

The defense prong is our legal services and advocacy practice. To date, DJC has provided free legal services to over 5,000 people. By addressing suspended driver’s licenses, fines, fees, tickets, warrants, and court debt, our attorneys help remove legal barriers to people getting jobs, maintaining housing, staying out of jail or prison, and reuniting with their families. We also look upstream to see how to create systemic change for millions. We’ve had a hand in policy wins like ending the practice in Michigan of suspending driver's licenses for failure to pay court fines and fees and lifting the ban on food stamps for people with drug convictions. We were also part of the Clean Slate Campaign, expanding access to criminal record expungement across the state.

The offense is our economic equity practice, where our attorneys are shoring up dreams people have for their Detroit neighborhoods. So far, we’ve formed three community land trusts and supported the launch of 12 worker-owner cooperative businesses, mainly led by Black women and women of color. We also help returning citizens set up small businesses.

In our Just Cities Lab, we dream. It’s not enough to focus on tearing down mass incarceration; we must also explore how to build safe and thriving communities. We’ve talked with thousands of Detroiters about their visions and have turned some into pilot programs. In 2020, we launched the Metro Detroit Restorative Justice Network, assembling restorative justice practitioners to help them scale up to divert more severe cases out of the criminal legal system and into restorative processes. This summer, we’re offering our first community training in restorative justice.

What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice is a very different way of approaching harm than our criminal legal system, which focuses on what law was broken and who to punish. Restorative justice asks who was harmed and whose obligation it is to make things right. It’s also meant to transform the situation so the underlying conditions are changed to prevent this from happening again. This approach centers on the needs of people who have been harmed, which is vital because putting together a coherent narrative of why an event happened helps victims move forward. Yet, our criminal legal system is not about truth-seeking. Regarding trials, 95% of the cases plea out, and victims don't often get the answers they seek. But the restorative justice process is quite the opposite. People get a fuller picture of why this happened to them and are part of finding solutions to move forward and make things right.

As you pass the baton of leadership at DJC, what are you looking forward to?

I’m excited about what's ahead for the Detroit Justice Center. My goal was always to build a deep bench of advocates; we are now 33 people strong. I want to be proactive about avoiding founder syndrome, this misguided idea that an organization or a movement cannot be sufficient without the founder. We need to normalize succession planning; we must have collective leadership to carry the work forward. It's been rewarding to attract people practicing on the coast back home to Detroit for opportunities to do meaningful legal work in their communities.

As leaders, we have intense periods of building, creating, and getting things off the ground, but seasons of rest and reflection are just as important. I don't have anything lined up; I don't want to lead any other organization. This will be a period of rest, freewriting, reconnecting with family and friends, and a little travel.

What would you share about DJC’s incoming leadership?

We've decided to move to a co-executive director model. It was essential to break this unsustainable solo ED model of at least three jobs in one. Our incoming leaders have been with our organization for years. As associate executive director, Felicia Thomas has played a significant role in establishing our Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (JEDI + B) policy to help us focus on what it means to be an inclusive, welcoming, and affirming workplace. She’s helped conceptualize and integrate wellness programs and internal policies: a four-day workweek, bi-annual rest weeks to recharge and re-center, and a sabbatical policy for our entire team. I’m eager to see how DJC’s internal culture will thrive under her leadership.

Nancy Parker is the managing attorney of our movement lawyering practice and one of the most fiercely committed advocates you’ll ever meet. She’s been representing Detroit Will Breathe protestors, leading our work with Care-Based Safety, and working closely with the Stop Shotspotter Coalition in Detroit, where she also helps lead the litigation strategy against the city. She’s been on the frontlines, standing alongside activists and organizers, and is a trusted voice when it comes to doing what is right and principled for the people of Detroit. I'm excited to see her help create and amplify the voice of DJC.

What have you learned in your years about the intersection of racial justice and community development? 

I’ve learned the importance of relationship-building in this work, and there are no shortcuts.  We work with hundreds of community partners; every policy win has come from moving in coalitions. We hold our clients’ freedom dreams as sacred, and that means really listening to people's visions for their neighborhoods, which contain wisdom. I think of our client, Dream of Detroit, with a beautiful vision for their west side neighborhood. We helped them create a community land trust. But, they also want to create transitional housing for men returning from prison, start a cooperative business corridor, and establish more affordable housing in the neighborhood. It’s the brilliance of the community—they have all these solutions. It’s our role as lawyers to step back, listen, and help where we can. That is deeply rooted in relationship-building work and being beside people for the long haul.

As social justice lawyers, we continually ask ourselves whether we’re building power or creating dependency. We must always be building power so that people are equipped to take on the next fight with or without us because there will always be a next fight.

At DJC, you ask the community and artists-in-residence, “What does a world without policing and incarceration look like?” How would you answer this?

It’s not about ending policing and jails overnight but rather building up the care infrastructure that actually produces safety. It would involve things like infrastructure for restorative and transformative justice, unarmed response teams to deal with crises, affordable housing, community land trusts, mobile wellness hubs, and massive shifts of public funding into community health and well-being.

The beautiful thing is we can point to so many examples already happening. In our podcast,  “Freedom Dreams,” we talk to visionaries across the country who are creating a better world. A valuable example close to home is Detroit Life is Valuable Every Day (DLIVE), a hospital-based violence intervention program at Detroit Medical Center - Sinai Grace Hospital with the Wayne State University Department of Emergency Medicine. Through bedside intervention, they’re bringing patients healing from trauma into wraparound holistic support. And they’re ending cycles of violence.

A core part of our work is supporting these pilot programs from people coming together to create the safe and thriving communities we need. We must keep learning from each other and building the power to shift our resources out of policing, prosecuting, and caging people into things that successfully create community safety.

The Detroit Justice Center is moving to its new headquarters in the Love Building at 4731 Grand River this July. Allied Media Projects, which owns the building, is assembling a hub of nonprofits working to dismantle harmful systems affecting Detroiters.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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