Your job title:
Executive Director & Founder
Your organization name:
Detroit Justice Center
When was your organization founded?
2017 (opened in April 2018)
In what city, town, or region are you located?Detroit, MI, USA
In what city, town, or region is your organization headquartered?Detroit, MI, USA
In which countries does your organization currently operate?
Why are you applying for The Elevate Prize?
The Detroit Justice Center (DJC) opened its doors in 2018 to work to transform the justice system and promote equitable and just cities. There is now a growing movement against police repression and incarceration. But to sustain this momentum, we see the need to go beyond talk of what is wrong and what needs to be torn down. We must provide a positive, inspiring vision for community safety and economic equity.
DJC would use this award to continue scaling its legal work in Detroit while also sharing community-driven solutions nationwide. We often receive requests from individuals and organizations who want to learn more about our model, and we cannot meet directly with everyone. We need to scale our impact by developing and sharing more digital resources about what we do and why we do it.
In addition to serving thousands of Detroiters in need, this award would allow DJC to develop trainings, manuals, and communications (including a new Freedom Dreams podcast) to educate and inspire attorneys, activists, policymakers and the general public. This will help DJC shift the narrative about how to build cities that are not only free of aggressive policing and incarceration but animated by safety and justice.
Tell us about YOU:
It is my life’s work to help create a society where all people can thrive. My dad was incarcerated when I was young. I focus on the lives of those in the justice system—disproportionately Black people. As a legal expert and historian, I see issues facing Black people as symptoms of deeper problems: our country has locked people out of formal job markets and criminalized their survival. By addressing this we can improve lives and solve our most intractable problems.
My idea of a “just city” combines a solution for two problems that are often considered separately: how to build equitable cities and how to transform our justice system. We cannot build inclusive cities without remedying the effects of mass incarceration.
In working toward a just city, our organization claims a place at the table for community lawyers and their clients in urgent debates about planning, public infrastructure and development. Lawyers and clients alike are frustrated by existing legal organizations which focus on long-term litigation but turn away people who need urgent help, or that provide services without remedying systemic problems. DJC’s unique approach meet needs in a way that builds power and creates lasting economic alternatives.
Pitch your organization.
Detroit is facing deep poverty and high rates of incarceration—but there is limited attention given to how these are related. Detroit schoolteachers and social workers estimate that half of their students have a parent or parental figure incarcerated. This hurts families and hinders economic development.
When accounting for the full costs borne by individuals, families, and communities, the economic burden of incarceration in the United States has been estimated at $1 trillion. On average, families pay over $13,600 in court-related costs when a loved one goes to prison. Two in three families with an incarcerated loved one have difficulty meeting basic needs because of their incarceration. After leaving prison, only 22% of people on parole in Michigan are employed in the formal labor market during the first year of release.
We use community lawyering--rooted in defensive and offensive fights for racial justice and economic equity--to address the damages of incarceration and build up our poorest residents. We do this through direct legal services and by promoting novel approaches to land use, housing, and employment. We use a three-pronged approach--what we call “defense, offense, and dreaming”--to serve individual clients, build power, and advocate for systemic solutions.
Describe what makes your work innovative.
Our model is innovative because we use legal training to holistically address the impact of incarceration. We combine direct services with advocacy for systemic change. Last year, we successfully: advocated for “Clean Slate” bills to expunge criminal records, led efforts to roll back unfair courtroom policies, helped end the ban on people with felony drug convictions receiving food stamp benefits, and were heavily involved with statewide incarceration reforms.
Additionally, our Economic Equity Practice provides legal support to community organizations that are working to forge a new economic path. In the face of a devastated economy, Detroiters have kept small businesses going, established urban farms, and created alternative sharing economies. Our attorneys work closely with community partners to strengthen these solutions through community land trusts and cooperatives.
We also address the lack of strategic vision about how to divest from jails and prisons and reinvest in the health and safety of our communities. Our Just Cities Lab focuses on introducing and normalizing alternatives to punitive justice. We convene change-makers from Detroit and elsewhere who are, for example, experimenting with restorative justice approaches to architecture and urban planning, ‘flipping’ prisons into community centers, and implementing reinvestment solutions through policy change.
How and why is your organization having an impact on humanity?
We use insights gained from direct service to promote holistic advocacy. One example of how our model is implemented: In 2019, Michigan handed out 365,965 license suspensions for nonpayment of fines and fees and failure to appear in court. In March 2020, DJC published a paper entitled, “Highway Robbery: How Metro Detroit Cops and Courts Steer Segregation and Drive Incarceration,” which showed the police and traffic court system in the Metro Detroit area’s practice of targeting low-income and predominantly Black drivers. This report was made possible by our attorneys’ deep understanding of their clients’ mobility issues and the repercussions of state policies. These drivers were disproportionately saddled with excessive fines/fees and criminalized for minor traffic offenses.
The DJC worked hard to shape the Governor’s recommendations around these issues by testifying before the relevant task force, synthesizing insights from courtroom experiences, offering feedback on draft recommendations, helping with research, promoting the public meetings to encourage people to attend, and coordinating with our partner organizations. In December 2020, Michigan’s state legislature passed laws which would end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fines.
Select the key characteristics of the community your organization is impacting.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your organization address?
Which of the following categories best describes your work?
How many people does your organization directly serve at present? How many do you anticipate serving in one year?
Currently directly serving about 750 people annually. In one year, directly serving about 1000 people.
Describe your impact goals and how you plan to achieve them.
DJC’s goal is to remedy the impacts of mass incarceration and build an economy that works for everyone. This work responds to several UN Sustainable Development Goals, including indicator 1 (no poverty) and indicator 8 (decent work and economic growth). DJC is built around our analysis that rebuilding cities and lifting families out of poverty requires shifting away from incarceration and reinvesting in community resources and economic development.
Detroit--over 80% Black--is one of the poorest major cities in the US. 60% of Detroit children live in poverty. There is a clear link between the economic crisis and mass incarceration. Two in three families with an incarcerated loved one have difficulty meeting basic needs--buying food, keeping the lights on--because of their incarceration. After leaving prison, only 22% of people on parole in Michigan are employed in the formal labor market during the first year of release.
DJC measures its progress in terms of reducing legal obstacles to helping community members remain out of jail, integrate into the regional workforce, and retain stable housing. Through community lawyering, we empower residents through direct services, promote novel approaches to land use, housing, and employment, and then advocate for structural change to inequitable policies.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and how do you plan to overcome them? How would winning the Elevate Prize help you to overcome these barriers?
Over the past year, there has been increased awareness of the issues we address. The DJC is now receiving constant requests from individuals and organizations who want to learn more, and we cannot meet directly with everyone. There are many people who are interested in seeing how they can replicate our work in other communities and determining which aspects of our model are relevant to their contexts. We can grow our impact by developing and sharing more digital resources about what we do and why we do it. To make this possible, we need to expand our communications capacity so that we can best serve our growing online audiences.
However, we also need to continue to strengthen and sustain our efforts in Detroit and promote systemic change in a healthy and holistic way. Winning the Elevate Prize would help us find a strategic balance between our direct programming while also fostering broader, national awareness for necessary structural changes to the justice system.
How would you leverage the larger platform, audience, and brand recognition as an Elevate Prize winner to further advance your impact?
This is an important moment for both our organization and the movement we exist to serve. We are seeing an incredible growth in demand for our work. But in order to sustain this momentum, we see the need to go beyond talk of what is wrong and what needs to be torn down. Our community needs more examples of what we are fighting for--the world we are beginning to build. We need a positive, inspiring vision for a more equitable society.
Nationally, we still suffer from a lack of vision about how to reduce our reliance on prisons and criminalization and, more profoundly, how to replace institutions such as jails and prisons with alternatives. Those of us working toward a society that does not rely on punitive justice and prisons must begin framing this not just as an absence (of punitive justice, harsh sentences, prisons, and collateral consequences), but as a presence (of alternative mechanisms for addressing harm and resolving disputes, new forms of architecture and urban planning, and reinvestment in communities). This expanded platform would help us continue to shift the national narrative about what it will take to create true community safety and shared economic growth.
What is your approach to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership team?
We hire people who have direct experience of the criminal legal system, have strong ties and experiences in Detroit, and represent racial diversity. We are profoundly committed to developing the leadership of people of color and actively cultivate a work environment where they can excel and thrive. We want our entire organization to represent our expressed values, which we reflect on often together.
Our leadership team includes four Black women. We also represent diverse backgrounds in many other ways, including: religion; sexual orientation; age; immigration history; and more. Our Board is entirely composed of people of color.
We are working to use restorative justice as a framework for handling all internal and external conflicts. We are using concepts from the Essie Justice Group’s Black Feminist institution-building framework and other best practices to guide this work. DJC hosted Detroit Disability Power for a workshop with our staff on disability justice, inclusiveness, and ableism. The workshop helped to equip staff and the organization with concrete ideas and practices for how to promote disability inclusion in our staff and in our work with our clients.
How are you and your team well-positioned to address the problem you are solving?
I was born in Detroit, but my family relocated across the state when I was four as a result of our contact with the prison system. My father spent two years in federal prison when I was in elementary school, and my mother moved my brother and me to be closer to the support of our grandma in rural Michigan. As I grew up, my dad’s incarceration and parole remained a matter of silence and shame, even within our home. My family could not find language for our experiences, or them within a broader political context. Since then, I have focused my energy on turning personal pain into collective courage and joining with others to fight for change. I've been involved in movement work for 20 years, working alongside others in the US and South Africa. I now use my legal training from Yale to partner with communities to end the system of mass incarceration and build just cities. As a movement lawyer and historian, I help people root their work in an intergenerational arc and to demand what our communities truly need, not just what seems winnable in the short term.
Describe a past experience that demonstrates your leadership ability.
Leading a non-profit legal organization over the past year--in the midst of the pandemic and a series of police murders--presented many challenges. We shifted to a fully remote staffing model. Despite the incredible community needs we are addressing (including representing protesters, working to get community members out of jails and prisons where social distancing is impossible, and fighting evictions), we have attempted to provide holistic support for our employees and avoid burnout. We have worked to model best practices for how organizations can be nimble, compassionate, and supportive during a multi-layered crisis.
Even though we have implemented supports to help make this work more sustainable, our team is certainly feeling the impact of relentless primary and vicarious trauma. It is hard to convey how much hardship our team members face—in our personal lives, in working with our clients, and just being a team of predominately Black women living in Detroit through a pandemic. We have surveyed staff about their needs, shifted to a four-day work week, have offered recharge weeks, and much more. While this remains an ongoing process, I am exceptionally proud of how we have continued to respond to injustice and grow our organization during this period.
Have you been featured in any documentaries, television shows, or live speaking engagements? If so, please share links to any available content.
FREEAMERICA’s introduction to Amanda Alexander and DJC:
Kresge Foundation video on Detroit Justice Center:
Movement Law Lab’s LIF Talk by Amanda Alexander:
Panel discussion with the The Atlantic - “Race, Justice & Equity”:
If selected as an Elevate Prize winner, how will the funding help you achieve your goals?
DJC is currently transitioning from a nonprofit start-up to a more mature organization, where everyone is equipped to thrive. We obtained our (501)(c)3 status in 2018 and, over the past three years, we've grown from a team of two people to a strong, dynamic team of 30 people. We have been scaling rapidly and we need to continue developing robust staff supports and financial, accounting, HR, development, and communications systems to meet our evolving needs.
After previously using external consultants, we just hired a full-time Finance Manager. We are also building our fundraising capacity. The coronavirus has also created the need for more nimble management, to both ensure safety and help our staff navigate family obligations with remote work. While there is much to be done, our team is doing incredible work to meet these challenges and opportunities. We feel that we were built for the current moment and we are inspired to serve this mission everyday.
The Elevate Prize would allow DJC to continue scaling up our legal work in Detroit while also helping us expand our communications capacity to share our transformative community-driven solutions for true safety and wellbeing across the country.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
Collaboration is essential to every aspect of our work. A few examples:
--We would likely not exist without formative experiences with the National Conference of Black Lawyers’ Detroit chapter and meetings with organizers during the early days of Black Lives Matter. Our founder has served on the national steering committee of Law for Black Lives.
--Last year, DJC partnered with Movement Law Lab to help facilitate a five-part course on movement lawyering called Build Power/Fight Power. This was viewed by thousands of attorneys and law students. Amanda Alexander also taught a Movement Lawyering course at Wayne State Law School in Winter 2021, and we hope to establish a permanent law clinic that bridges Detroit’s public university and DJC.
--We have been deeply involved in the work of the Coalition for Property Tax Justice, which is fighting to stop unconstitutional property tax assessments and stop all foreclosures of owner-occupied homes until systemic over-assessments are fixed.
--We helped form the Detroit Coordinated Defense Coalition to support protesters against police injustice in partnership with National Lawyers Guild Detroit, National Conference of Black Lawyers, Neighborhood Defender Services, and other partners.
In which of the following areas do you and your organization most need support?