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Amanda Alexander dreams of the day mass incarceration is no more and Detroiters live in a more just city. It’s why she started the Detroit Justice Center (DJC) five years ago — and why the founding executive director is stepping down so soon after starting the work to end the harmful impact of mass incarceration.
In DJC’s short history, attorneys provided nearly 5,000 people with legal services, cleared $500,000 in child support debt, established one of Detroit’s first community land trusts, cleared the criminal records of 45 clients and took on many other projects.
Alexander’s exit in July will make way for new leadership to grow and spearhead the nonprofit law firm’s efforts. The 40-year-old has worked as an attorney, community organizer and educator for the last two decades in the fight for racial justice and economic equity. Informed by wisdom from Indigenous people and Ayni Institute’s concept of seasonal leadership — that is, recognizing what “season” of life a person is in and honoring it — her only plan is to relax with her partner in Detroit.
“I know in terms of listening to my body and my spirit that this is the time for rest and reflection, and then after that I’ll be able to think about what’s next,” Alexander told Outlier Media.
Alexander is mostly through her high-energy and risk-taking spring and summer seasons, where she has been studying, creating, building and working a lot. Now she’s approaching fall and winter seasons, where she hopes to rest and watch her work flourish.
Since she was 6 years old, Alexander has felt the trauma and long-term impact of incarceration. Her father was in prison for a few years, and her family would drive more than 800 miles from West Michigan, where she grew up, to visit him in South Dakota. In Michigan, one out of every 10 kids have at least one incarcerated parent.
“I knew from a very young age, from elementary school, that I wanted to grow up and tear the system down, and really figure out ways of radically doing things differently in our society — not just tweaking it — because I knew first-hand the harm that incarceration could do to families and to children of incarcerated parents,” said Alexander.
She knows the fight to defend and advocate for Detroiters affected by the criminal justice system is far from over. But in order to contribute further, she said she needs to leave DJC to not only avoid burnout but to be able to pass the baton and help mentor future leaders to continue the work.
A reluctant lawyer
Alexander graduated from Harvard College in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in government and African studies. She earned a juris doctor from Yale Law School and a Ph.D. in international history from Columbia University.
During her early 20s, Alexander had already amassed a breadth of knowledge and community organizing experiences that shaped her worldview and allowed her to see firsthand how to create people power to demand policy change. She was taught to be bold and ambitious in the fight for change by elder organizers in the U.S. and South Africa, where she spent three years as a Fulbright-Hays Program scholar.
She started at Yale Law as a reluctant student at 28, not knowing whether being a lawyer would be useful to social movements and adding onto the power of organizers.
“I wasn’t sure that I could because I’d always seen lawyers kind of dull the radical energy of organizers,” she said.
The impulse to help support movements and large-scale change has fueled her work in reducing the harm of incarceration on families, like hers.
Alexander started a project in 2011 while in law school to help incarcerated parents in Connecticut understand their rights and responsibilities concerning their children. She brought the same idea home to Michigan when she launched the Prison & Family Justice Project as a fellow at the University of Michigan Law School in 2013.
During her time as a racial equity fellow in 2016 at the Detroit Equity Action Lab, Alexander exhibited leadership and listening skills that foreshadowed the great lasting impact she was able to have in the city, said Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.
Hammer has worked closely with Alexander since then and now serves on DJC’s advisory board.
“She’s a brilliant thinker,” Hammer told Outlier. “One of her superpowers is her ability to listen and her ability to ask questions, and that then facilitates collaboration because people know that they’re being treated with respect, and people know that they’re being listened to and people know they’re part of a collaborative team process.”
Alexander’s experiences during the race equity fellowship were a testing ground for her as she was in the planning stages of what would become DJC and how impactful it could be, Hammer said.
DJC celebrates five years
After two years of fundraising and planning, DJC was born in 2018 with just two employees, including Alexander. Today, it employs 33 full-time employees including attorneys, program managers, analysts and community advocates.
Alexander started the law firm to provide free legal services for incarcerated Detroiters, and to address the family division, poverty, housing crises, difficulty getting jobs and other long-term impacts incarcerated individuals face.
Part of the reason she wanted to start DJC was to help Detroiters dream of a just city and future, where mass incarceration doesn’t exist. When the city went bankrupt in 2013, there was much discussion about the future of the city, but Alexander said the families she served were left behind.
“What really frustrated me and made me really upset was that the clients and families that I was working with were being shut out of that conversation about the future of the city,” she said. “So, it was clear to me that if we were not talking about the impacts of incarceration, then we were not talking about what actually drives poverty in the city, and what it would take to create a city where everyone belongs.”
Living in South Africa, Alexander learned from land and housing activists who had fought apartheid and who were continuing the fight for better housing even after the dismantling of apartheid.
“They were the ones who really taught me that we have to define freedom for ourselves and never stop fighting until we get it,” she said. “It’s not enough to settle for things like formal equality or the right to vote if we’re not also changing material realities and people’s lives (and) economic realities.”
DJC also routinely partners with local organizations like Detroit People’s Platform, We the People of Detroit (WPD) and others to advocate for policy changes. Recently, DJC’s advocacy led to increased funding for the Right to Counsel program to help Detroiters fighting eviction. It also successfully advocated for the city to reverse its initial decision to use federal COVID relief money to fund a police surveillance system.
Alexander said that although DJC considers Detroit City Council’s move to triple the program’s budget from $6 million to $18 million as a victory, DJC and others are still advocating for a fully funded, long-term budget.
Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO of WPD, credits Alexander and other Black women organizers and activists in Detroit for collaborating to bring issues to light and incite a shift in the tone of government officials, which has led to significant policy changes.
Alexander hopes DJC is able to push the city to fund other beneficial projects like mental health facilities and tax foreclosure relief, instead of funding policing and more jails.
She said one of her favorite projects at DJC was when they asked thousands of Detroiters what they would build with $533 million, instead of that amount going to the new Wayne County Jail. Some of the ideas were to renovate all Detroit public schools, house every unhoused person in Detroit and build multiple restorative justice centers.
Turning a new (organizational) leaf
DJC’s current Associate Executive Director of Operations & Management, Felicia Thomas, will transition into one the organization’s two new co-executive director roles in May. Alexander will stay with DJC until July to guide Thomas, and to help launch the search for the additional executive director.
Sheba Rogers, a senior program manager at DJC, said that having two people lead together under DJC’s new shared leadership model is an exciting change she hopes will support the center’s upward trajectory and deeper impact after Alexander’s exit.
“This has been certainly a labor of love of hers, and self-care is so very important in this work,” Rogers said. “It’s very admirable of her to decide to take that break and allow DJC a new way of leading.”
When leaders of organizations step down, it’s common for them to keep an oversight or advisory role on the board. However, Alexander believes her presence would hinder decision-making and growth.
Hammer said he respects her decision and her trust in the DJC staff and board.
“Her presence will still be felt because she’s had such a big impact, and if she were ever needed in any capacity, I’ve no doubt that she would be there to serve.”
Lewis-Patrick said she’s happy for Alexander and is waiting to see how DJC continues to flourish.
“I’m super excited that she planned her exit, that she calculated it in a way that her team is prepared and able to move forward with the work, and we never want to work to die with us,” Lewis-Patrick said. “Organizations that are founded by Black folks, especially Black women, they never live to see their transition, their transformation, their handoff.”