Celebrating 150 years of Yale women

Ryan Garza

Ryan Garza

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Amanda Alexander

By Dylan Walsh ’11MEM

“I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.” The activist Alicia Garza posted this to Facebook on July 13, 2013, in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Garza’s friend, Patrisse Cullors, lopped off the last three words and added a hashtag. #BlackLivesMatter was born.

Amanda Alexander ’13JD was in Detroit at the time, studying for the bar exam. She had applied and gone to law school not because she wanted to be a lawyer. “It is not the work of lawyers to create justice or to fundamentally shift power relations,” she says. “I came into law school as a former organizer, knowing that people power is what makes change.” She wanted to use the narrow tools of law to support the Garzas and Cullorses out there. To that end, she started the Detroit Justice Center two years ago. Its mission: to work “alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities.”

Since childhood, Alexander had been a student of social movements, “the history of people putting their bodies on the line.” In college, she traveled to South Africa to write about the Landless People’s Movement. She studied the 2004 general election, when LPM occupied land across the country and denounced the government’s failure ten years post-apartheid. To LPM, providing people the right to vote did not make for freedom if those same people had no running water or stable housing or healthcare. LPM demanded the means to thrive, and that demand deeply shaped Alexander’s outlook.

In 2013, supported by a Soros Justice Fellowship, Alexander started the Prison and Family Justice Project at the University of Michigan Law School. Alongside her research and teaching responsibilities, she co-coordinated a legal support network for activists and organizers across the country. After five years, in April of 2018, Alexander opened the Detroit Justice Center—at last realizing the ambitions that first had drawn her to law school. Part of the center’s work is “defensive.” They represent those arrested for driving on a suspended license or unable to pay court fines. They help clear outstanding warrants. But the center is just as invested in “nurturing our clients’ freedom dreams,” Alexander says. “This is not something you’re taught in law school. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve had to buck a lot of my training.”

Nurturing freedom dreams means many things to Alexander. It means gathering local teenagers, as she did in 2018, to ask how they would have chosen to spend the $533 million allocated for a new jail complex in downtown Detroit. It means continuing to provide administrative legwork for neighborhoods that are looking to establish land trusts and worker-owned cooperatives. It means spurring imaginative approaches to a world without police—for example, through this year’s artist-in-residence program. Fundamentally, Alexander says, nurturing freedom dreams means giving people the resources to thrive.