Lawyer and historian Amanda Alexander is an assistant professor of Afro-American Studies and postdoctoral fellow in law at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Michigan Society of Fellows. She is a 2017 Echoing Green Fellow and founding director of the Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that works alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities. As a 2013–2015 Soros Justice Fellow, she launched the Prison & Family Justice Project at Michigan Law School to provide legal representation to incarcerated parents and advocate for families divided by the prison and foster care systems. Her writing on law and social policy has been published in The Globe and Mail, Michigan Journal of Race & Law, Review of African Political Economy, Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, Michigan Child Welfare Law Journal, and more. She serves on the board of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and as an adviser to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated. She holds a PhD from Columbia University and a JD from Yale Law School.
Much of your work as both a historian and a lawyer focuses on social movements. Can you discuss how you became interested in working on social movements and how your work on the topic has evolved over the years?
In high school and college I became captivated by the idea that people could change the course of history by putting their bodies where they didn’t “belong”—by sitting at a segregated lunch counter, refusing to move from a bus seat, blocking traffic, or occupying an administration building. Once I began to study history and learn from seasoned organizers, I realized that these moments were rarely spontaneous. Rather, they were the result of people building power over the course of months or years.
I study social movements to understand the how of change—the process. I’m intrigued by the day-to-day. How did people sustain a 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama? What did it take for them to coordinate an alternative transit system for over a year? Beyond protest and disrupting the status quo, how can movements build the power and political will necessary for deep-seated change? Really, I’m interested in how the unthinkable becomes thinkable, how the impossible becomes inevitable. And how disenfranchised people can expand society’s notions about what’s possible.
The research you did as an IDRF fellow focused on land politics and democracy in South Africa. How did you become interested in this topic?
I went to South Africa for the first time in 2003 to interview members of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) for my college thesis. It was less than a decade after the transition from legal apartheid and several social movements had begun to challenge the country’s direction. While more people, including some Black South Africans, were quickly becoming millionaires, the majority lived at the other extreme. Forty-five percent were unemployed. Twenty-five percent lived in shack settlements without water or electricity. Poor people had begun taking matters into their own hands—occupying land, demanding HIV treatment, and fighting the installation of pre-paid water meters that put clean water out of reach and caused cholera outbreaks. Many LPM activists I interviewed insisted this was not the democracy they’d struggled for, and they argued that the work of decolonization must continue.
I’d grown up in the US in the ’80s and ’90s feeling frustrated by the limits of our own civil rights struggle. My family was impacted by incarceration, police violence was a known quantity for Black families but rarely made headlines, and politicians were slashing welfare programs for the poor while expanding those for the rich. I went to college with big questions on my mind: How do we fix this? How do we create a society that works for everyone? I became a student organizer and was fortunate to find small groups of people asking the same questions. But most often I felt out of place, or out of time. In South Africa, I met scholars, activists, lawyers, janitors, poets, and domestic workers who were asking similar questions and who were trying to salvage their revolution. They insisted they hadn’t risked their lives, lost loved ones, or spent decades in prison or exile only to live in the most unequal, heavily securitized country on the planet. They wanted to make good on insurrectionary promises, and were still dreaming of what full freedom could feel like. And they were fighting to make it so. The questions in my dissertation came out of this moment.
What was the impetus for receiving both a PhD in history and a law degree?
The decision to start a PhD came first. In many ways I had my dream job at 23. I moved to South Africa after college and worked as a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society (CCS). CCS was full of dedicated social scientists who were committed to making the university a truly public space. The Centre hosted a regular lecture series that always drew a diverse cross-section of the city: environmental justice organizers, Zimbabwean exiles, local government officials, student socialists, Congolese refugees, musicians, academics, leaders of neighborhood associations, and others. I was continuing my research on land and housing policy, running media trainings for organizers, and working with our publishing team to disseminate writing from a new generation of intellectuals (many of whom had been banned or shut out of elite university programs under apartheid). I looked around and realized all my colleagues had PhDs. Going to grad school seemed like a good next step and a way to learn more about history, economics, and political theory.
It wasn’t easy leaving South Africa. I went to Columbia in part because of a conversation I had with Manning Marable during my campus visit that convinced me I’d found an intellectual home in the States. He’d written his PhD dissertation on South African leader John Langaliblele Dube, and was hard at work on Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (which would be published five years later, just days after he passed away). I admired Manning’s sense of purpose and his commitment to institution building. He created and fostered structures that carried a lot of people forward: the Center for Contemporary Black History, the Institute for Research on African-American Studies, Souls journal, the Harlem Digital Archive, and the Malcolm X Project. These institutions produced cutting-edge scholarship for a wide audience. And, quite literally, they ensured that generations of undergrads and grad students—some the first in their families to attend university—could afford to eat and make rent in New York City over the summer.
I decided to apply to law school during my third year of the PhD when I was studying for my comprehensive exams. I’d tried different ways to keep a foot in social change work while I was completing coursework. I volunteered at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College. I worked on WBAI’s Wake Up Call, writing and reading the headlines on air and producing a short documentary about Brooklyn high school students who were organizing against racial profiling. But my gut told me this wasn’t enough—I needed to be of more direct service to communities fighting for change. I started to consider applying to law school and took Katherine Franke’s Gender Justice course at Columbia Law to try it out. After that I was hooked.
How does your history degree inform your legal work?
My training as a historian has honed my thinking about systems and systemic change. You certainly don’t need to be a professional historian to have a sense that what happens in our courtrooms is an expression of centuries of violence and trauma, but it helps at times. And it certainly helps me sympathize with my clients.
It also helps me think creatively and strategically about how to work with others for change—looking to the past, when has litigation been most useful? Or ballot initiatives? Or appeals to international fora like the United Nations? Or media campaigns to shift hearts and minds? Or direct action?
Can you talk about the Prison & Family Justice Project (PFJP), which you founded at the University of Michigan School of Law?
I moved home to Michigan in 2013 to work with families divided by the prison and foster care systems. The Prison & Family Justice Project (PFJP) was modeled after a clinic project I started with two other students during law school. During my first semester in Yale’s Detention and Human Rights clinic, my clinic partners and I went to a re-entry facility to interview women coming back from prison for an edited volume (Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons). At the end of the afternoon, we asked the women if people inside had any legal issues that law students might be able to help with. Each of them said the same thing: most of the women inside were mothers, and they didn’t understand their rights and responsibilities regarding their children. In some cases, women had had their parental rights terminated and lost their children permanently. My stomach dropped when I heard this. On the drive home, we started to talk about what we could do as law students. Over the next several months, we had dozens of follow-up conversations with formerly incarcerated women, judges, prison officials, foster care administrators, and others who worked with women in prison. The next fall we launched the Women, Incarceration, and Family Law Project to provide legal information to parents in Connecticut prisons and help families avoid permanent separation.
After law school I moved home and expanded that model with the support of a Soros Justice Fellowship. PFJP has represented incarcerated parents at risk of losing their children, run family law classes in jails and prisons, trained child welfare professionals on how to maintain ties between parents in prison and their children, and advocated alongside families to remove barriers to communication and visitation. This has often felt like a defensive, last-ditch effort to help families stay together after two systems—the prison and foster care systems—have collided on them. It has driven home that we need much more proactive supports for these families and far-reaching systemic change.
What do you find to be the most interesting or exciting part of your work?
These days I’m excited to open the Detroit Justice Center (DJC) and collaborate with many other people—including individuals coming home from prison, community organizers, urban planners, architects, and public health practitioners—to flesh out our work to create just cities. I began thinking about just cities several years ago, in conversation with criminal justice advocates across Detroit, Baltimore, and New Orleans. I posed a question: What if we were to borrow from our comrades in the immigration movement who were thinking about the elements of a sanctuary city? What would it mean to create a just city agenda? A just city might, for example, invest in alternatives to jails to care for people experiencing a behavioral health crisis, as Kansas City did last year.
DJC will use a three-pronged approach to serve marginalized residents, build power, and pilot just city solutions. Our Civil Legal Services Practice will provide desperately needed legal services that will allow more low-income Detroiters to drive without fear of being pulled over for outstanding warrants, seek a job without the stigma of a criminal record, and move forward without crushing criminal justice debt. Our Economic Equity Practice will provide legal support for community land trusts, housing and worker co-ops, and enterprises led by returning citizens. And our Just City Innovation Lab will convene change-makers from Detroit and elsewhere who are developing alternatives to punitive justice to help create safe, thriving communities.
What would you say are the biggest challenges in your work?
Finding the right home for it. I think a lot about how to be nimble and responsive with my work and how to create spaces for more people to share their insights. I’ve built relationships with others who share this commitment, and we’ve worked together on participatory action research projects (such as the Who Pays? report on the cost of incarceration on families), efforts to expand higher education in prison, and ongoing attempts to create more pipelines for people (especially young lawyers) to do work that fills them with meaning and purpose. I wrestle with whether the academy is currently the right space for this, or whether we need to build outside it. I’m focused on building with like-minded people wherever they are, creating the structures and supports we always wished for, and trusting that we’ll find ways to sustain each other in this work. I’m still heartened by Manning Marable’s example—instead of spending a lot of time convincing those in power that something was necessary, he gathered his people and built it.
You were a member of the 2009 IDRF cohort. How did receiving an IDRF award impact your graduate education?
The IDRF award allowed me to spend an incredible year at the University of Cape Town where I was affiliated with Dr. Lungisile Ntsebeza’s National Research Foundation Chair in Land Reform, Democracy, and Civil Society Dynamics. For the first time in my graduate training I was part of a cohort of researchers focused on land reform issues. It was really refreshing. I’m sure many of the new IDRF fellows can relate to being the only person in their doctoral program studying a particular country or region. I was the only PhD candidate in Columbia’s history department studying South Africa. This can make for great comparative conversations, but it helped a lot to work alongside South African scholars who were deeply knowledgeable about the topics I was working on and who could push me in new directions.
We just selected the 2017 cohort. What advice would you give to incoming fellows?
Remember the dissertation is a discrete project. There’s so much pressure on graduate students—both internal and external—to view the dissertation as the culmination and perfect reflection of all the wisdom you’ve gathered up to that point in life. That’s an impossibly high bar and it can create a lot of stress and anxiety. Instead, try to remember that it’s just the beginning of a conversation, just one part of your contribution. You’re posing some new, imperfect questions that others will hopefully find interesting and want to run with. The dissertation doesn’t define you as a person—far from it. As you get deeper into the writing process, remember what else—outside of academia—makes you come alive. Beyond your dissertation, what are some of your biggest dreams for your life?
In terms of the research year, know that it takes time to settle into life in a new place. Even though I’d lived in South Africa before, I’d forgotten how long it takes to sort out logistics. No matter how much you prepare, expect that you’ll probably spend most of the first month finalizing housing (my initial apartment fell through), opening a bank account, obtaining a university ID card, getting library, computer, and email access squared away, buying a used car or figuring out public transit, gaining admission to archives, etc. Be gentle with yourself. It’s totally fine for things to get off to a slow start.
What is the last article/book/news you heard or read that is exciting to you?
I’m loving Adrienne Maree Brown’s new book, Emergent Strategy. I’m quoting it often and have bought extra copies to give to friends. She has so much to teach those of us interested in creating change, especially about how to create networks that can adapt, generate new possibilities, and iterate with an ethos of joy and curiosity. On her hopes for the book, she writes that she wants people to “feel free to play with all of these observations and their own, add to it, discard what doesn’t serve, and keep innovating. I don’t want to be the owner of this, just a joyful conduit.” I’m trying to remember that as I put new ideas into the world and work to open the Detroit Justice Center. It helps to set ego aside and focus more on impact, reverberations, and unexpected ways that we can spark ideas in each other. It’s a big, beautiful proposition: How do we create spaces of joy where people can come alive and do their best work?