Part of the solution: ACLU interns talk about need for justice for all in Detroit

Detroit love has reached such heights that this summer has featured something many of us haven’t seen since the Super Bowl in 2006, if ever: actual tourists.

While those folks crowd the Motown Museum and the DIA, take in a Tiger game, or line up at Slow’s, not everyone exploring the city is here for fun. Some are here to learn, work, and possibly even change the world before they go home.

That’s true of the five young women who served as law student interns at the ACLU of Michigan this summer. They’ve helped out on such high-profile projects as the Highland Park "Right to Read" case and the "vagina" controversy at the state Capitol, and have spent their off hours enjoying all that summer in Detroit has to offer. 

Two of the interns -- Nickie Perera of University of Michigan law school and Chelsea Whittler from University of Virginia law school -- are local, Perera from Franklin and Chelsea from Southfield. The other three are here from elsewhere: Jessica Frisina and Amanda Korber both are from New York and attend Harvard Law, while Rita Cant is from Canada and attends Brooklyn Law.

Each of them were drawn here by a chance to work on major civil rights issues under some excellent lawyers who are also great mentors to law students. To do that in Detroit and Michigan, with its historic position as a hotbed of civil rights activism, was especially attractive. "I see Detroit as the symbol of where civil rights can go," says Cant. "It’s where people are putting their hopes for change."

They’ve had a chance to work on some interesting projects; staff attorneys assign the interns work mostly based on their interests. Korber was involved in the national controversy that blew up when Rep. Lisa Brown of West Bloomfield was barred from further speaking on the bill when she uttered the word "vagina" on the House floor. It was an interesting lesson in the power of social media, and in how activists on the ground can affect what happens in the Legislature, she says. "It’s been really incredible to see...the role the ACLU was able to play in just moving and bringing to action a giant portion of the state’s population," she says. "It was really an awesome thing to witness."

Whittler contributed research and fact-checking to the ACLU’s lawsuit against the school district of Highland Park, charging that it has failed in its responsibility to teach children to read. After seeing -- and participating in -- all the hard work that goes into such a case, it was especially gratifying to see it finally reach the point of being filed, she says.

Frisina has been working on issues surrounding a homeless encampment just outside Ann Arbor, including researching whether the homeless people staying in a park could avoid eviction and if local churches had any resources to help. Perera connected the interns with Michigan Legal Services, where they will help foreclosed homeowners bid on their homes in an effort to reclaim them at a foreclosure auction.

All five interns observe court cases and how the criminal justice system treats poor people. It’s been very eye-opening, Cant says, and has influenced where she would like to steer her career. "It's incredible to see how the criminal justice system is actually perpetrating injustice on a huge percent of the Michigan population," she says. "A serious re-evaluation of our priorities needs to happen."

With all their intense work, the women have had some time for fun exploring the city. Korber and Frisina share an apartment in Woodbridge, while Cant lives in Midtown and locals Perera and Whittler are with their families in the suburbs. All five interns went to see the Detroit Derby Girls in a bout; on the higher end of the cultural spectrum, Frisina spent a weekend immersing herself and visiting friends in Detroit’s music scene during the Concert of Colors. While they didn’t go to the main event, they kept stumbling across events in other spots around the city. And when Korber’s boyfriend visited from Boston, she showed him around Eastern Market, the DIA, and the Heidelberg Project just like a native. "I got to show him everything I have been doing in Detroit and everything I have come to love about the city," she says.

Newcomers bring a fresh perspective on Detroit’s strengths and its problems, and that's true of both the interns who are from elsewhere and the ones who grew up here and then left to pursue their educations. Frisina, from New York and Boston, has been struck by the effect poverty has on residents of the city, especially the lack of public transit. "I think there’s really great work being done here by the ACLU and other organizations they work with, but the move to focus on civil rights and poverty is something that needs to happen and be continuing," she says. "I think that just by walking out on Woodward you can see the impact of poverty on Detroit and it’s not something you can ignore."

For Whittler, it’s our segregated society, and the lack of knowledge it leads to, that is the city’s major problem, and she’d like to  move back here after law school and continue to be a part of the solution. "I think that’s something we need to work on -- our social discourse. To effectuate big change, we have to have the support of the community and I think that just comes from a misunderstanding of what life is like for the different types of people that live in the city."

Each woman has a sharpened desire to continue in public interest law after their summer in Detroit; Cant says that a desire for a more meaningful career is a pretty common highlight of their generation. As Perera says, "When you see what good it (public service) does for the community and how good it makes you feel, and how you can really make a difference just doing those small things...a lot of people continue that when they graduate."

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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