Staff Profile With Economic Equity Attorney, Whitley Granberry
Casey Rocheteau: How did you find out about the Detroit Justice Center, and what drew you to apply?
Whitley Granberry: I was at my previous job, and felt it was time for a change. It was evident in all of the conversations that I was having with friends and colleagues that I was ready for it. A few friends who worked in the public service sector mentioned DJC to me. I bumped into one of them at a holiday festival, and she was really encouraging me to look into it. Often, I’ve found that nonprofits don’t have the budget for multiple attorneys, and I wasn’t looking to be someone’s general counsel, which would mean handling everything for clients. I didn’t feel like I had enough years under my belt for that. After we ran into each other, she very kindly sent me a link to the job posting and after looking at it, it seemed like a good fit. The short answer is that it was word of mouth. People would often talk about Amanda [Alexander] or DJC’s work with No New Jails Detroit, but it was really looking at the website and seeing the values statement that appealed to me. It almost brought a single tear to my eye reading it, it was so beautiful. It made me feel like “I want to work in a space like this. I want to contribute to a space like this”. The structure of “Defense, Offense, and Dreaming” was compelling to me. Also, with longer running institutions, they can have a very set way of doing things and it can be hard for them to deviate from that path. I like having the freedom to be creative and to try to find solutions. Sometimes things don’t work, and that’s fine. You learn, re-orient, edit, and you try again. The ability to try to innovate in that way really drew me in.
CR: Can you talk a little bit about the Economic Equity Practice and what it is that you do?
WG: In contrast to the Legal Services Practice which does a lot of civil and family law, as well as law related to traffic violations, to address inequities in the city, we do it from a more commercial and often more transactional standpoint. A lot of the work we’re doing right now is focused on community land trusts, worker-owned cooperatives, and community benefits ordinance advocacy. We’re doing a lot of trainings around these things, so it’s really about public education. We’re also doing some work with revolving loan funds to deal with some of the issues around foreclosures in the city. We also do a lot of business entity work. So, for instance, if you’re working with co-ops, the legal side beyond educating interested parties on what the law comes in when you need to file papers with the state or draft an operating agreement or by-laws, these sorts of things. It takes a lot of meetings, patience, conversations, and collaboration. It’s a big shift from my previous job, so I’m adjusting to that, but it’s great for me as the person focusing on co-ops. It helps me to think about the kind of democratic mindset that you want to permeate these environments. It can take a long time to reach the finished product in some of these projects because the co-operative mindset is so democratic and requires deep listening, as opposed to other situations where someone might get steamrolled in a conversation because there’s this mindset like “we don’t have time for that.”
CR: Can you talk a little bit about Community Benefits Agreements and Ordinances?
WG: The Ordinance is the city’s law, which means if you’re developing in the city, and your development either involves a certain amount of investment, or you benefit from a receiving a certain amount of tax breaks or city land, you trigger the ordinance, which means you have to go through the community benefits process. The agreement is what happens at the end of the process after community stakeholders and the developer figure out what the parameters of that agreement are. The unfortunate thing is that because our Ordinance isn’t very strong, developers aren’t required to sign anything that’s legally binding at the end. Residents are learning to negotiate from greater positions of power, so that they get more out of the process than just discussions and reports in the end. Right now, developers will generally work through this process as a sign of goodwill in the communities they’re moving into, but without the requirement to sign an agreement, it results in no legal safeguard.
CR: You grew up in Southfield, but you left and then came back. Can you talk a little bit about that?
WG: I graduated high school in 2006, went to undergrad in New York, and then went overseas for about 2 ½ years. When I came back to the country, I was in DC for law school and lived there for those three years. It was exciting for me to travel and see all of these places having grown up in suburban Michigan. I loved seeing how different cities have their own style and pace, but I eventually realized I wanted to be back in the Midwest, but I wanted to be in a big city, and I wanted to do community development law. It made sense for me to come back to Detroit for all of those reasons.
CR: Where did you go overseas?
WG: I lived in Romania for 2 ½ years.
CR: What!? Were you in the Peace Corps?
WG: Yes. I had known I wanted to go into the Peace Corps from a somewhat early age. Initially, they had nominated me to go to an island in the South Pacific, but I’m a Type 1 diabetic. After I went through the health screening process, they realized that wasn’t a great fit, because if I’m on an island that has a boat that only goes to the mainland once a day and I have a diabetic episode or something ten minutes after the boat leaves, I’m in trouble. So, they changed my nomination to Eastern Europe. I had family friends growing up who had met in the Peace Corps, and through talking to them I realized that it really wasn’t about going where you wanted to go so much as serving wherever you were needed. I taught English to adults and kids mainly, but we did all kinds of things—tree planting, summer camps, dance club. Romania is a beautiful, formerly communist country, so there are a lot of vestiges of communism, particularly in the capital. Do you know how we had the fail jail here? That’s like their People’s Palace. Their former dictator, Ceaușescu, started building it, and it never got finished. It was only a communist country for about twenty years, and the first ten of those were actually very stable. Romania was one of the only countries with no national debt. The second ten years, however, they started to acquire debt because of things like the People’s Palace, and there were food shortages, so it became kind of a nightmare. Given the food issues in those years, people grew a lot of their own food, and it’s become something of a cultural thing. Still today, pretty much anyone with a house has a huge garden, and they have a massive vegetable output.
CR: What’s something you’re looking forward to over the rest of summer?
WG: I definitely want to go to a concert at Chene Park aka the Aretha [Franklin Amphitheater]!