Following in the footsteps of colleagues Linda Campbell and Ponsella Hardaway, EJAMmers Dr. Alicia Renee Farris and Dessa Cosma join the Detroit Equity Action Lab.

Diverse leaders tackling structural racism through Wayne Law’s Detroit Equity Action Lab

September 28, 2015

DETROIT — Thirty leaders from local organizations are joining together as members of the second year’s cohort for Wayne State University Law School’s Detroit Equity Action Lab to further the cause of racial equity.

Equity Lab Cohort

The equity lab is housed at Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights and is under the leadership of Professor Peter J. Hammer, director of the Keith Center, and 2014 Wayne Law alumna Eliza Perez-Ollin, project coordinator. The lab is made possible by a three-year, $1.3 million grant awarded in 2014 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The lab’s purpose is to bring groups in different fields together to address the issues of structural racism in Detroit.

“Structural racism” describes how public and private institutions historically and systematically provide advantages to white people in ways that are embedded in society.

This year’s cohort members represent multiple dimensions of diversity. They range in age from their 20s to their 60s. They include members of the African-American, Arab-American, Asian-American, Latino, Mexican-American and Native-American communities. They represent a variety of organization sizes, geographic reach and perspectives with sectors including arts, civil rights, economic development, education, faith, health care, labor, media and policy.

Diversity in perspective is important to the success of each year’s cohort, Hammer said.

Diversity Lab Cohort

The second-year cohort will meet monthly for workshops, trainings and discussions led by local and national experts. The cohort members also will initiate group projects to use their abilities to identify and address long-standing racial disparities in Detroit. The cohort first met for a retreat Friday, Sept. 25, and Saturday, Sept. 26.

For new member Agustin Arbulu of Birmingham, who represents Medical Services of Detroit and is a member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the chance to serve with the cohort is a welcome opportunity.

“I am participating to interact with others to broaden awareness, expand my approach and better understand the issues and measurements of inequalities in our community,” he said. “I feel my ability to be of service will be enhanced with collaboration.”

For new member LaNesha DeBardelaben of Detroit, vice president of assessment and community engagement with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, issues of historical cultural inequity are well-known.

“At the center of the stories we tell and exhibit at the Wright Museum is oftentimes the struggle toward equity,” she said. “The Wright Museum, therefore, saw the importance of engaging in the Detroit Equity Action Lab as a part of our mission in order to better position the museum as an informal educational institution that transforms and uplifts. Our shared past is a powerful tool to empowering communities today.”

The new cohort is working with the Detroit Historical Museum preparing to mark the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s 1967 civil uprising to make sure issues of racial equity are fairly addressed, Perez-Ollin said.

Alicia Farris of Detroit, another new cohort member, is the state director of Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan.

“I decided to apply for the Detroit Equity Action Lab because of its alignment with Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan’s mission of championing the rights of restaurant workers, and my love and commitment to Detroit and Michigan,” she said. “It is imperative that we work together as a community to identify and eradicate the many social, racial and economic injustices that are taking place, especially in Michigan’s restaurant industry. The equity lab presents an opportunity for critical learning and engagement in dialogues on these topics and the development of action plans that will lead us to a fair and just community for all. I am very excited to be included in this cohort.”

Hammer said he expects this year’s cohort to build on the first-year cohort’s work, and to focus particularly on the role of the media, messaging and storytelling in shaping racialized belief systems and social policy.

New cohort member Jenny Lee of Detroit is executive director of Allied Media Projects – an organization that cultivates media strategies for a “more just, creative and collaborative world” and serves a network of media makers, artists, educators and technologists working for social justice – and is a member of Detroit Digital Justice Coalition.

Kate Baker at Detroit Equity Lab Cohort Retreat

“I signed up for the cohort because I believe Detroit has the opportunity to set an example for a kind of revitalization that reckons with, and ultimately transforms, deep legacies of racialized inequality, that tackles deep-rooted problems creatively and holistically,” Lee said. “The equity lab seems to be the convening point for a lot of the people and projects that are advancing this more innovative approach to revitalization, and I’m excited to learn and grow with them over the coming year.”

Members of the lab’s second cohort are:

  • Fatina Abdrabboh of Dearborn, director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Michigan Region
  • Hanifa Adjuman of Detroit, education and outreach director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
  • Rasha Almulaiki of Dearborn, co-founder of Z Collective
  • Rabbi Alana Alpert of Detroit, director of Detroit Jews for Justice
  • Rhonda Anderson of Detroit, senior organizing representative of the Sierra Club
  • Agustin Arbulu of Birmingham, executive with Medical Services of Detroit
  • Kate Baker of Ferndale, managing director of the Detroit Historical Society
  • Anthony Benavides of Detroit, director of the Clark Park Coalition
  • Shane Bernardo of Detroit, facilitator of the Detroit Asian Youth Project
  • Dustin Block of Grosse Pointe Woods, Detroit/Lansing editor of MLive Media Group
  • Kibibi Blount-Dorn of Detroit, program manager of Detroit Food Policy Council
  • Marifer Calleja of Harper Woods, liaison officer with Wayne County
  • Piper Carter of Detroit, owner and founder, The Foundation of Women in Hip Hop
  • Dessa Cosma of Detroit, executive director of the Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan
  • Lacy Dawson of Detroit, Detroit field director of Michigan Voice
  • LaNesha DeBardelaben of Detroit, vice president of assessment and community engagement with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
  • Bryce Detroit of Detroit, co-founder of Detroit Afrikan Music Institution
  • Alicia Farris of Detroit, state director of Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan
  • Nickole Fox of Madison Heights, director of health education and prevention with American Indian Health and Family Services
  • Ayesha Ghazi of Ann Arbor, president of American Citizens for Justice
  • Sunil Joy of Royal Oak, data and policy analyst with The Education Trust – Midwest
  • Randy LeBar of Trenton, case manager with American Indian Services Inc.
  • Jenny Lee of Detroit, executive director of Allied Media Projects
  • Lisa Leverette of Detroit, director of Community Connections Grant Program
  • Monica Lewis-Patrick of Detroit, director of community outreach and engagement with We the People of Detroit
  • Adela Nieves of Detroit, co-founder and traditional community health practitioner with Detroit Community Health Collective
  • Tawana Petty of Detroit, organizer with the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership
  • Julie Phenis of Detroit, project manager with Focus: HOPE
  • Taurean Thomas of Detroit, SerMetro/Youthbuild
  • Akua Woolbright of Detroit, board member of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network


Anthony Benavides and Monica Lewis-Patrick participate in an icebreaker Friday, Sept. 25, at a retreat for new cohort members of the Detroit Equity Action Lab through Wayne State University Law School’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. For more photos, visit

From left, Kate Baker, Piper Carter and Augustin Arbulu participate in a commitment circle Friday, Sept. 25, discussing their goals for their cohort year.

Adela Nieves drops her written commitment for the Detroit Equity Action Lab in a basket Friday, Sept. 25. Looking on is Eliza Perez-Ollin, project coordinator for the equity lab.