Asandi Conner remembers taking part in her first protest at Wayne State University more than 30 years ago, a student-led demonstration that led to the creation of the Department of African American Studies.
Now, armed with the experience and years of vocal activism that began when she was a WSU student, Conner has returned to campus to continue her work for racial justice and equity, this time as director of the Detroit Equity Action Lab (DEAL), an initiative of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State Law School created to develop leaders in the fight against racism.
“It really feels in some way serendipitous to be back to be here doing this kind of work,” she said. “The university has to play a role in racial equity. Wayne State is at or near the center of the city and serves a very diverse population.”
For Conner, achieving racial equity in Detroit now is her career as well as her passion. As the head of the DEAL, it’s her job to spend each day working to equip others with the tools to fight structural racism — but as a Black woman who grew up, went to college and now works in Detroit, she considers it her responsibility.
“I care about racial matters, and it’s deeply personal for me,” Conner said. “I feel like if we don’t figure out ways to move the needle toward co-liberation, that it will continue to harm not just Black and brown people, but everybody. It impacts all of us. There’s a responsibility and a role that I personally feel like I have to play in this work, and one way is by leading this program.”
Started in 2014, DEAL was created inside the Law School’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights with the goal of achieving racial equity, which, according to the organization’s website, “centers the humanity and dignity of all people, especially Black, indigenous and people of color. It begins with acknowledging those historically and systemically harmed by a racial hierarchy that perpetuates white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It demands that our communities have the power to replace racist policies, institutions and culture with a collective commitment toward co-liberation.”
Defining racial equity was one of Conner’s goals when she took over as DEAL director in late 2020.
“That was really important because it grounds and directs the work that we do,” she said. “So when we say racial equity, there’s no confusion about what we mean.”
Currently, DEAL’s best-known tool is its Racial Equity Fellowship, a program that recruits and trains racial justice leaders over the course of 12 monthly sessions. DEAL will welcome its seventh cohort of Racial Equity fellows (known as DEAL 7) this fall via a hybrid learning format the group implemented after COVID-19 forced its sixth cohort to attend all sessions virtually. This also marks the first time the curriculum has been expanded to cover a full year.
“We learned from DEAL 6 and the previous cohorts that we needed more time to really implement our curriculum,” Conner explained. “After finalizing the curriculum, and we knew we needed more time to dig into this content.”
There will also be optional sessions for the cohort.
“There’s a lot that happens within 12 months, and it could even be longer, but we feel like a year allows us to have a good starting point and an end,” Conner said. “Our goal is to increase the fellow’s capacity, and we hope that, as they add to their racial equity toolkit, they will share what they’re learning within their communities and organizations where they work or volunteer.”
Notable alumni of the Racial Equity Fellowship include Seydi Sarr, founder of African Bureau of Immigration and Social Affairs; Amanda Alexander, founding executive director of the Detroit Justice Center; Linda Campbell, director of Detroit People’s Platform; Gabriela Santiago-Romero, a Detroit City Councilwoman; Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power; and Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO of We the People of Detroit.
Conner noted that DEAL is working on a robust alumni engagement plan in hopes of creating a collaborative network of its more than 150 past participants.
“I want them to feel connected to a network of other racial equity leaders,” she said. “We want to give them an opportunity to meet and plant the seeds for collaboration within the network. I hope they want to continue to stay engaged with DEAL and their fellow fellows and work together on projects around structural racism in metro Detroit.”
Conner also hopes to establish a robust social justice lab once the incoming cohort is done.
“The way that we are thinking about it is really activating the network of alumni through the lab,” she said. “We need to solidify what our role in the lab will be and how to best support it. Ideally, there would be projects that we don’t necessarily present to the alumni, but that they come up with on their own that are related to racial equity. We want them to tap into their network of fellows, and we can help with some funding to support that work — so they may be piloting or trying something new or different, and the DEAL lab is the place to do that. They can try things and maybe explore different approaches. The projects in the lab are informed by them, their work, what they’re experiencing and what they’re seeing.”
Conner never got the chance to meet Judge Damon J. Keith, the legendary late jurist and civil rights advocate who planted the seeds for the development of DEAL, but she feels like the work DEAL does builds on everything he accomplished.
“I feel DEAL is a manifestation of his legacy,” Conner said. “DEAL’s efforts to invest in and increase the capacity of racial equity leaders in the Detroit area pay homage to him and the work that he was doing. While our work isn’t in the actual courtroom, the investment we make in our fellows impacts probably anyone he may have seen in his courtroom regarding issues that range from education to criminal justice to affordable housing. In many ways, we are continuing his legacy.”
WSU law school professor Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights and co-author of Crusader for Justice: Federal Judge Damon J. Keith, said Keith’s values influenced the shaping of DEAL. Hammer noted that Keith attended the inaugural cohort’s first session.
Hammer said that the work DEAL is doing is critical and that he is pleased with the progress the group has made thus far.
“Detroit is ground zero for the devastating impact of spatial-structural racism,” he said. “DEAL is a critical program that strengthens the network of people fighting for racial equity and increases the collaborative capacity of future work. We are blessed to be joined by many of the most gifted people in the city committed to dismantling structural racism and building the beloved community.”
DEAL currently has four full-time employees but hopes to expand in the future. Conner admits that starting as DEAL’s director in the middle of the pandemic had its challenges, but she has overcome them and feels DEAL has a bright future.
“I have learned a tremendous amount,” she said. “I’m learning about the social justice ecosystem in Detroit and about the dynamics and complexity of racial equity. It’s also been great to bring some of the leadership lessons from my previous positions here. We were gifted new space in the Law School on the second floor, so that has been fun. We’re planning to grow our team, so we’ll have space for new hires.”
Long term, DEAL hopes to expand beyond hosting cohorts and to be the catalyst to end structural racism in Detroit.
“We also think of DEAL as an active space where we convene and gather emerging and experienced leaders in the racial equity landscape who are collectively disrupting and dismantling structural racism in Detroit and metro Detroit,” Conner said. “DEAL is a racial equity program, and our cornerstone program activity is the racial equity fellowship — but at our core, we are really a racial equity leadership development program.”