Bridging the Gap

two women volunteering for united way: seasons of caring
Bridging the gap
At a time when it’s exceedingly needed, the Law School offers platforms for students and alumni to raise their voice and make a world of difference.
By Meg Mathis
In recent months especially, we see and hear the need to cultivate a community that is just. With logic and empathy, our students, alumni, faculty and staff are working to create safe spaces within the Law School that amplify diverse voices and truths. Meet some of the changemakers who are listening to — and lifting up — a range of perspectives in the pursuit of prosperity.
volunteers for united way: seasons of caring in different settings
Black Law Students Association
sixty enthusiastic middle schoolers from David Ellis Academy
Sixty enthusiastic middle schoolers from David Ellis Academy participated in the Black Law Students Association’s inaugural Be the Change event.
When Michelle Obama published her memoir, Becoming, in 2018, Alexis Smith-Scott ’20 was struck by the former first lady’s reflection of her undergraduate experience at Princeton University. “She talked about how that felt more attainable than the University of Chicago, right in her backyard,” Smith-Scott said. “You can imagine how many [Detroit] students feel that way, where they reside in close proximity to the Law School but it feels so unattainable.”

Smith-Scott began brainstorming ways to reach young minds, and she approached fellow members of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) — of which she was community chair from 2018 to 2020 — with an idea for a pilot program: Be the Change.

The inaugural Be the Change event in March 2020 saw BLSA members welcoming 60 middle school students from David Ellis Academy to the Law School to take a tour, connect with local attorneys and participate in a mock debate. Throughout the day, the middle schoolers learned the fundamentals of argumentation, teamwork and advocacy as they interacted with law students and professionals who looked like them.

“The idea of Be the Change is you can’t be what you don’t see,” said Smith-Scott. “For them to understand that you can persevere was extremely important. I also think eighth grade is that pivotal point before high school where there’s peer pressure, there’s questioning yourself and there also is thought about life after high school.”

Alexis Smith-Scott
Mikaela Armstead
Smith-Scott noted that Be the Change is currently in development to become a nonprofit, with plans underway at press time for a socially distant 2021 event in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This is not the only way that BLSA gives back to the community, though; the organization is known for community outreach, from partnering with the nonpartisan collective Michigan Voting to operate a voter protection hotline through Election Day, to participating in Adopt A Family and organizing Toys for Tots at the Law School each holiday season.

This commitment to service is guiding BLSA President Mikaela Armstead in organizing the Law School’s 2021 Black History Month celebration.

“We want to provide a space where we can share Detroit culture and Black Detroit culture, and really involve the community as much as we can on a virtual platform,” said Armstead, noting that BLSA plans to showcase minority-owned businesses this year along with a fundraising project, plus hallmark events like the judges and law partner panels.

Currently a 2L, Armstead is passionate about broadening the Law School’s path to the community. Last July, BLSA submitted a letter to Dean Richard A. Bierschbach with eight action items to support Black students and community members. In the months since then, BLSA members have met with the dean to discuss progress on these objectives, which include a biannual service initiative and additions to the Law School curriculum.

“We have an obligation to give back to our community. That was one of our goals: really making strides in making Wayne Law a better place,” said Armstead. “We have the tools to do better, and now is the perfect time to do better.”

National Lawyers Guild
McKenna Thayer collecting names and information from protesters who were arrested
While working as a Legal Observer in June 2020, 2L McKenna Thayer collected names and information from protesters who were arrested.
“I grew up in a community where it was not diverse, and as a white person, I didn’t have a fear of the police, so I didn’t understand how identities really impact your experience with law enforcement,” said McKenna Thayer.

To hear the 2L tell it, becoming a law student really opened her eyes to systemic injustice.

“The gate [to law school] is so hard to get through. Everyone comes to the classroom with a different background and a different amount of privilege,” Thayer said. “But you hold such an important role [as a student]. We hold people’s life and liberty in our hands.”

Thayer has further cemented this sociopolitical mindset as a member of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). The country’s oldest and largest progressive bar association, the NLG boasts roots that run deep in structural change, having provided legal support for social justice movements for more than 50 years.

“We’re not these superheroes that swoop in and have all the answers,” observed Thayer, who is secretary for the NLG student chapter. “We are a tool that activists in the movement can use to get policy things through that they want.”

Davi Lebow
McKenna Thayer
She considers Wayne Law’s chapter — an affiliate of the Detroit Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild — a “utility player” that plugs politically minded students into a variety of pro bono opportunities where they can offer support on everything from translating lawyer rights wires to acting as Legal Observers at protests. Fellow NLG member Davi Lebow has frequently volunteered as a Legal Observer, which he sought training for in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year.

“The first night of protests, I was protesting, and I saw a Detroit police car plow into a crowd of people,” Lebow said. “I had friends who were legal observing, and they were at the other end of the protest and didn’t even see it — and that had me thinking, It would be a lot of good if there were a Legal Observer here who had actually seen that.”

Lebow immediately signed up to be trained as a Legal Observer.

“It’s a very interesting role because you have to be aware of your surroundings, both for your personal safety and to accomplish the job,” he said. “Also, there’s a degree of comfort you have to have in being willing to walk up to a cop, who may be intimidating, and look at their badge numbers and write down the numbers of their car and what they’re doing.”

Currently a 2L, Lebow noted that his goal after graduation is to become a public defender — an aspiration shared by Thayer.

“I think the idea of the legal public defender is changing in a way where we’re seeing ourselves as holistic lawyers involved in the community,” said Thayer, noting that she will “always be on the side of people over property.”

Black Law Alumni Council
Founding Member Lawrence C. Mann, a 2019 inductee into the Wayne Law Alumni Wall of Fame
Founding Member Lawrence C. Mann is a 2019 inductee into the Wayne Law Alumni Wall of Fame.
“I’ve always believed that a law degree is one of the best and most useful degrees to have from higher education institutions,” said Elliott Hall ’65, “because you can do so much with a law degree: You can practice law, be a judge, work for the Fortune 500 company corporations that have legal departments, teach, go into investment banking … it leads into many areas of our society.”

And Hall would know, having had an illustrious career that includes working in law firms, serving as corporate counsel for the City of Detroit, being appointed chief assistant prosecutor for Wayne County, and lobbying as Ford’s vice president of governmental affairs.

“I’ve done a little of everything with my degree,” Hall said of his juris doctor, noting its “utilitarian use.”

As honorary chair of the executive committee for the Black Law Alumni Council (BLAC), Hall now looks forward to seeing what Wayne Law’s next generation can accomplish — and how members like him can help.

“I’m very pleased to see just what we can do to enhance the stature of the Law School and improve minority participation on all levels,” he said of BLAC, which was established last year as an affiliate organization of the Wayne State University Alumni Association.

For alumni like retired faculty member Lawrence C. Mann ’80, the council has been a long time coming.

Judge Debra Nance
Rasul M. Raheem
“It’s been a dream of many of the African American alumni for more than 30 years,” said Mann, a founding member of the executive committee. “Wayne Law does not sit in a vacuum; it sits in the middle of the city of Detroit, and those students that are attending, their tentacles and influence and efforts reach various aspects of the greatest community in Southeast Michigan.

“Hoping to piggyback on all of that,” Mann continued, “we hope to help them integrate into the legal community and explore, and to offer service where possible.”

Gold quotation marks
We need to bring together the alumni that are so distinguished around the country to work on certain projects facing the legal profession and the Law School as a whole, particularly issues dealing with student engagement, faculty success and alumni outreach.”
— Rasul M. Raheem
In addition to supporting current students, BLAC works to champion Wayne Law graduates and faculty through a connected community of engaged alumni, like Rasul M. Raheem J.D. ’84, LL.M. ’03.

“We need to bring together the alumni that are so distinguished around the country to work on certain projects facing the legal profession and the Law School as a whole, particularly issues dealing with student engagement, faculty success and alumni outreach,” said Raheem, who is chair of the council’s executive committee.

Honorary Chair Elliott Hall speaking with Dean Richard A. Bierschbach
Honorary Chair Elliott Hall, left, speaks with Dean Richard A. Bierschbach during a Dean’s Speaker Series event.
The executive committee meets on a quarterly basis and oversees three standing committees: the student success committee, chaired by Steve Williams J.D. ’09, LL.M. ’12, designed to empower students through mentorship, programming opportunities and career services; the alumni engagement committee, chaired by Robert Thomas ’13, which plans and hosts networking events to drive participation among graduates; and the faculty success committee, chaired by Judge Debra Nance ’99, which supports current Wayne Law faculty while focusing on increasing diversity and building retention.

“We want to see Wayne Law continue to be successful,” said Nance, who is also vice chair of the council’s executive committee. “I consider it to be a jewel in the heart of the city.”

Black Law Alumni Council logo
Executive committee:
Rasul M. Raheem ’84, ’03, chair
Judge Debra Nance ’99, vice chair
Jessica Mills ’16, secretary
Lawrence C. Mann ’80, founding member
Elliott Hall ’65, honorary chair
Judge Leonia Lloyd ’79
Judge Patricia L. Jefferson ’86
Judge Michael E. Wagner ’87
Ericka Matthews-Jackson ’97
Robert Thomas ’13
Steve Williams ’09, ’12
Monica Smith ’09
Jerry Dorsey IV ’86
Judge Christopher Blount ’06
Learn More
Learn about the Black Law Alumni Council’s work and how to get involved at