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Out of jail and back in school, Grace finds her voice 

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Ten minutes before her debut and three months after she became known as the Michigan girl sent to juvenile detention for failing to do her online schoolwork, Grace* hurried into a bustling doughnut shop in suburban Detroit and plopped into a leather chair next to her mother. She straightened her headband and searched her pockets, unsuccessfully, for lip gloss. She tapped a few final notes into her phone.

Then, ignoring her mother’s request to sit up straight, Grace leaned in toward her laptop and, for the first time since her case gained national notoriety as a symbol of racial inequities in the juvenile justice system, she began to speak publicly about what had happened to her.

“I’ve been doing tons, and I mean tons, of self-reflection,” she said to the audience on the screen.

Grace’s case drew widespread outrage when a ProPublica Illinois investigation reported that she was incarcerated for violating her probation on assault and theft charges by not completing coursework during the pandemic. Members of Congress called for a civil rights investigation, students protested outside the courthouse, #FreeGrace became a trending hashtag and more than 350,000 people signed an online petition for her release. The Michigan Supreme Court’s administrative arm ordered a review of the procedures in her case.

For the past three months, Grace watched from the sidelines as other people spoke for and about her, from celebrities on social media to politicians at rallies to the judge who managed her case.

Now, sitting here at the doughnut shop, it was her turn to speak.

Her mother had turned down offers to share their story on a larger stage: the “Today” show, People magazine, “Dr. Phil,” “Good Morning Britain.” Instead, Grace accepted an invitation to speak at the annual conference for EveryBlackGirl, a nonprofit based in South Carolina that advocates for Black girls. Because the timing conflicted with her new job as a political canvasser, Grace ducked into a nearby Tim Hortons to lead her session, called “Grace Speaks.”

“You deserve better than your mistakes,” she told the hundreds of educators, social workers and Black girls and women listening, her voice competing with the noise of squeaky chairs, coffee grinders and loud customers. “You just need to keep your head up, and I know it will be hard some days, but the most important thing is that you get back up the next day and you show them who you really are.”

“Your past does not define you,” said Grace, who just turned 16. “I learned that so well in these last months.”

Grace’s mother, Charisse, knows there are people who question whether Grace will slide back into trouble. “You know, people who say, ‘I give her a week, I give her a month,’” she said.

But Grace has had no trouble with the law since she was released in late July after 78 days at Children’s Village in Oakland County. Her last contact with police occurred almost a year ago, in November 2019, when she was charged with assault for biting her mother and pulling her hair during an argument. Now, she and her mother participate in individual and family therapy, often focusing on how to better communicate with each other.

Most days, her life is pretty typical: School. Social media. Homework. Hanging out with friends as best as you can during a pandemic.

Grace began her junior year at a new school. Her first progress report, she said, showed all A’s and B’s — one of the highlights of her year. She’s especially proud of the A in math because she wants to study computer engineering in college.

Grace has gone on bike rides and has played golf with her godfather. She’s embraced her interest in photography and totes around the camera her mother bought for her birthday. She’s running for student government vice president and is excited to start driver’s ed in January.

And she has her first real job, working with the political action arm of Michigan Liberation, a nonprofit activist group that focuses on criminal justice reform. The group organized protests for Grace while she was detained and then recently hired her to work as a canvasser. She now goes door to door to ask voters to support two judges running for the Michigan Supreme Court. Paid $18 an hour, she spent her first paycheck on an iPhone 7.

Getting ready for work last Sunday, she rummaged through her room, past a sign on her desk that says “Bless this Mess,” to find the headband she wanted to wear and the neon-yellow sweatshirt required for her job. Her mom styled her hair into a high puff in the kitchen as they watched church services online.

“Get your gloves. Get your hat,” her mother reminded her as they prepared to leave.

“I’m not wearing a hat,” she replied. “No kid wears a hat nowadays.”

Later, walking in a subdivision in another part of Oakland County with a longtime friend who works with her, she encountered a series of brush-offs before knocking on the door of a woman open to hearing what she had to say. Grace, her mouth covered in a “VOTE” mask, explained that she was trying to learn what issues are important to voters.

“Do you think racial bias is an important thing in 2020 to change or transform?” she asked. The woman answered yes. “Do you have specific areas of the justice system that you feel that you want to transform? I will give you some examples — policing, public defense…?

As the conversation concluded, she handed the woman a flyer with more information.

“My name is Grace,” she said. “What’s yours?”

Her name actually is not Grace. That’s her middle name, and the name used by ProPublica Illinois to protect her identity.

It’s important, especially to her mother, that she maintain her privacy. So Michigan Liberation refers to her as Grace. Sometimes, it’s easier to stay in character.

At her new school, she got a fresh start, where people wouldn’t know that she is the girl whose name was the subject of the #FreeGrace hashtag scrawled on car windows and on protesters’ signs.

But she did confide in one teacher, in a private conversation, after a class discussion on racial injustice. Her teacher seemed stunned. “She was like, ‘I was on Facebook rooting for you and talking about your situation,’” Grace recounted.

Grace told her teacher that she felt her experience gave her a unique perspective on the subject of justice. Her case reflected racial disparities in the Michigan juvenile justice system. In Oakland County, from January 2016 through June 2020, about 42% of juvenile cases referred to the court involved Black youth even though 15% of the county’s youth are Black.

Those statistics are so troubling to Grace that one of the first things she did after being released was to join a silent candlelight vigil outside Children’s Village, the facility where she had been held. The group, which originally organized to protest Grace’s case, stood there for 15 minutes and 42 seconds to highlight the court system disparities. Grace didn’t identify herself and doesn’t think people recognized her. She wanted the children still inside, including a girl she had met who she said had been there for a year, to know that people still cared even if public attention had moved on.

At Children’s Village, Grace was initially unaware of the intense spotlight on her own case. She wasn’t allowed to watch the news, and her mother didn’t tell her much because she didn’t want to raise her hopes. But Grace had a radio, and one afternoon she tuned it to NPR.

“They were talking about me,” she recalled. “It was kind of crazy to hear that on the radio while you are in there and you’re like, ‘Wow, they’re really out here supporting me.’ It was cool to hear their news updates — ‘a girl detained,’ ‘a protest at Groves (High School).’ And I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually happening.’”

This month, the final outstanding matter in her case concluded when the state appellate court dismissed Grace’s appeal of Judge Mary Ellen Brennan’s decision to detain her. Grace’s lawyers and the prosecutors in the case agreed the matter was moot since Grace had already returned home.

Brennan, meanwhile, is up for reelection next week. She is one of six incumbent judges running unopposed for another 6-year term; write-in candidate Adrienne Young, a public defender and Birmingham Public Schools board member, joined the race after being inspired by Grace’s case.

The Michigan Supreme Court’s administrative arm, which had announced it would examine the procedures in Grace’s case, has not finished its review, a spokesman said Thursday.

The Children’s Village treatment program that Grace was placed in, Transition Academy for Girls, has closed. It’s unclear if it’s a temporary or permanent decision; the facility manager did not respond to questions from ProPublica. Grace learned it had shut down when she called to share her success with a favorite worker — and to get her banana muffin recipe.

If the Michigan Court of Appeals had not ordered her release in late July, it’s likely she would still not be home. To complete the program, she would have remained at the facility through November.

“I can’t fathom it,” she said. “I’m glad I am busy. I’m glad to be doing what I’m doing. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if not for the thousands of people who stood up for me and used their voice to uplift mine.”

Grace, walking from house to house, checked the time and realized she needed to get to Tim Hortons. She confided in her friend, Danielle, who was canvassing with her, that she was nervous about the speech.

The two have known each other for 10 years, becoming friends through their mothers. Danielle had sent Grace a letter while she was in detention and was one of the first friends Grace called when she was released. Now, Danielle tried to give Grace a pep talk. Think of all the public speaking they had done over the years, she said. Church, school, debate.

“Don’t be scared. You are going to be fine,” Danielle said.

“I don’t know,” Grace replied. “This,” she said, “is a different kind of thing.”

Grace felt she had struggled to make her voice heard during her court hearings, beginning with the first one in April, held via Zoom because COVID-19 had closed the courthouse. “Can I just say something please?” she asked, raising her hand for permission to speak.

“I can be respectful. I can be obedient. I can listen to my mom,” she had said in her statement at the July hearing when the judge denied her motion for early release. “I feel like that’s being totally disregarded, no offense, but I’m just saying.”

Looking back, Grace remembers feeling helpless as Brennan rehashed her past for 45 minutes, recounting in detail what Brennan called “all the crap,” including stealing a classmate’s cellphone and physical assaults on her mother.

“When I did say that statement, I knew that was my last go at it,” she said. “(My attorneys) were trying to persuade her to let me out and nothing was changing in her mind. I had to compose myself because anybody being publicly bashed and humiliated has to compose themselves. I was trying to be as respectful as possible. She is the judge and that is her courtroom.”

The dark moments from detention also stay with her: Being handcuffed and shackled. Crying herself to sleep at night. Missing her mother. The boredom.

She learned that she never wants to experience that again, she said. The challenges are still there — ADHD, mental illness, being a teenager — but she’s hopeful that her involvement with the court system is in her past.

“I don’t want that to be a part of me anymore,” she said, standing in her kitchen last Sunday night. “The support from family members, from home, from therapists, just everyone I know on a personal level is there. They are ready to go, they are ready to speak up, they are ready to help me.”

Some of that support has come from strangers. She has hundreds of cards and letters, many still unopened, from across the country, that people sent to a P.O. box with the mailing address “Justice for Our Grace.” Children drew her pictures. Others sent books and gifts, like the “Greatness” T-shirt from a Detroit entrepreneur that she likes to wear.

She feels an urgency to use her experience to bring awareness about shortcomings in the juvenile justice system and the criminalization of Black girls in particular.

That was her message at the EveryBlackGirl virtual conference, jointly hosted with the group Justice for Black Girls. She spoke about how children in detention have no hope. That they are there for minor transgressions. That there has to be a better way. She encouraged them to speak out about injustice and the justice system. She used air quotes for the word “justice.”

Vivian Anderson, the group’s founder and executive director, presented Grace with the organization’s Black Girl Magic award, named after a phrase that celebrates the achievements and resilience of Black girls and women.

“We love you, we appreciate you and thank you for standing in the gap because it brought so much awareness to everybody,” Anderson said. “It never should have happened to you, but we are so grateful that you are standing in this place and let you know that you are Black Girl Magic.”

The audience called out to her in the chat box.

“You’re amazing Grace!”

“Continue to speak up and shine!!”

“All of your ancestors are standing with you!!!!”

“WE STANNNN.”

Anderson told Grace she should have the last word.

“There are so many other Graces out there who need a voice, and they need to be heard,” Grace said. “They are screaming, they’re yelling, they’re asking for help.”

With that, she finished, turned away from the laptop and said she was hungry. Her mother embraced her and said how proud she was. After finishing Oreo shakes, she and Danielle headed back out to work canvassing voters. Grace had a lot she wanted to say.

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