Advocate: Civil rights attorney/activist fights to right injustices

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Growing up in a blue collar, union household, from a young age, Channing Robinson-Holmes felt a call to activism. She was drawn to stories of differential treatment and injustice, whether the stories stemmed from historical accounts or fictional narratives, and she was quick to take a stand when she encountered a perceived injustice.

“I don’t think I earned many friends growing up by continually sharing my opinion or calling out instances of sexism, for example. In fact, on one occasion, I remember a boy telling me to ‘be quiet, little girl,” she says. “The message was that, as a girl, I should defer to the boys around me—that I definitely should not challenge them. Obviously, that didn’t work for me.”

Her parents, active members of the United Auto Workers Union, supported and encouraged her to speak out and confront injustice. Robinson-Holmes credits her parents with setting an early example of labor activism and fostering conversations about socioeconomic inequalities at home.

“While there has never been any shortage of people wishing I would stop talking about racial injustice or everyday sexism, my parents, thankfully, have made these frequent topics of conversation at the dinner table,” Robinson-Holmes says, adding that she and her husband, Buddy Holmes, have made this a practice around their own dinner table.

“I’ve heard complaints topics like these are divisive and just lead to arguments, but, in our house, we’re much more likely to argue about which collegiate team is better – the Wolverines or Spartans. Buddy, sadly, as a Spartan fan, perpetually comes up with the wrong answer,” she says with a smile.

Being both encouraged and discouraged from speaking up has been a constant in Robinson-Holmes’ life, she explains, but, she believes has better prepared her to be an advocate in a still predominantly male field.

“The support I grew up with gave me the confidence I needed to effectively advocate for my clients, but the experiences where I was made to feel what I had to say was less valuable because of my gender or that it wasn’t my province to say anything at all prepared me for the subtle, and sometimes overt, instances of sexism that come with working in a male-dominated field,” Robinson-Holmes said.

 “I represent clients who have been discriminated against on account of their sex, while personally correcting male colleagues, via e-mail, that I am a Ms. and not a Mr., because apparently Mr. is still the default title in the legal field,” she added with a smile.

Now an attorney at Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Bonanni & Rivers PC in Royal Oak, Robinson-Holmes hopes her work contributes to breaking down barriers – big and small – for minorities and the disenfranchised.

“The only reason I went to law school was to practice civil rights law,” she says. “I believe we all owe a duty to help our fellow humans and better our communities, in whatever way we are able. For me, representing individuals who have suffered civil rights violations is one way that I can do that.”

Robinson-Homes, who holds an undergraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Michigan, earned her law degree from Wayne State University Law School in 2016, where she served on the Executive Board of The Journal of Law in Society.

She jokes her “limited skill set” – she claims to be terrible at math and science, but good at reading, writing, and debate – left her fit for only a career in the law. And while her love for literature had her momentarily considering a career as a publishing editor, she says her passion for advocacy and desire to more directly assist people won the day.

“My love of books is apparent in my legal writing,” she says. “Part of advocating, specifically in a brief, is telling my client’s story – taking the court through the events that led to my client’s litigation – and I’ve found, for civil rights cases in particular, the storytelling, not unlike a book, can be the heart of the brief.”

Robinson-Holmes has handled numerous cases, including discrimination cases based on age, race/ethnicity/national origin, sex, and disability, cases alleging retaliation and sexual harassment and violations of the Constitution, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Michigan public policy, and Michigan’s Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, served as second-chair in two trials, and successfully briefed and argued before the Court of Appeals.

She has also been heavily involved in several of Pitt McGehee’s largest class actions, including the firm’s class action against Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency, several suits related to the conditions at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, as well as the suits filed on behalf of those affected by the Flint Water Crisis.

Last year, she and founding partner Cary McGehee handled the resentencing hearing, required under Miller v. Alabama and Michigan v. Skinner, of Barbara Hernandez, a now 46-year-old woman who at the age of 17 was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

“Ms. Hernandez was—and is –a prime candidate for resentencing to a term of years sentence,” Robinson-Holmes says. “Unfortunately, Ms. Hernandez was resentenced to life without the possibility of parole. It’s an incredible injustice.”

Two years ago, Robinson-Holmes and her husband celebrated the birth of their daughter, Charlotte—nicknamed Charlie—which, Robinson-Holmes says, has created an added struggle of juggling parenthood with work, but has also made the pursuit of an equitably society more precious in her mind.

“I don’t want Charlie to worry she will be paid less than a man, for example, or be punished for taking maternity leave, not given a promotion, or any number of things all because of her gender,” she said.

“I know other mothers feel the exact some way about their children—they don’t want their child to be treated differently because of their identity.

“I hope that my work contributes to making that dream more of a reality.”

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