New Wayne Defenders student group expands social work and law holistic defense partnership

A new student organization at Wayne State University, Wayne Defenders: Social Work and Law Students for Holistic Defense (Wayne Defenders for short), was launched with the mission of building a strong interdisciplinary network of holistic defense minded individuals from the social work and law fields, who are committed to mutual support, professional development, mentorship, and community outreach.

Wayne Defenders was formed by a like-minded group of social work and law students and our professors that wanted a group on campus that signified our interest in holistic/public defense,” said Tamara McQueen, a founding member.

‘Holistic defense is a new model of legal advocacy that involves collaboration between social workers and public defenders to support indigent clients going through the legal system,” said Athena Kheibari, School of Social Work assistant professor and one of the group’s faculty advisors, along with Dan Ellman, assistant professor clinical and director of externships at the Law School. The social worker and attorney team model of representation has resulted in reduced incarceration and unintended consequences of legal involvement such as loss of housing, removal of children, and deportation.

Wayne State took the lead with the launch of Michigan's first Holistic Defense course series in 2020. Students take a mix of social work and law courses, and complete a practicum placement at a local defender office or related justice center. 

While Wayne Defenders may be most appealing to social work and law students, it’s open to all WSU students.

“We believe that greater societal awareness of issues/barriers for indigent clients and ways to ameliorate those barriers is important, which is why we don’t want to exclude anyone,” Kheibari explained. 

Wayne Defenders meets both in-person and virtually and held a “Meet and Greet” in April, featuring fun, food, music, and conversation on holistic defense.

“This was the first in-person event held by the group that was open to all students…to welcome prospective students but also to allow the founding members an opportunity to get together and continue strengthening the bonds they had built in the Fall 2022 semester,” Kheibari said.

Some of the motivating factors behind starting the group include wanting to keep students interested in holistic defense beyond graduation; mentorship, career training, and awareness; and the desire to learn more about policy and educate the public and students about the importance of the holistic defense model, as well as community projects.

“We wanted this group to be active in the holistic defense and Detroit community, where we can create or do a project that supports the community,” McQueen said.

“My role is to support the student efforts, help identify resources for events, and generally advise on how the group can be successful,” Kheibari said.

Anyone interested in joining Wayne Defenders can email and join their biweekly group meetings, which will commence in August. Those interested in the Holistic Defense Course Series housed in the WSU School of Social Work should visit the program website or contact Holistic Defense Coordinator Athena Kheibari at

Author: Laura Hipshire

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