Najanava Harvey-Quinn, inspired by her parents, themselves two activists, carries on the legacy of fighting for social justice.
The hourlong cold and rainy car ride from Detroit to Jackson State Prison felt longer than usual this time, for 4-year-old Najanava Harvey-Quinn. This trip wasn’t just about seeing her father, Blair Anderson. This trip was going to be the one where she set him free from prison.
At the time, Harvey-Quinn’s family was living on Joy Road, in one of the many areas of Detroit that had been devastated by the crack epidemic. In her short life, during the peak of the war on drugs, she’d quietly and painfully observed dozens of fathers getting arrested, imprisoned, and ripped away from their families. She was adamant she wasn’t going to be another Detroit kid growing up without her dad.
“When a family member is imprisoned, you also get that prison sentence,” she says.
She refused to live a life missing out on moments hugging, laughing with, and playing with her father. The answer was simple: sneak a screwdriver into her visitation with her father that he could use to break his way out to freedom — and back into her arms forever.
The towering brick walls surrounding the prison made it, at the time, the largest enclosed prison in the world, with approximately 6,000 inmates. Harvey-Quinn felt the hidden screwdriver tucked near her belt, under her yellow rain jacket, as the car neared the first security gate. She made sure it was still in place. Her mother had no idea.
Harvey-Quinn trembled with fear as she passed each corrections officer while making her way through the prison’s security checkpoints. The plastic screwdriver went completely unnoticed by the metal detectors, and she hoped the guards wouldn’t suspect anything. They didn’t. After all, wasn’t she just another kid from Detroit coming to see her imprisoned father?
Once Harvey-Quinn finally saw Anderson, her fear subsided. At last, she would finally be able to be with her dad, set him free, and escape to a faraway place where no one could ever pull them apart again.
Once alone with him, Harvey-Quinn revealed the screwdriver to her father. He looked at the small toy in his daughter’s hands and immediately broke down and started to cry.
Anderson pulled himself together and muttered to her that the only thing bringing the screwdriver into the jail would do was lead to her own incarceration.
Harvey-Quinn was confused, surprised. It was the first time she’d seen her father cry. She told him she knew what it was like for kids who grew up without fathers, so jail was probably in her future anyway. Anderson’s reply to her on that day changed her forever.
“The only way you can get me out of here is to become a judge, to change the system — to be part of the system and break it,” Anderson said.
The power of advocacy
On a busy afternoon, Najanava Harvey-Quinn, now 35, makes her way inside Rosa, a coffee shop in the historic Rosedale Park community of Detroit. She chose this meeting spot for her interview to honor the legacy of the person it was named after, Rosa Malone, who became one of the first Black women to move into the northwest Detroit neighborhood in 1973.
It’s been 31 years since her attempted prison break, and Harvey-Quinn is now the founder and managing director of Clean Smoke Community Investment Project, a nonprofit that works to reduce the economic impact of the war on drugs by providing entrepreneurial and employment assistance to recently released prisoners.
Entering the shop feels like walking into a Southern grandmother’s French orangery. Harvey-Quinn’s smile is just as warm and welcoming as the space. As she sits on the soft pink tufted-velvet sofa, she orders a warm chai latte. She leans into every question with a focus directly reflective of the activism to which she has dedicated her life since she was a young girl.
“At 3:30, I have to take a quick Zoom call, if that’s OK? It’s a meeting with some of [Gov. Gretchen] Whitmer’s staff and other leaders in the cannabis industry. We’re discussing social equity in the selection for the replacement of Andrew Brisbo,” she says as she clears a small space on a coffee table to place her iPad.
Three years after helping to launch the state’s marijuana industry, Michigan Cannabis Regulatory Agency Director Andrew Brisbo has been moved from his current position.
The Michigan Cannabis Industry Association’s executive director, Robin Schneider, partnered with Harvey-Quinn to organize a Zoom call to discuss Brisbo’s replacement. Schneider played a pivotal role in giving Harvey-Quinn and other minority advocates a seat at the table and has been one of Clean Smoke’s biggest supporters.
The Zoom meeting called for several cannabis industry stakeholders to offer suggestions to Whitmer’s office as to who should replace Brisbo. The overwhelming recommendation was for Democratic state Rep. Yousef Rabhi.
In 2021, Michigan housed over 1,000 cannabis prisoners. Black and Latino people make up more than half those prisoners but comprise less than 20 percent of the commercial marijuana industry. Cannabis remains a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Harvey-Quinn believes equitable changes to the legal system must start with a person of color in order to have a resounding impact.
Therefore, Harvey-Quinn says in her strong cadence, to all the Zoom call attendants, that to embrace the necessary kind of inclusivity, social equity, and leadership, Brisbo’s replacement must have special understanding of the issues and not be “just another white male.”
This is the kind of work Harvey-Quinn does on a daily basis as Clean Smoke’s managing director. Working alongside Whitmer’s administration, Harvey-Quinn has partnered with several other local organizations to compile a list of prisoners charged with nonviolent drug crimes. With the help of “Clean Slate” legislation, more than 30 people were brought home and given clemency.
In September 2021, Harvey-Quinn organized and led Clean Smoke’s first expungement fair in Detroit. Legal professionals met with attendees, providing free legal advice, discussing options, and assisting with expungement filings. Two months later, Harvey-Quinn partnered with The Cochran Firm and hosted another expungement fair.
This past June, Clean Smoke hosted a large community investment project, Adopt-a-Block, a citywide volunteer cleanup and beautification program. Participants were able to register their block club, nonprofit, church, or small business. Clean Smoke provided lawn cleanup supplies, and a total of four adopted blocks received up to $25,000 for beautification.
Harvey-Quinn’s father is one of the original Black Panthers from the Chicago chapter; he was with Fred Hampton the night Hampton was assassinated on Dec. 4, 1969, at 4:30 a.m. As Black Panthers, Harvey-Quinn’s parents and other civil rights leaders pioneered some of the first sickle cell testing sites, improved food and nutrition access for families, and provided educational resources for kids.
Harvey-Quinn’s fight for social justice is through weed. There is still a lot of work to do.
“A beautiful time for fiery women”
Harvey-Quinn, a graduate of Bishop Borgess High School and Eastern Michigan University, says she “basically grew up thinking, ‘I am going to be a legislator. I am going to be a judge. I am going to change the laws and the way Black men are represented in court.’” Her sister suggested a different path from law school: run for office.
Harvey-Quinn met with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a public interest lawyer and the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan Legislature, where she served as a state representative for six years before she was elected to Congress. Tlaib would also become the first Palestinian American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and simultaneously one of the first two Muslim women in Congress.
Harvey-Quinn remembers her first meeting with Tlaib with bittersweet emotion.
“We talked and literally cried because it’s hard when you finally see a lot of the games involved in politics when you have the kind of passion that she and I have. You wonder, How do you continue to fight?” Harvey-Quinn says.
Tlaib encouraged Harvey-Quinn to run in the Democratic primary to represent District 7 in the Michigan House of Representatives. Harvey-Quinn was nervous to run against an incumbent and had little name recognition, but Tlaib pushed her to fight for a seat at the table regardless. All Harvey-Quinn had at the time was the heart and the desire to make an impact representing approximately 91,000 Detroit residents.
“It’s a beautiful time for fiery women,” Harvey-Quinn says with a smile.
During her 2018 campaign for state representative, Harvey-Quinn’s core platform issue was the legalization of marijuana.
“Cannabis was on the ballot, and I immediately thought, This is huge. It has the potential to change the game for so many families, as far as generational wealth. But marijuana has spent the last 40 years plagued by this horrible PR stunt claiming it’s this ‘gateway drug,’” she says.
While campaigning, Harvey-Quinn attended local block club meetings and met with city residents to hear their concerns regarding the legalization of recreational pot within city limits.
“The truth is adult-use legalization is coming,” she said in 2018. “So instead of thinking about how to fight it, we need to think about how we want it to impact our neighborhoods.”
On Aug. 7, 2018, Harvey-Quinn was defeated by incumbent LaTanya Garrett in the Democratic primary. Harvey-Quinn wasn’t able to start a career as a politician, but she found her own way to give back — empowering Detroit residents in the growing cannabis industry.
Fighting for more
In July 2021, Michigan reached a $2 billion-per-year pace with combined record recreational and medical marijuana sales. The Cannabis Regulatory Agency’s August report showed that, between July 2021 and July 2022, the average retail price for an ounce had declined 48 percent in the medical market and 44 percent in the recreational market. In that same time frame, however, the number of active grower licenses increased 65 percent, and the number of active retail licenses increased 34 percent.
These numbers provided by the CRA reflect the growing concern that the supply of marijuana produced by licensed growers exceeds, or may soon exceed, consumer demands. The CRA is considering the placement of a temporary prohibition on grower licenses in an effort to stabilize the market.
Although these record sales and market concerns have impacted the state at large, Detroit has largely been left behind from the “weed rush.”
The statewide market for recreational marijuana opened in December 2019 but was banned within Detroit’s city limits. The ban was instituted by the Detroit City Council in an effort to gain additional time to develop rules and social equity guidelines.
In March of this year, $42 million in Michigan tax dollars from the recreational marijuana industry was distributed to 163 municipalities throughout the state. This meant eligible municipalities received more than $56,400 for every licensed retailer within their borders. The funds came from the 10 percent excise tax placed on all sales of recreational marijuana during the last fiscal year.
Detroit’s city council, mayor, and activists — such as Harvey-Quinn — immediately recognized the potential for inequality in allowing the immediate licensing of recreational marijuana in a community like Detroit, a city that historically has been dramatically impacted by the war on drugs.
In 2018, when recreational use was legalized, if the city had followed suit with the rest of the state, Detroit would have grandfathered in the 70 medical marijuana licenses. Approximately 15 of the preexisting licenses within city limits were Black-owned. Harvey-Quinn shrugs and says that is more than any other city in the country but she wanted more.
She, and others involved in the fight, got it.
In Detroit, on Sept. 1, 2022, a revised ordinance went into effect that allows the city to issue 160 licenses for selling recreational-use marijuana in Detroit, with half of the licenses reserved specifically for social equity applicants.
“We’re the Blackest city in America; we can do better,” Harvey-Quinn says. “So we fought for more, and now there will be 50 social equity [recreational] licenses, which is hopefully more reflective of African Americans and Latinos, the people who are still impacted by the war on drugs. That’s exciting.”