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Dulani inspires Grinnellians

Jeetander Dulani ’98’s story is nothing short of extraordinary. Shortly before arriving at Grinnell, he was living on welfare. Now, he is a Senior Associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, a high-powered global law firm. Adversity has only strengthened his commitment to social justice and Dulani has undertaken some impressive pro bono work; most notably, he established precedents in habeas cases. Dulani spent some time at Grinnell during this past week as an alum-in-residence. The S&B’s Mariam Asaad sat down for an interview with this inspiring alum.

Would you like to talk about when you first came to Grinnell?

I was born in India, and I came to the U.S. when I was really young, to New York City. I ended up settling in Pittsburgh. My senior year of high school, right after graduation, I had a falling out with my father and I was forced to leave home. I was lucky in the sense that I had friends whose parents helped me out but eventually it came to the point where I had nowhere to go and I was homeless … and I was lucky in that I was able to get on public assistance and get off the street. I had an English teacher who heard about what had happened … and she reached out to me and was really instrumental in helping me reapply to colleges. … I applied to Grinnell honestly not thinking I would end up in Iowa … but Grinnell did something extraordinary.  Even though I didn’t meet the technical definition of an independent student … [Gretchen Zimmerman in the Financial Aid office] convinced the Department of Education that they should grant a waiver to Grinnell and that waiver then was used by all of the other colleges that I applied to. … It was actually on a visit to Carleton that one of the associate deans met with me and said “look, we’d really love to have you but Grinnell is a special place and what you’ll be able to do there is more than what you’d be able to do here.” … So that really meant a lot to me … and Gretchen’s actions meant a lot so I actually ended up accepting Grinnell’s offer without having visited.

How was your time at Grinnell?

My time at Grinnell was extraordinary. I showed up and on the one hand, I was immediately relieved … I had a place to stay, I didn’t have to worry about going hungry and I was in this safe space and I could really do all of these things that I was passionate about … it was also a little surreal being here. It would often strike me that I was here but my life was not at all what I had hoped it would be. I was all alone, there was a lot of pressure to sort of handle financial aid and taxes and things that I wasn’t really equipped to handle at the age of 17 or 18 and I had to quickly learn how to do those things. … So it was a somewhat dual-existence—on the one hand it was a really safe space and on the other hand there was a lot of anxiety and a lot of growing up quickly.

Is that what propelled you to take the career trajectory that you did?

So, this is all a little bit of serendipity plus blood, sweat and tears. I owe many of the opportunities to necessity sort of driving me to do things. Somewhere between my sophomore and junior year I had taken a class with George Drake ’56 and mentioned an idea for a paper [about Nelson Mandela] to him … and George said “yeah, that’s an interesting idea and you should do a paper on it” … and I [turned it into an original research project] … and that same summer I applied to an internship office at the mayor’s office in New York. … And that was great because I got paid to advise the mayor of New York on inner-city education policy and at night I was doing research on this paper. And all of that came together and that same paper got shared by George Drake with another alum, George Moose ’66, who was the former ambassador. And that paper then went from George to George to Pierre Sané who was the head of Amnesty International … and I had run the Amnesty chapter on campus and consulted with the U.S. parent body a couple of times … so I got this phone call from London and I honestly thought that my friends were pranking me and was very close to responding inappropriately and then I realized that none of my friends would get up that early on a Saturday to call me and that maybe this was real and very quickly, that internship came into being and essentially Amnesty hired me to go to Cape Town, South Africa to help them open a national office post-apartheid, build connection and alliances with NGOs and civil society in South Africa and cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I couldn’t have imagined it. It was just something that came about as all of this work had happened and the kindness of alumni who made some connections for me. … And another alum … heard about some of what I had done and I was interviewing with consulting firms and she said I really think that you might want to work at [Booz Allen] and … she passed my name along and the person that she had sent me to was the Senior Vice President … [he] was really impressed with my work in South Africa, my academic work, my work in New York, but, none of that would have happened if an alumnus hadn’t looked at my resume and heard about me … and she really put her network on the line for me and that’s what I try to do today.

You’ve been pursuing a lot of pro bono work right now…

This case [Elliot D. Ray,was part of a group of people convicted of a reckless shooting that killed an 11-year-old girl even though he had not been at the site of the shooting] had been going on for almost five years and I started at a firm in Chicago, Winston & Strawn LLP and they have a relationship with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. … Basically what happened was, the case came across the wire, I had studied with a professor at Michigan, Richard Friedman, who had done his life’s work on the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause and I thought I knew something about the case and I offered to take on the case … they gave it to a much more senior attorney who then had to withdraw unexpectedly and the pro bono director came to me and said “… can you jump in?” And not knowing any better, I said “yes, of course I can.” And when I started doing some digging, nobody had read the trial transcript, nobody had dug into the Supreme Court precedents and there were a series of assumptions that had been made that it was a really bad case and that there was bad Supreme Court precedence, that the facts were bad. So I ended up starting from scratch … and I came to the conclusion that it was actually a really good case … I gave it my best shot and … it went really well and the judges agreed with my traditional arguments but they also agreed with my novel arguments … and so, they pretty much adopted our position and that was important because they essentially closed a loophole in the Sixth Amendment. … That was a big win; it sort of changed the rule for everybody. But the complication there was that they had dealt with the merits of the case and there were all of these procedural hurdles that we hadn’t decided. And we were in this odd situation where they said “we think your client has had his constitutional rights violated and the violation was so egregious that he shouldn’t be in jail but he might have to stay in jail if you can’t prove that these procedural safeguards weren’t followed.” So we ended up having to do an entire other round of appeals … and we ended up convincing the court not to take the case … and then we had to struggle with that procedure, again going before the three-judge panel, again having that appeal to all fifteen judges and having that decision appealed to the Supreme Court and so that took the better part of three years and that created a bunch of additional important precedents. [such as] protection for prisoners. … It kind of created a new rule. …It’s been five years on the case but it’s set really important safeguards in multiple areas of law and also resulted in Mr. Ray being granted habeas … essentially the Court [agreed that] it was a constitutional violation … and the State [had to release him].

Whats it like being back?

Being back has been fantastic … I mean the students are exactly what I think anybody would expect—bright, engaged, you know, amazingly laid-back … it’s been really energizing. … The students have just gotten better and … [we alumni] are all very very proud of being a part of this institution.

Dulani addresses students. Photograph by John Brady
Dulani addresses students. Photograph by John Brady

Correction: October 13, 2013

The print version of this article, published Oct 11th (S&B Vol. 130, Issue 6), contains several factual errors as did an earlier online version.


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    Salman IqbalOct 24, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    Nice writing, Mariam Asaad!