The Community Justice Project and Brotherhood, Inc.
The Community Justice Project (CJP) focuses on issues at the intersection of race, poverty, and the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. It challenges laws and policies that produce disparate outcomes for communities of color. In CJP, law students gain hands-on experience in service-learning by engaging in community advocacy, making policy recommendations, and engaging in legal research and writing, to name a few. For example, in 2006, the CJP began working in partnership with the St. Paul Branch of the NAACP and then St. Paul City Attorney, John Choi (now Ramsey County Attorney), to address the increase in arrest rates in St. Paul amongst African Americans who were charged with Obstructing Legal Process or OLP. After hearing the community’s concerns, Professor Artika Tyner drafted a memo analyzing the OLP statutes and case law and presented the memo to Choi. Choi agreed with the CJP’s position that the laws were being misapplied in many OLP cases. Choi then re-trained the assistant city attorneys in his office and began discussions with the St. Paul Police Department to change its practices. This collaboration led to a precipitous drop in the number of OLP cases that were being charged and, as such, represented a significant victory for community members and social justice advocates.
As a scholar-activist, one of the issues that I am most passionate about and most perplexed by is the over-representation of young African American males in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems in Minnesota and across the country. Although Minnesota has the 49th lowest rate of incarceration in the country, it had the second highest rate of prison growth over the last ten years. Of the more than 9,000 prisoners incarcerated in state prisons in Minnesota, roughly 35% are African American, although blacks comprise less than 5% of the population here. Black men are over-represented amongst the prison population; under-represented amongst those who are gainfully employed; at higher risk of death from homicide and violence; and experience chronic poverty and marginalization at unacceptable levels.
In 2007, we began researching the over-representation of young African American males in the criminal justice system in Minnesota in general and the Twin Cities in particular. Through CJP’s research, we discovered that this segment of the population was experiencing high rates of incarceration and unemployment and had little access to community-based activities that were specific to their needs. As such, we began researching programs around the country that specialized in taking a holistic approach to addressing the needs of populations that were experiencing economic disenfranchisement, criminal justice impacts, and gang involvement. One program that we were impressed by was Homeboy Industries of Los Angeles, which houses the largest reentry and gang intervention initiative in the country.
To gain more knowledge about Homeboy Industries, I traveled to Los Angeles in July of 2007 to tour Homeboy Industries and to meet the participants of the program. Needless to say, I fell in love with the place and wondered whether the Homeboy Industries’ model could work in the Twin Cities to address the needs of young African American males. Thus, we began an exploration to determine the answer to that question. In the fall of 2007, we flew two CJP students to Homeboy Industries to tour the facility and to meet and interview the staff and participants of the program. Our students returned with an amazing drive and determination to help bring our vision to fruition and to engage the broader community in effecting social change.
In 2008, the CJP began a partnership with Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, the St. Paul Branch of the NAACP, and St. Paul community members in order to begin shaping and implementing the program that one of our students aptly named Brotherhood, Inc. Thus, Brotherhood, Inc. was developed as a grassroots, community-based response to help break the devastating cycles of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration facing young African American males in the Twin Cities.
Brotherhood, Inc. officially opened its doors on University Avenue in St. Paul on December 15, 2011, and its mission is to enable young African American males to envision and achieve successful futures. There are currently six young African American men who receive services through Brotherhood, Inc. They are currently employed on a part-time basis by the organization. Brotherhood, Inc. participants take part in life-skills development activities and gain knowledge in areas such as financial literacy, stress management, fitness and wellness, self-advocacy and empowerment, African Americans and the Law, and arts-based cultural development. Participants also attend and engage in community events and discussions on topics such as anti-racism and criminal justice issues. In order to help address the financial constraints the young men face, they are currently employed through Brotherhood Brew, a social enterprise that CJP students helped to create, that offers organic fair trade coffee and other beverage products for sale to individuals, businesses, non-profit organizations and government entities.
Although Brotherhood, Inc. is still in the early stages of development, it is a model that has tremendous promise in Minnesota and across the nation to help break the destructive cycles that too many of our young men experience. CJP students have been involved in every facet of Brotherhood, Inc.’s development and implementation since the origins of the project. They have become the driving force behind the early success of the organization. To that end, CJP students have helped to raise seed money for the program, have conducted legal research, drafted legal documents and business plans, developed curriculum and a social media platform, and have helped to shape the overall direction of the program.
Our work in creating Brotherhood, Inc. demonstrates the power of service-learning and the potential of higher education to use its resources and student creativity and commitment to address complex social issues that impact our poorest communities.