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Innovations | CJI News & Updates

Updated: 7 days ago

20th Anniversary Gala | Leadership Circle | SOS Rapid Response | FreeHer Circle | Capacity Building Programs | Quest for Democracy | CJI Welcomes Four New Staff

CJI Turns 20: Gala Celebration Slated for Dec. 2021

Twenty years of funding the movement is a lot to celebrate. Since 2001, CJI has disbursed more than 450 grants totaling over $7.6 million, with our average yearly grant allocation growing by more than half since 2017. As we begin to plan CJI’s 20th Anniversary Gala for December 2021, so much remains uncertain.

No one knows what 2021 has in store. But this year could be transformational. The Biden/Harris administration may prove a trustworthy partner on finally achieving real criminal legal reform. The COVID-19 pandemic could give way to healing, economic recovery, and a return to more vibrant community life.

Should CDC estimations hold, the first full or partial reopening since the onset of the pandemic may happen by the fall. Like you, CJI will be monitoring the headlines closely, consulting with our supporters and staff, to reach decision about whether to go virtual vs. a hybrid event with a smaller-scale, in-person component. More information about the 20th Anniversary Gala and a Save-the-Date is forthcoming.

We hope you can join us on this very special occasion to gather in recognition of all we have accomplished together. Of course, we will be monitoring the rollout of vaccines and the course of the pandemic on an ongoing basis. No matter what the future brings, we will find an appropriate way to honor our CJI grantees, Circle members, donors, technical partners, advisers, and dedicated staff.

For updates about the 20th Anniversary Gala or other CJI events, please contact Isaac Skelton, Development and Communications Manager, at

CJI Giving Expands in 2020, Surpassing $7.5 Million

CJI wrapped up 2020 with the successful conclusion of two more grantmaking rounds, bringing our year-end total of funds awarded to more than $2.7 million.

Now in our twentieth year of financing systemic change to the criminal legal system, CJI pioneered the kind of collaborative grantmaking model that includes those most impacted by systems of state violence and mass incarceration in the process of setting CJI funding priorities and making CJI grant decisions.

Announced in January 2021, CJI’s flagship Leadership Circle Fund awarded a total of $800,000 to 46 grassroots organizations working to build movements from Washington to Florida, protect communities from Maine to California, and shutter prisons from Texas to Wisconsin—in all, 23 states and the District of Columbia. This signifies a more than doubling of Leadership Circle giving since 2019.

Awards to new and existing Leadership Circle grantees are supporting re-entry services, ending state violence, mobilizing communities, prison abolition, the restoration of family, work, housing and voting rights, and emergency policy and programmatic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leadership Circle grants were split between $15,000 awards to 33 first-time grantees totaling $495,000 and $325,000 distributed to 13 outstanding existing grantees selected to receive $25,000 each in multiyear support—a program first for any CJI Circle Fund.

In December 2020, CJI’s FreeHer Circle Fund announced its inaugural round of grants totaling $400,000. The FreeHer Circle selected 20 grassroots organizations working nationally to protect, support and improve the lives of women and girls, LGBT and gender-nonconforming people, and their families and communities as they struggle with devastating social, economic and health impacts from involvement with the criminal legal system and mass incarceration to each receive a $20,000 grant.

With these grant announcements, all our Circle Funds, including Starving the Beast, Quest for Democracy and SOS Rapid Response, have brought the grand total of dollars awarded since CJI’s inception up to $7,643,525.

CJI Triples SOS Rapid Response Grants in 2020

Last year brought a host of challenges, as the world reckoned with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black and Brown folks faced the two-fold threat of a global pandemic and the constant threat of state violence. While violent white supremacist ideologies found support from within law enforcement and the highest levels of government, CJI grantees continued to fight for justice in court rooms, local organizing meetings, and on the streets.

To meet the unprecedented needs of our communities, we sought out new donors and foundational support. And thanks to the generosity of our supporters, we are proud to say that our SOS Rapid Response Fund delivered more than $255,000 to 54 grassroots organizations nationwide. That is more than triple the amount of funds we were able to provide in 2019, all going into the hands of directly impacted individuals who know what our people truly need and what needs to be done to make change a reality.

CJI’s first SOS grants of 2020 were amazingly responsive, with the first $5,000 check going out on March 13, just days after the global pandemic led to a shutdown of international travel. Among the first grassroots organizations to receive emergency support were Equality for Flatbush in Brooklyn, the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, which advocates nationally and is based in Manhattan, and La Plazita Institute, which works to mitigate the impact of incarceration on community members in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

As a leader in philanthropy that centers its giving around those primarily impacted by the criminal legal system, CJI is also asked to manage other philanthropic group’s giving efforts. Last year, the Laughing Gull Foundation, a family foundation that priorities social justice work in the American South, asked CJI to help allocate $85,000 in emergency COVID-related philanthropic spending. CJI grant committees identified seven worthy groups working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and across the south.

We know that this work is never done and that none of us is free until all of us are free. So, while the world adjusts to a new normal in 2021 and we prepare for all the potential obstacles this year may bring, the CJI SOS Rapid Response Fund will continue to support racial justice grassroots organizations through their struggles so that, together, we may achieve many more victories yet to come.

Circle Fund Spotlight: FreeHer’s Inaugural Year

The FreeHer Circle Fund announced its inaugural round of grants in December 2020. Totaling $400,000, FreeHer selected 20 well-positioned nonprofits across the south and northeast to receive a $20,000 grant.

The plan for 2021, is to double up and support the selected 20 organizations with a new round of funding at the same level. Tina Reynolds, CJI Program Director, described the new directions FreeHer will take in 2021, “We are regranting the first cohort of twenty organizations and reopening [the program] to others, to those areas we may not know of to make sure we were including more groups doing the work in areas that are not known but important and need to be built upon.”

Reynolds cited, for example, the need to focus more grant funds on protecting the rights of trans people affected by the criminal legal system. CJI also awarded $50,000 in emergency COVID-19 rapid response funds for FreeHer grantees.

Conceived together with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, CJI launched FreeHer in 2019 in response to the profound and alarming explosion over the last 25 years in the sentencing of women under the U.S. criminal legal system—amounting to a seven-fold jump in the criminalization and incarceration rate of women, surpassing that of men.

The kind of targeted grantmaking made possible through FreeHer is a natural progression in the evolution of CJI funding. After all, CJI was the first racial justice foundation to support voting rights restoration work and legislation ending forced sterilization and the shackling of pregnant women held in custody. CJI pioneered truly inclusive grantmaking centering the people most impacted by systems of state violence and mass incarceration, who help set funding priorities and make grant decisions.

FreeHer uses this model to confront head-on the intersectionality among trauma, sexual assault, domestic violence, and incarceration faced by thousands of women—known as the abuse-to-prison pipeline. FreeHer grants leverage the core competencies of our grantees to advance sentencing and bail reform, community-based alternatives to incarceration, reproductive justice and the restoration of rights, as well as initiatives for economic justice.

Through FreeHer, CJI addresses the increasingly urgent need for gender-responsive, community-based services and advocacy across America. Among the many outstanding and cutting-edge organizations FreeHer supports is Black Phoenix Organizing Collective (BPOC), the only Black-led and Black-centered abolitionist organization in Phoenix.

Founded in 2019, BPOC unites young, radical, queer, poor, formerly incarcerated, and non-binary Black folks who are directly impacted by police violence. BPOC is currently working with other Phoenix-area grassroots groups to increase Phoenix Police Department accountability by implementing a Civilian Review Board and seat a directly impacted Black woman.

A New Jersey sex worker-led organization and FreeHer grantee, Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) operates at a critical juncture, promoting the rights of trans women and women who engage in commercial sex work. Working in tandem with the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, BPPP seek to dispel the stigma and end the criminalization of the lives of sex workers.

The California Coalition for Women Prisoners will use their 2021 FreeHer funding to support a “Peoples’ Hearing,” which evolved out of their #MeToo Behind Bars Campaign, launched in 2015. This Peoples’ Hearing will focus attention on the escalating attacks and retaliation against women and trans and gender-nonconforming people in California women’s prisons and hold the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation accountable.

A full list of 2020 FreeHer grantees can be found here. This slate of FreeHer grants helped push CJI over the $7 million mark, bringing our total grantmaking to $7,643,525 distributed among more than 450 stellar organizations fighting for racial justice and systemic change to the criminal legal system.

Please contact CJI Program Director Tina Reynolds at with any grant inquiries.

Moving the Movement Forward with Capacity Building

CJI proudly announces the launch in December 2020 of an ongoing series of capacity building webinar workshops under our new Capacity Building Program (CBP) for current and prospective CJI grantees.

The scope of CJI capacity building trainings for grantees encompasses organizational development, consulting on topics like grant writing and media work, leadership development, and the kind of technical assistance a young advocacy nonprofit needs to succeed. Before rolling out this program, CJI began with a comprehensive survey of grantees’ needs to help us identify which skill sets grantees most wanted to develop.

The idea behind this new initiative is to back up the funding CJI provides with guidance that can substantially improve their ability to implement and sustain their movement work. Specific knowledge areas covered include board development, fundraising, communications, cyber security, cultural responsiveness and other key areas. CBP also encourages the coordination of services and increased collaboration between grantee organizations.

This new program provides organizational development consulting that centers its approach squarely on the grantee. The pilot program was first opened to CJI’s FreeHer grantees and other organizations that qualify for FreeHer support but could, in the future, encompass more nonprofits addressing other areas that CJI supports.

Our first CBP event took place over two days. Senior CJI Consultant Keesha Gibson led a two-day grant writing training, “SHE Grant Ready.” CJI supports so many different organizations all at different stages of institutional development.

For some CBP workshop participants, this was their first introduction to grant writing. CJI wanted to help these grantees with the mechanics of applying for more grants and introduce them to tested ways of telling their unique stories in a compelling way.

Movement leaders can become overwhelmed and overburdened by campaigns, program activities, and advocacy goals that can far exceed the actual reach of their organizations. In addition to these subject areas, CBP was also deigned to address the questions resulting from building an organization in isolation.

Participants represented a wide range of social justice and social service providers, including Women in Need Recovery, based in New York City. Participant feedback was highly positive, with one participant who intends to pursue a career in the nonprofits calling the webinar “super informative,” and promising to “take what I have learned with me and use it for years to come!”

The Omawale Project facilitated another capacity building webinar, “Securing Liberation through Individual and Collective Healing”, on day two. This CBP webinar introduced participants to rest ritual and walked them through it. This method involves a combination of healing modalities and cognitive rewiring techniques to help activists respond to the kinds of trauma that can affect their work and develop a greater capacity to heal.

CJI looks forward to repeating these sessions throughout 2021 with plans to add more topics, including: history of the movement, budgeting, and prospecting major donors in the social justice sphere. Upcoming CBP activities planned for 2021 include webinars covering radical self-care, power mapping, strategic organizing for institutional advancement, and achieving social profit outcomes beyond policy change.

If you are a CJI grantee or potential grantee, please be sure to sign up for CJI News briefs to receive up-to-date information on future Capacity Building Program sessions, Subscribe.

If you are interested in supporting this program, please contact Raquel Virgo at

CJI Concludes Joint Q4D Program, Awards 2020 Grants

Back in 2018—before we changed our name to Circle for Justice Innovations, CJI partnered with the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM) to conduct the Quest for Democracy (Q4D) grants program.

CJI, and its fiduciary partner NEO Philanthropy, provided critical grants evaluation, administration, and financial management to FICPFM for the Q4D program. FICPFM is a network of more than 50 civil and human rights organizations led by people with conviction histories or family connections who are committed to improving society by transforming the criminal justice system.

CJI applied its unique model of serving as an incubator for smaller, both emerging and established organizations engaged in strategic criminal legal movement work from the perspective of our most marginalized communities.

As with all other CJI Circle Funds, Q4D prioritizes organizations led people of color, Native Americans, youth, immigrants, gender and sexual minorities, and representatives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, low-income communities, and other impacted communities.

Q4D was conceived to support nonprofit organizations led by formerly incarcerated people working on bail reform, more accountability in courts and police stations, the restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people, and civil engagement around the felon re-enfranchisement movement.

Typically in the form of $25,000 grants, CJI disbursed more than 40 grants totaling $1,086,000 since the start of this partnership. In addition to this baseline of Q4D support, in 2020 the program also arranged for the delivery of $250,000 in emergency rapid-response grants related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CJI is proud of the work we accomplished together with the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People and Families Movement, and we wish the program every success as it continues operating independently to provide critical support shoring up American democracy where it is needed most.

For more information about Q4D, please contact CJI Program Director Tina Reynolds at

CJI Expands Capacity with Four New Staff Members

Our circle is expanding! While our Brooklyn office remains closed due to the pandemic, CJI is growing its institutional capacity to better meet the needs of our applicants and grantees to support and elevate this movement for liberation.

CJI has added four full-time staff members since October to help expand grantee support services, increase our annual giving, and develop new ways of bringing together funders and front-line activists to foster systemic change through our groundbreaking participatory grantmaking model. All four roles are new positions, created to support our core work in the areas of communications, fundraising, and program administration.

Supporting CJI program operations is new Grants Management Associate Elana McGovern. Elana’s experience designing grant application software for end users in platforms like Submittable comes from her tenure at the National Science Teaching Association and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Both institutions approach education equity from a social justice perspective and prioritize underserved and underrepresented groups.

In her last position, Elana made the organization’s grant application process more accessible and inclusive, which she hopes to bring to her work at CJI. In addition to education equity, Elana’s advocacy interests include public schools, LGBTQ rights, veterans, and reproductive and environmental justice. As CJI’s tech support point person, Elana looks forward to working with grant applicants and CJI grantees on everything from submitting applications in Submittable to generating reporting data.

Adding to CJI’s institutional advancement capacity is Development and Communications Manager Isaac Skelton, who joins CJI with 25 years of fundraising and messaging experience working for major national and international advocacy nonprofits—eight of those within the Open Society Foundations network. Isaac supports Director of Development Raquel Marion-Virgo, who celebrated her one-year anniversary working for CJI in February.

A Washington, D.C. native, Isaac previously served as publications director for the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the nation’s leading advocacy groups promoting alternatives to the failed War on Drugs. He also managed grants and development at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

CJI also made two new hires supporting general operations. Finance and Operations Manager Fanny Bueso is supporting Director of Operations Lizan Highland to help keep the organization running smoothly. A native New Yorker born and raised in Brooklyn, Fanny received her Associates of Science for Health Professions degree in 2007. Fanny has fostered her administrative career from that point forward, starting out as an entry-level administrative assistant and quickly rising to the role of executive assistant to a CFO.

Executive Assistant Zachary Hendrickson was hired to support our busy Executive Director, Aleah Bacquie Vaughn, as she works tirelessly to expand Circle Fund giving and elevate CJI’s visibility among racial justice philanthropies, including sharing CJI’s unique model of truly inclusive grantmaking. Zachary is a graduate of Columbia University’s Political Science and Religion program, where he worked for several years as part of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life.

Since moving to New York from rural Kansas, Zachary has spent considerable time organizing around mass incarceration, state violence, and social justice. Perhaps most impactful were the six months he spent as an English tutor at the Horizon maximum-security juvenile detention center in the South Bronx. He credits his time working with these young people for solidifying his political and moral worldview and solidifying his abolitionist mindset. Zachary remains active, organizing with groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Radical People’s Assembly.

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