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Innovations | CJI News & Updates

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

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

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!”