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Innovations | CJI News & Updates

Updated: Jun 7

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.”