Gangstas to Growers photo from their graduation in June 2021

by Natasha Dowell, Lending Associate, Southeast, Reinvestment Fund

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor in 2020 sparked a racial reckoning within our country and across the world. For Reinvestment Fund, the deaths of these and countless other Black people were painful, poignant reminders of our need to continue calling out and addressing the systemic causes of inequities in our society. We committed to expanding the focus of racial equity in our work, be anti-racists, and fight for justice and freedom from oppression. As a part of this commitment, Reinvestment Fund has awarded grants to five nonprofit organizations in Georgia and Pennsylvania for their work in criminal justice reform.

For more than 35 years, Reinvestment Fund has disrupted inequitable investment practices and worked in places underserved by traditional capital sources. Part of this work includes our annual Community Champion Awards: a small grants program that recognizes nonprofit organizations aligned with Reinvestment Fund’s mission. Awardees are selected by an appointed staff committee that makes its choices from a pool of organizations nominated by staff.

This year, the Community Champion Awards focused on criminal justice reform – the first time in the award’s history that it targeted a specific social issue. The award focused on nonprofit organizations that are effective change agents in criminal justice reform, recognizing that mass incarceration and inequities in policing and the justice system have significant impact on the communities we care about and its repercussions are far reaching. To demonstrate our commitment to supporting organizations that advance criminal justice reform, we increased this year’s award to four times the amount awarded in previous years, allowing us to donate to five organizations instead of one or two. 

The 2021 Community Champion Awardees are three organizations in Georgia and two organizations in Pennsylvania, where Reinvestment Fund has a main office:

Georgia has the highest rate of people under correctional control in the country, which includes people who are incarcerated and on probation and parole. Georgia Justice Project, Gangstas to Growers, and Southern Center for Human Rights are each working to help Georgians affected by the criminal justice system. We talked with each organization to get an idea of the work they have done to advance criminal justice reform and the plans they have for the future. 

Georgia Justice Project

Since 1986, Georgia Justice Project (GJP) has served Georgians impacted by the criminal legal system. GJP approaches social change in three distinct ways. First, GJP’s legal and social services span the entire criminal justice system: holistic criminal defense, reentry representation for incarcerated individuals, early termination of probation, criminal record clearing, and other reentry legal and social services – all provided free of charge to clients. Second, GJP advocates for a better Georgia and our policy work has resulted in 21 changed Georgia laws. Third, GJP works statewide to educate individuals and communities on criminal justice and reentry issues. Together these three approaches connect to achieve GJP’s overall goals to lower the number of people under correctional control and reduce barriers to reentry.  

“One mistake should not mean a lifetime without opportunity,” said Georgia Justice Project Executive Director Doug Ammar. “This support from the Reinvestment Fund will help GJP expand its commitment to Georgians impacted by the criminal justice system. The Reinvestment Fund’s support helps marginalized people get a second chance and furthers our mission to reduce crime and recidivism in our communities by empowering individuals to make positive changes in their lives.”

Gangstas to Growers

The second organization that received a Community Champion Award this year is Gangstas to Growers (G2G), the first program from The Come Up Project. The Come Up Project is a multi-faceted organization based in Atlanta that focuses on providing employment opportunities to formerly incarcerated people in marginalized communities. It provides a ‘come-up’ by developing the current and potential skill set of participants, while offering a pipeline into a viable career through placement or entrepreneurship. In 2016, the G2G program was launched. The program provides paid entrepreneurial internships for at-promise youth and formerly incarcerated individuals, to offer them a chance to participate in the legitimate economy. The overarching goal is to create a self-sufficient system that provides jobs, food manufacturing, paid education opportunities, selling power, and more for young people and their community. The Come Up Project and G2G founder Abiodun Henderson spoke about the intentionality with which the program works to achieve its vision. Henderson says: “We are proud that we are in this Pittsburgh Yards building, on ancestral land, and this is a historically Black neighborhood created by enslaved Black people. This land was used by Clark College before it became Clark Atlanta University for a farm in the early 1900s. Everything we do is with intention.”

G2G has developed a robust curriculum with community partners where participants learn a wide range of life skills, including courses on communication, parenting, environmental responsibility, business development, political science, writing, finances, and repatriation. A key part of G2G’s work is centered on fostering entrepreneurship in agriculture and food. The program’s trainees developed a hot sauce called Sweet Sol that they make, package, market, and sell online and at Wadada Healthy Market and Juice Bar in West End, Atlanta. The program partners with many local urban farms like Truly Living Well and rural farms such as Wilburn farms and G4 Farms for their sauce ingredients and their bamboo operation. In September 2020, G2G won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for their work in keeping formerly incarcerated youth out of prison through jobs raising crops for their own communities.

Southern Center for Human Rights

Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) also received a Community Champion Award this year. In 1976, ministers and activities founded SCHR in response to the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty as we as the horrific conditions in Southern prisons. Since then, SCHR has worked for equality, dignity, and justice for people impacted by the criminal legal system in the Deep South. SCHR provides a wide range of services, including direct representation for people facing the death penalty or other excessive sentences, and impact litigation challenging unconstitutional and inhumane practices within the criminal legal system. The incoming Executive Director for SCHR, Terrica Ganzy, describes a few powerful aspects of the organization’s work: “SCHR has argued and won five death penalty cases at the United States Supreme Court, four of which dealt with profound race discrimination. Through six lawsuits, two reports, and advocacy efforts with a blue-ribbon commission and the legislature, SCHR led the campaign that created a public defender system in Georgia. SCHR leads criminal justice policy reform efforts that resulted in the successful passage of smart-on-crime measures and sentencing reforms annually for the decade.” SCHR worked tirelessly in 2020 to educate thousands of incarcerated voters in Georgia’s jails. The organization sent out 16,000 voter education packets outlining the process for voting while incarcerated in county jails awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences. 

SCHR fights for a world free from mass incarceration, the death penalty, the criminalization of poverty, and racial injustice. An example of their work to decriminalize poverty is their investigation into utility disconnection. Calvin Moreland is a Black man from LaGrange, Georgia who nearly had his utilities disconnected because of unpaid fines from a 12-year-old shoplifting conviction. A municipal ordinance allowed the city to add these fines, totaling $800, to Mr. Moreland’s utility bill. SCHR conducted an investigation from 2015 to 2016 that found that 90% of residents in LaGrange threatened with utility disconnection due to court debt were Black. This investigation led to a class action lawsuit from the Troup County NAACP, Georgia NAACP, and Project South challenging LaGrange city policies in federal court. A three-year court battle ensued that results in a historic settlement agreement ending LaGrange’s conditions on access to basic utility services based on court debt payments. “SCHR envisions a world in which the legal system is used not as a tool to concentrate power and control but instead as an instrument of true justice by which individuals and communities remain accountable to each other,” says Ganzy.

Moving Forward

The three Community Champion Awards in Georgia represent a wide range of services and advocacy that are needed to advance criminal justice reform. Making these awards was one part of Reinvestment Fund’s commitment to supporting these efforts. We are also creating the space to learn about criminal justice reform on a deeper level. There is a concerted effort to speak with and learn from the people who work in this space so that we can be better allies for criminal justice reform. We appreciate the experts who have taken the time to share with us their experiences and we look forward to exploring the role we hold.

The 2021 Community Champion Awards are intended to highlight, acknowledge, and uplift the work that organizations do every day to help people affected by the criminal justice system. Read more about Georgia Justice Project, Gangstas to Growers, Southern Center for Human Rights, Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, and Terrance Lewis Liberation Foundation.

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