By James L. Stroud, Jr.
On December 3, 2011, the Minnesota Jaycees organization held their Ten Outstanding Young Minnesotans (TOYM) awards celebration at the Earle Brown Center in Brooklyn Park. Associate Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds of the University of St. Thomas law school was recognized as one of those outstanding 10 people.
Since 1950, the TOYM program has recognized outstanding young leaders ages 18-40 statewide. The young leaders are acknowledged for their contributions to Minnesota through service, thought, influence, community involvement and/or entrepreneurship. The aforementioned categories all apply to Professor Levy-Pounds. MSR has previously reported on her work curbing abuses of law enforcement databases, most recently in last week’s story “Gang database under review,” but her activities go far beyond that.
During her time at St. Thomas University Law School from 2003 to present, Levy-Pounds created and currently directs the Community Justice Project (CJP), which is associated with the University of St. Thomas Inter-professional Center for Counseling and Legal Services that promotes civil rights. Its mission is to address issues affecting the poor and working poor from a holistic, comprehensive approach, according to Levy-Pounds.
CJP has successfully developed a grassroots reentry nonprofit organization called Brotherhood, Inc. The idea behind Brotherhood Inc. is to assist young African American males who have served time in the criminal justice system or had been involved with gang activity.
Levy-Pounds serves as chair of the newly formed Minnesota State Advisory Committee that was created by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under the direction of Congress. The work of Levy-Pounds has come to the attention of the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) with yet one more award — the AALS recently presented Levy-Pounds with the 2011 Shanara Gilbert Emerging Clinician Award.
MSR spoke recently with Levy-Pounds (LP) about her various project commitments and how she is able to influence social change.
MSR: Was CJP created because of the University of St. Thomas Law School’s mission, or did you have the idea before you arrived there?
LP: That’s a great question. Well, actually, when I was hired to work at St. Thomas, I started a family law program where we represented victims of domestic violence and child victims of domestic abuse. I was happy doing that, but…
MSR: What year was that?
LP: That was 2003. I’ve been here on the faculty since then. I felt that something was out of alignment. I didn’t feel that [the family law program] was my true calling. So in 2005 I was home on maternity leave, and I began to pray and seek God for direction. It was dropped in my spirit to start a civil rights clinic.
Now it was pretty scary, because I didn’t know anyone here in civil rights, but there was just this nagging feeling that this was what I was supposed to do. I made up my mind that’s what I would do. So in 2005, just through prayer and discernment, I started to think about what it would look like, because I had practiced civil rights law in Washington, D.C. before coming to Minnesota.
MSR: Where are you originally from?
LP: I’m originally from Mississippi, but I moved to Los Angeles when I was eight and a half years old. So, LA is home. I worked in D.C. for almost a year at a civil rights organization, but there was something missing in terms of the connection to the community.
MSR: Which organization was it?
LP: The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
MSR: What year was that?
LP: This was 2001 to 2002. So having worked in civil rights, I still didn’t know what the clinical program would look like, but I had one of my students actually hired to work with me in the family law program. I talked with her about the program.
One of my first conversations from someone in the community was with Nathaniel Khaliq. He was the president of the St. Paul NAACP at the time. We sat down at a coffee shop and talked. I asked him from his perspective what were some of the challenges facing the African American community in Minnesota. He began to tell me some of the issues that we were having, and I said, well I would like to start a program centered around addressing some of these issues.
That was 2006. Later that year, we actually got started working on a couple of projects together. By 2007, I shut down the Family Law Clinic and started the Community Justice Project.
MSR: Did you do an assessment to first ask yourself whether the family law program was duplicating services and if by shutting it down it would be missed?
LP: No, not really. I was hoping that the law school would keep the family law program in existence because I knew there was a need. Part of my dilemma was continuing to stay in a situation because I feel that there’s a need versus going after what I felt was a calling.
I saw that those were two different things. You can be in any situation where you see a need. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to bear good fruit.
MSR: You work closely with the NAACP and are a member, correct?
MSR: Does any of that work involve some of the community members who have been incarcerated and how the justice system has failed them?
LP: One of our projects is called Brotherhood, Inc. That is actually one of my favorite projects. One of the things that happened in 2007 was that we started doing some research surrounding some of the racial disparities affecting African Americans in St. Paul.
We came up with a report and presented it to Mayor Coleman in St. Paul. It is titled “Recommendations for Improving the Quality of Life for African Americans in St. Paul.” It was in two parts. The first part focused on the disparities facing young African American males in particular. What we saw were high rates of involvement in the juvenile justice system and limited access to equal opportunities in terms of employment.
MSR: Summer jobs?
NLP: Exactly. The second half of the report dealt with police and community relations.
According to Levy-Pounds, after submitting the report in 2007, she and the CJP group wanted to be proactive. So rather than write a report, put it into someone’s hands and walk away from it, they began brainstorming and problem-solving to see how they could effect change.
After studying and visiting a multimillion-dollar bakery that was started by a priest to change the lives of gang members in the California area, Levy-Pounds returned to Minnesota and produced another report. The concept of creating an entity that would generate revenue and create jobs for some of St. Paul’s hard-to-employ young African American males was the answer they came up with, and Brotherhood, Inc. was born.
Brotherhood, Inc.’s mission is to uplift and empower young African American males age 16-24 who are involved in gangs or had contact with the criminal justice system. The Brotherhood, Inc. approach is to use a comprehensive reintegration and prevention program using a proven holistic approach to community building that employs culturally-sensitive social services, educational opportunities, and on-site employment.
Currently, the Brotherhood, Inc. program has negotiated a deal with a local coffee brewery to manufacture its own brand of coffee called Brotherhood Brew. The plan is to train young men to work in the manufacturing, distribution and sales of the coffee to generate revenue.
Who knows where Professor Levy-Pounds may show up next to create change or what award she may next receive. Who knows — maybe one day the Nobel Peace Prize?
James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.