NAACP Mpls branch president reflects on his journey from prison to academia

(Photo by Onika Nicole Craven/MSR News)

‘You get a lot of calls’

A famous gospel singer once recorded, “We fall down, but we get up.” No one exemplifies the words of Marvin Sapp better than Jason Sole, who is the current president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Minneapolis Chapter, in addition to being a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul for eight years.

Sole recognizes the importance of the position he holds and does not take it lightly. With his father being a heroin addict, his uncle currently locked up in Cook County, and numerous encounters of his own with the law, including being a three-time felon, Sole understands from direct experience what is at stake for people of color.

“I’m really just a servant to the people,” he explains to MSR. “That can include calls of police brutality, discrimination on the job, the education system, economic development. It’s a lot of work, but at the end of the day we do it out of love.”

Sole says his job is not just on the clock. As volunteer members of the NAACP, “You get a lot of calls at different times of the night with people hurting asking for help with different things.” He has been president of the NAACP since 2015 and expects to remain president until 2018.

As president, he is responsible for 22 committees, including education, economic development, and cultural preservation. “Once Nekima [Levy-Pounds] took the presidency, she appointed me criminal justice reform chair. For the president election, Nekima nominated me and nobody ran against me. I’ve just been all in since then. I’m already building the next wave of presidents. We are the most active branch in the country.”

In addition to being the president of the NAACP, he teaches at Hamline in the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Department. He has always been a leader, even while playing basketball at Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago. “Coach put me in any position, from center to point guard, so I always got pushed in those roles.”

A few weeks after his 19th birthday, he got caught with a pistol and went to prison. “I was a leader when I was moving with gangs, and in prison. I was gang involved. We studied Islam. When the [Twin] towers fell, I was a Muslim leader in prison.”

Later he would get caught with an ounce of crack cocaine, which he also served time for. But he attended Metropolitan State University, focusing on criminal justice. His transition from the streets to the classroom came through the advice of his elders, and he went on to pursue his degree.

“I didn’t know I would be studying criminal justice,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was a degree. I did it so I could give people the game, people who don’t know the criminal justice system. School really cleaned me up and allowed me to heal. School saved my life.”

Life would throw him another curve in 2005. He was set up by his best friend over 63 grams of cocaine. Luckily he had a support system to help his case.

“I was headed to a Jeezy concert and just won three scholarships, had a townhouse, and I took that fall. I was facing 110 months in prison. Three hundred people came to court. Kids were holding signs. I didn’t organize any of it.”

He was sentenced 20 years of probation, a year in jail, 400 hours community service, and a $2,500 fine. He became more focused on his education.

“Once I started knocking out classes, I knocked out a four-year degree in three years,” he says.” I saw myself in a different light. I saw myself as more than a felon, more than the gang I represented. I needed that for myself.”

Police Chief Paul Schnell, who has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in social work, asked Sole if he wanted to teach at a university. “I had never thought about that. I was just working on my Master’s. I never aspired to be a professor. Now I was respected for my mind and respected as a scholar.”

Soles does not regret any of the tumultuous events in his life. “Out of 20 years of my adult life, 17 have been in the criminal justice system. My students know I have the understanding about criminal justice in a way my colleagues might not. I have the internal battles of going through it and the book smarts.”

For one of his courses Sole takes his students to prison to help build relationships with the prisoners, including visiting every week and reading books with them. “Diversity issues are one of those courses. You need to understand the power you receive. I might get some White students who just get the badge and the gun. I need to get them right as far as diversity.

“A lot of them never had a Black professor. I teach the courses that make you think deeply and think about yourself.”

Sole will keep his professor position but plans on taking it a little easier. “If the community wants me to do something, I’ll do it just for being in tune with the community. But I’ll be working so hard over these next two years I think I need to just concentrate on my daughters and build with my wife and two kids.”

He ends with advice to Black men and students: “Learn as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it… Somebody will always tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t listen.

“I’m 38 now. I’m way more polished and refined. It took a while for me to get here. I’m blessed with so much. I just have to figure out how do I give it back.”


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