By Julie Plaut
Congratulations to the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s Community Justice Project. The partnership between the school and the St. Paul NAACP, is the recipient of Minnesota Campus Compact’s 2010 Carter Partnership Award. Since its inception in 2006, the partnership has worked to create equal justice under the law for communities of color. As Nieeta Presley, executive director of the Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Association, attests in her letter of support, the partnership has “encouraged and empowered people from within the community to be involved and find their voice.” Forums on criminal justice and civil rights topics, deliberately held in the heart of the African-American community, have opened new lines of communication between government and community stakeholders. As trust has grown over time, participation in community events has increased dramatically, especially among youth.
The partnership’s research and advocacy efforts have also contributed to real changes in laws and policies that negatively impact communities of color. A memo on obstructing legal
process arrests among African Americans led to regular meetings with the St. Paul City Attorney, development of a restorative justice program, and a 30% reduction in the number of arrests. A recent report on Minnesota’s gang databases resulted in major changes to the data collection procedures in Ramsey County, including a parental notification provision when children are added to the databases. Another report prompted Mayor Coleman to order an audit of the St. Paul police department and to commission additional recommendations for effective community-responsive policing. That report also laid a foundation for the development of Brotherhood Inc., a comprehensive reintegration program for African-American boys and young men who have been involved in gangs or the criminal justice system.
Law students who participate in the community justice project gain a deeper understanding of the root causes of the legal and social issues faced by the community. Students then work as advocates with community members to achieve community goals and to help community members realize their ability to protect their legal rights. The partnership thus offers students the opportunity to integrate the University of St. Thomas’ social justice mission into their professional identities, while also benefiting the community. “Without question,” St. Paul City Attorney John Choi writes, “we have changed and transformed lives and systems.”