The racial justice protests of 2020 sparked a wave of radical and necessary criminal justice reforms across the country. We saw cities end cash bail and states reduce pretrial detention. But swift backlash now jeopardizes this progress.

On July 20, 2023, The Spark Justice Fund hosted a Donor Learning Session, bringing Philanthropic donors together to discuss the impact of criminal justice reform backlash, highlighting the incredible work from grantee partners, as well as the complexity of work and strategies needed to decarcerate jails and invest in communities.

Below you’ll find informative clips from the learning session:

WATCH: Tanya Watkins, Executive Director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL),  reflects on the successful efforts to abolish cash bail in Illinois and uplifts the efforts of the Coalition for Community Control Over law enforcement overcoming obstacles to achieve policy change through grassroots organizing and reimagining justice.

“By the beginning of 2023, the [Pretrial Fairness Act] would end up at the foot of the Illinois Supreme Court. Undeterred, we remain steadfast in our organizing. I am proud to say the  will of the people was upheld. Money bail will be abolished in Illinois by September [2023]. I have no idea how our coalition, or our organization, survived the barrage of personal, institutional, and legislative attacks that we sustained over the past 10 years. The public ridicule, and the death threats, all due to an idea that folks shouldn’t remain in prison just because they are poor. Telling this story today all feels impossible. But this tiny organization did it – a few supporters, scarce resources, some Black audacity, and a little bit of radical imagination. 

The notion that sparked new campaigns changed the national narrative about how we can reimagine our justice system. Imagine what Black-led organizations can accomplish if they have more people willing to invest in their notions. More willing to stay for the long haul. What could happen if we move from merely reacting to crisis after crisis, attack after attack, but remain steadfast in building sustainable infrastructure to remake the world of our design.  In Illinois, we have an unbelievably long battle still ahead of us to ensure that our incarcerated siblings come home once and for all. But I pray that this little campaign, that we were somehow able to win, changes the conversation around what’s possible.”

WATCH: Eric Martinez, Executive & Policy Director of Mano Amiga discusses advocating for legal defense funds to provide representation for non-citizen community members in deportation proceedings, access to bail hearings, and public access to jail registration as part of a holistic approach to immigration and criminal justice reform. 

“Non-citizen community members can be incarcerated pre-trial without representation. Because immigration is a civil process, they aren’t guaranteed the right to an attorney and by advocating for a holistic legal defense fund, we can fund representation in deportation proceedings for these immigrant community members. [We want] access to bail hearings, in Texas those occur behind closed doors with [little information shared], so, we’re going to get full physical access and we’re doing it through a carrot and stick approach. And in Hays County, we’re going through the budget process to advocate for public access to registration…Thank you so much to Borealis Spark Justice [Fund]. They really understand that when you invest in communities who are otherwise culturally rich, but are resource deprived, you get some of your best and diligent organizers to really bring about systemic change”

WATCH: Classi Nance, Artistic Director and Curator of In Defense of Black Lives Dallas discusses using art, political education, and community organizing as a tool to shift culture and build people power to achieve police and criminal justice reform and forge a pathway to abolition.

“We recognize that our decarceration strategy is a multi-pronged strategy. It doesn’t come from just the funding – it comes from investing, too. We see that as investing in people power, policy power, and campaign power. One of our main strategies, which is what I see and I’m a servant, leader, and listener of, is art and political education. My orientation is that I’m a theater kid and I’m an artist by trade. We recognize that art is one of the first forms of communication. 

Words, sounds, and images that we see are one of the first ways to change people’s radical imagination and change how they see things and dream up new environments for themselves.  We also recognize that art has the space to teach people a process and that’s directly related to city government and city politics. That is why we use art as a strategy—that is not just a reductive strategy that we need occasionally, but is a part of our thing. 

One of our primary investments from the county that we’re asking for is to fund the Office of Cultural Affairs, is to fund public health, Parkland Health Hospital [which has] an art education and art therapy program. We also combine our art program moving over to political education. We host people’s town halls. [The] town halls have been able to help us to transition and [demand a task force.]  We demanded it, because we know that power is taken and fought for and demanded.. We demanded that there be no police present when people are having mental health episodes. We transitioned that and demanded a task force through the Umbrella Project.

WATCH: Eric Martinez, Executive & Policy Director of Mano Amiga discusses the long term vision for justice, and what the philanthropic sector needs to know about power building led by directly impacted individuals.

“We envision a world that is completely different from the one that we exist in. That is completely free from the threat of harm, and that means investing in communities. In this case, one way is through county budgets.  [In Texas], half of the county budget goes to the carceral system, and that’s probably true everywhere it goes. So, when folks say ‘there isn’t enough money for this, but there is money for that’ – it ain’t right.

What philanthropy needs to know is that when you do make investments, [it must go towards] under-resourced, but culturally rich communities who have, for so long, walked and didn’t have anything to believe in. When [funders make] those investments, you will get some of the best organizers you have ever seen, some of the best changes that you have ever seen in your life. Because when you make those investments, those organizers realize that their work ethic becomes their work ethic.”

Criminalization and incarceration are wide-reaching issues that intersect with almost every facet of our lives. As we work towards our collective liberation, funders must listen to, trust, and invest in the leadership of those most impacted—and provide long-term, stable, and flexible funding to sustain and strengthen the work of their organizations. 

To learn more about partnering with Borealis Philanthropy’s Spark Justice Fund, please contact