CNUS is the first and only independent public policy, research, training and advocacy organization designed and developed by formerly incarcerated professionals and staffed by people directly impacted by the criminal punishment system. CNUS was formerly housed at Medgar Evers College, in the City University of New York, in both the School of Business and the School of Professional and Community Development.
We are now an autonomous, self-supporting 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution, located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community of Brooklyn, New York. CNUS provides an interdisciplinary forum for policy makers, legal practitioners, law enforcement, civil society leaders, clergy and previously incarcerated academic professionals seeking to elevate Human Justice and transform the criminal punishment system.
- 1971: Attica Rebellion
- 1992: Seven Neighborhoods Study published
- 2003: NuLeadership Policy Group formed
- 2008: NPG becomes the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, incubated by the Center for Law and Social Justice
- 2011: CNUS becomes independent and moves to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
The 1971 rebellion at Attica Prison brought national attention to the unacceptable conditions in America’s prisons. The rebellion sparked a series of innovative reform ideas and efforts led by incarcerated men and women. Those ideas initiated a thirty-five year period of prison activism. It began with the establishment and formation of study and organizing groups emerging in prisons throughout the nation.
In California, for example, an active prison movement developed and a national labor union of incarcerated people was proposed. In New York, the prison movement broadened and incarcerated men developed “The Non-Traditional Approach to Criminal and Social Justice,” a comprehensive analysis and action plan addressing the shortcomings of the “justice/punishment” system from the inner-city historical experience and contemporary perspective.
Seven Neighborhoods Study
The historic “Seven Neighborhoods Study,” which evolved from this non-traditional analysis, revealed that over 75% of New York State’s Black and Latino prison population came from seven neighborhoods in New York City. In prisons and urban communities throughout America, men and women were devising programs and recommending new approaches to confronting the very problems that landed them in prison.
Over the next thirty years, hundreds of prison scholars, teachers and activists were released from prisons around the country. Though unknown to each other, they were a critical mass and presented an opportunity to build a brain trust that would give intellectual legitimacy to a new voice.
NuLeadership is Formed
In 2001, while making a presentation to its grant-making Board, Eddie Ellis, an Open Society Institute (OSI) consultant, introduced the prospect of creating a national think tank comprising formerly incarcerated professionals like himself. He called it the NuLeadership Policy Group. He encouraged OSI to provide financial and technical support to identify and convene a series of meetings in cities across the country with formerly incarcerated leaders from among community and faith-based organizations, academicians, researchers, clergy and other local leadership.
The idea was to assemble a national group of knowledgeable professionals, with criminal convictions, who could articulate a new vision of criminal justice, a “Nu-Justice Paradigm,” based on their personal and professional experience. Their task would be to provide a critical analysis of existing policy, from a community specific world-view, thus bringing a missing dimension, an alternative narrative, to the discussion of criminal punishment policy and prison reform. Their work would be to challenge traditional habits of thought, dominant myths and political cliches accepted uncritically by many policy makers, media and other system stakeholders.
In February 2003, with financial support from the Open Society Institute, NuLeadership Policy Group convened a national strategic planning meeting in New York City, at the historic Riverside Church. There we developed our organizational infrastructure and decided its activities for the first two years of operation. The meeting was attended by twenty-two community, nonprofit, and academic leaders with criminal convictions from across the country. At this two-day retreat we discussed, refined and formalized the values, vision, mission, structure and agenda for a national organization. The retreat established the foundation for the priorities of the organization and elected a thirteen member national board.
In the same year (2003), the NuLeadership Policy Group was recruited by Dr. Edison O. Jackson, president of Medgar Evers College in the City University of New York, to make the college its home and begin advocacy, research, and curriculum development, focusing on criminal punishment, resettlement and prison issues. NuLeadership was assigned as a special project within the Center for Law and Social Justice, a community-based education, legal advocacy and litigation organization providing training and legal services to people in central Brooklyn. NuLeadership Policy Group joined the Center’s other projects: the Parent Advocacy Center, the Child Welfare Center and the Police and Racial Violence Project. We were provided with office space, technical assistance and on-going support.
Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions Emerges
The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions grew out of the NuLeadership Policy Group. By early 2008, Medgar Evers College President Jackson suggested that we were ready to leave the Center for Law and Social Justice and establish our own Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, to consolidate all of our various operations under one academic umbrella within the college. Included in our new Center were: NuLeadership Policy Group, our adult advocacy, community organizing and policy arm; and the NuLeadership Training Institute, our leadership training, technical assistance and organizational capacity building component.
In early 2009, the Center formally acquired the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives (IJJRA) as its youth and juvenile justice arm. IJJRA, previously known as Prison Moratorium Project, is one of the leading youth advocacy, training and activist public policy organizations in the country.
By mid 2009, President Jackson retired and a new administration took power at the college. The new administration, instructed by CUNY Central’s new agenda for Medgar Evers College and the surrounding community, refused to support the previous administration and the local community’s commitment to progressive criminal justice education and the development of a prison reform curriculum of study, research and advocacy. In less than a year, the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions (CNUS) was no longer welcome on campus and was eventually evicted in December 2010.
By fall 2011, the Center relocated and opened an independent office in the heart of central Brooklyn in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Center’s various projects, campaigns and initiatives continued throughout the period of disruption and upheaval. A major lawsuit was initiated by the Center for NuLeadership against CUNY and Medgar Evers College for unlawful eviction, illegal seizure of computers and constitutional violations of privacy. The suit was monetarily settled out of court, by mutual agreement, resulting in a tremendous victory and resources for the Center.
CNUS in Bed-Stuy
The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions is now an autonomous and self-reliant research, policy, advocacy, service and training institution. It will long be remembered, however, as first and only public policy and academic center, housed in the largest public university system in the United States, whose staff was comprised of formerly incarcerated scholar-activists. It is currently designed as an interdisciplinary global assembly space for student activists, policy makers, scholars, advocates and previously incarcerated professionals seeking to influence and change urban contemporary criminal punishment, public health, economic and social justice policy. It continues to grow stronger and undertake this crucial work.