Minnesota’s incarceration rates have risen 150 percent since the early 1990s. 

We’re here to reverse that trend. 

The ACLU of Minnesota’s Smart Justice Leadership Program is designed to develop leadership skills in community members who have either been directly impacted by mass incarceration or have expressed a willingness to reduce the effects.

The program will provide Leaders with skills they will need to help their communities decrease mass incarceration and  overcriminalization. It’s part of the ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign, a multi-year effort in all 50 states to combat disparities in the United States’ criminal justice system. The nation spends $80 billion a year on incarceration, and racial disparities are 6 to 1. 

Since 1970, the incarcerated population has increased by 700 percent to 2.3 million people in jail and prison. The imprisoned population is growing at a rate that far outpaces population growth and crime.


Leadership development

  • Personal and professional development

  • Membership in the Community Advisory Board, which oversees the Leaders’ projects 

  • Communication and networking skills 


  • Community education 

  • Leaders will door knock, help residents register to vote, and inform the public on ways they can help create change 

  • Work with Restore the Vote

Organizing skills training

  • Collaborate with public officials and communities to end disparities

  • Warrant forgiveness events

  • Community forums

Community-based leadership project

  • A project to help the Leaders grow in areas of organizing most fitting to them

  • Tailored based on each Leader’s skills/interests, including lobbying at the Capitol or organizing in the community


The Smart Justice Leadership Program focuses on alleviating the effects of mass incarceration and overcriminalization on our communities. These include:

  • Family separation

  • Economic devastation

  • Multi-generational cycles of trauma

  • Mistrust in the justice system

This program is aimed at those who have been impacted by overcriminalization and mass incarceration and are passionate about their community. 

Leaders will build their communications, organizing, leadership and networking skills with guidance from noted community leaders.

Leaders will actively engage with their communities to change the way that incarceration functions in Minnesota.

This program is one way that we can combat the effects of mass incarceration, while giving people the tools to create change in their communities.


Nekima Levy Armstrong is a civil rights attorney, activist and owner of Black Pearl, LLC, a boutique consulting firm specializing in racial equity and public relations. She is a former law professor and past president of the Minneapolis NAACP. She is co-founder of the Racial Justice Network, a grassroots organization focused on addressing racial gaps in education, economics and criminal justice.

Dennis Donovan is the national organizer and lead trainer for Public Achievement at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University. Since 1997, Donovan has worked with schools, universities and community groups as a speaker, trainer, consultant and educator.

Elizer Darris. After being sentenced to natural life in prison as a juvenile and violently struggling for years in adult facilities, Elizer Darris turned his life around. He successfully fought to get his life sentence reversed on appeal. He became a business owner, consultant, educator, IT specialist and motivational speaker. The ACLU-MN organizer heads our Campaign for Smart Justice.

What’s in it for me?

  • Leadership development
  • Organizing training
  • Networking
  • Community Involvement

Time Requirement?

  • Two required meetings a month. 

  • Ten-month program

  • Additional individual project

When does the program run?

Dec. 4, 2019 - September 2020


Twin Cities

What's the application deadline? 

Nov. 24, 2019 at midnight

How to apply?

Email a letter of interest and resume to Smart Justice organizer Elizer Darris at edarris@aclu-mn.org. It should outline why you are interested in the program, how you hope the program will help you grow, and how this can aid your community.