Approximately 6.5 million adults have an immediate family member currently in jail or prison, but Soffiyah Elijah is working to end mass incarceration through a people-centered approach.

Elijah, a long-time advocate and criminal and family lawyer for more than 30 years, founded Harlem-based Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ) six years ago with the mission to “support, empower and mobilize families with incarcerated loved ones and justice-involved individuals so that they can marshal their collective power and catalyze systemic change. Our vision is a politically and personally empowered network of united families who have healed from their trauma and transformed their pain into power.”

Elijah was recently featured in the 2022 Black Women Give List, an initiative of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Black Philanthropy Month and The Women Invested to Save the Earth (WISE) Fund. Building on research that demonstrates the unique perspectives women across race and ethnicity bring to philanthropy and recognizing women as leaders for racial justice issues, the list highlights the contributions Black women donors have made around the world.

Elijah recently shared her insights with Giving Compass. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Briefly, can you describe some of your philanthropic work that you are most excited about? 

First, I am most excited about the continued expansion of the reach of the Alliance of Families for Justice as we seek to end mass incarceration by empowering the formerly incarcerated and their families. 

On the practical side, our Legal Support and Family Support Units provide vital resources to our member families. Our Youth Empowerment Program can provide critical leadership development and skills to future community leaders. We realize that healing from the impacts of incarceration, whether it be for the person incarcerated or for their family, is both needed and a way to foster connections and community. We regularly offer healing circles, family empowerment circles, and mindfulness events. Through all of our offerings, whether about packages, healthcare, or the restoration of voting rights, we provide real opportunities for people directly impacted to apply their knowledge and help others. 

Throughout the pandemic, the number of families AFJ supports doubled to our current number of about 1,000. As the waves of COVID-19 hit, our member families were rightly concerned about the safety of their incarcerated loved ones and the actions taken to protect them. As the globe shifted so many things online, it has further enabled us to engage people via social media and online forums. I remain optimistic about the power of community and leveraging our voices in solidarity to impact change. We continue to inform, mobilize, and empower these families to use their voices for change. 

How have your personal experiences as a Black woman informed your approach to philanthropy?

My personal experiences are everything: I have had incarcerated loved ones all my adult life, and I view the prison and criminal justice systems through that lens. Through that perspective, I can use my skills, knowledge, and access to create opportunities for my community to confront the systems that harm them directly. The power of advocacy is also why cultivating leadership potential is a central element of AFJ's mission and what sets us apart from other organizations. It’s our ‘special sauce.’ Formerly incarcerated people are often seeking direction and purpose and have a thirst for leadership development and ripe potential. One of the most gratifying experiences in my career has been cultivating those leaders. 

Can you discuss your progress toward ending mass incarceration and the challenges you face?

We have and always will measure our progress through impact: AFJ has trained and cultivated dozens of leaders, launched numerous campaigns to fight injustice, offered several critical services, and fostered healing at multiple levels of harm caused by the incarceration system. 

Second, as awareness of policing and mass incarceration issues has heightened in recent years, so have the opportunities to educate and advocate for why change is needed. It can be a challenge to remember that some of the stories and issues we’ve been highlighting for decades are ‘new’ to some people every day. And to bridge that awareness with action. As we reflect on the six years since the Alliance of Families for Justice was founded, that’s where I know we’ve made the most strides: Connecting families and transforming what can be a lonely and isolating time as their family members are incarcerated, into a time of collective action and empowerment. 

What are you most hopeful about?

I am hopeful about the decline in incarceration across the country but in New York especially. Since 1999, New York's prison population has declined by 57.5%, from a high of 72,649 incarcerated individuals to 31,053. This decline reflects the hard work of advocates across New York and shows that alternatives to incarceration are far more human-centered and effective.

I am also most optimistic about emerging leaders and their unapologetic skepticism of the status quo. When it comes to mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, it feels like breakthrough change is on the horizon. 

What advice would you give other philanthropists?

Give generously, but also trust that grantees have the lived experiences to guide those funds strategically. The most straightforward gifts are often the most useful: When I founded AFJ in 2016, we worked for 15 months unpaid and created the organization from scratch. As a result of a generous donation of $100,000, from people who truly believed in us, we gained traction and built the organization from there.