(Note: This video is featured courtesy of The Saint Paul Foundation. To learn more about all of this year’s Ambassador Award honorees, visit http://www.saintpaulfoundation.org/ambassador_awards/)
The first time Nekima Levy-Pounds remembers having an awareness of racial inequities, she was eight years old. Her family had just moved from Jackson, Mississippi to a primarily Latino and African-American neighborhood in south central Los Angeles.
“I noticed the level of poverty in my community,” explains Nekima, “And I saw the impact on people living on the margins of society with inadequate access to economic opportunities and lower quality educational institutions. I saw hopelessness among many of the folks in the community, particularly among young African-American men. I didn’t fully understand what was going on, but at age nine I decided I wanted to become a lawyer. I saw that as a vehicle to be able to affect change.”
When she was fourteen, Nekima earned a scholarship to attend a prestigious boarding school on the East Coast, where the majority of her peers were privileged and white. She began to research African American history, looking for answers to her own questions about racial inequalities. When school was not in session, Nekima returned home to LA, where she participated in anti-racism workshops and activities and began to raise her voice in the name of racial equity.
In the years since, Nekima has made it her life’s work to stand up for equal rights and the well-being of all people, especially those who have been marginalized by society. Nekima is a civil rights attorney, an award-winning professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School, and a tireless advocate for social justice. She serves as the chair of the Minnesota State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and she is a co-chair of Everybody In, a group of more than 40 stakeholders from different sectors dedicated to improving employment opportunities for people of color by 2020. Nekima is also active in the local Black Lives Matter movement, working with young people to raise awareness of systemic issues that impact African Americans. As a blogger and racial justice activist, Nekima’s work has been featured in the Star Tribune, MinnPost, Minnesota Women’s Press, Minnesota Lawyer, Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, and on Minnesota Public Radio.
As founding director of the Community Justice Project at St. Thomas, Nekima works with law students to examine ways to improve the lives of African-Americans in the Twin Cities. One of the projects that has evolved through their work is Brotherhood, Inc., a nonprofit organization that aims to empower African American men ages 16 to 24 who have been caught up in the criminal justice system, involved in gangs, or are at risk of falling into one of these groups. Nekima and her team of law students stumbled upon the idea while conducting research for a report on the quality of life among young African-American males in Saint. Paul. The results of the report were shocking. When compared to their white peers, young African-American men had significantly higher rates of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness; more incidents of contact with the criminal justice system; and were less likely to graduate from high school.
Nekima worked with local community members to found Brotherhood, Inc. in response to these findings. Modeled after Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based organization that offers emotional support, a safe haven, and jobs for young people who leave gangs and need a fresh start, Brotherhood, Inc. provides access to education, counseling, and job training through its affiliate company, Brotherhood Brew. Brotherhood Brew supplies a full range of coffee catering services to nonprofits, businesses, government offices, schools, and individuals. The success of the program has allowed Brotherhood, Inc. to achieve another milestone. Later this year they will open the Brotherhood Coffee Shop & Café in Saint Paul’s Aurora-St. Anthony neighorhood, adding more opportunities for on-the-job training to young African American men.