Niagara University presented the fourth in its “Transformative Visions” presidential speaker series on Nov. 17. Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Alliance of Families of Justice and the first Black woman to serve as executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, addressed “Criminal Justice, Policing, and Prisons” via Zoom. 

Stevie Vargas, ’16, upstate campaigns coordinator at Alliance for Quality Education of New York, introduced Elijah, who discussed her work as an advocate for families of incarcerated people, criminal justice and police reform, and disrupting cycles of mass incarceration.

Elijah founded her nonprofit, Alliance of Families for Justice in New York, in 2016 to support families of incarcerated people and people with criminal records, empower them as advocates, and mobilize them to marshal their voting power to achieve systemic change. She worked for the first 15 months with no pay, living off her savings, until she received a call from a law firm that donated $100,000 to support her work. 

“That made all the difference in the world,” she said. “It enabled us to pay our rent and to start to think about paying salaries to our staff, all of whom were volunteer at the time. 

“The mission of Alliance of Families for Justice is shaped around a real need,” she continued. “There is a real gap, there are no organizations (that) do what we do. That doesn’t mean there weren’t support groups, but the holistic approach that we take that addresses first the needs and the suffering that people have, and then providing them with the skills and tools that they need to be voices and advocates in their own right and providing them with the opportunities to be at the table and shape decisions and policy, that theory of change hadn’t existed before.”

Through re-entry and legal support services, advocacy and communication skills training, and working to restore full citizenship rights to all people, regardless of their criminal history or incarceratory status, the Alliance of Families for Justice seeks to end mass incarceration by empowering the formerly incarcerated and their families.

Elijah has dedicated her life’s work to human rights and social justice. Prior to founding AFJ, Elijah was the executive director of the Correctional Association of NY, where she was the first woman and the first person of color to lead the 170-year-old organization. She is a frequent presenter at national and international forums on criminal justice policy and human rights issues. Prior to leading CANY, Elijah served as deputy director and clinical instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School. Before moving to Harvard, she was a member of the faculty and director and supervising attorney of the Defender Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law. Elijah has also worked as a supervising attorney at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society, and in private practice.

Following a Q&A, Elijah shared this advice for those interested in organizing and advocating for justice. 

“Everyone has to decide what they think they can contribute to the effort,” she said. “Whatever your calling is, figure out how you can use it in the service of people. Everybody should get in where they fit in, because there’s something for each of us to do. If we have a vision of building a better world, then there’s a piece for each of us to do.”

Niagara University’s president, the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., offered concluding remarks that included a question about what sustained Elijah in her work.   

“I have this insatiable belief that we can win, and that’s a very important thing,” she said. “I really do believe that the collective energy of people who are committed to building a better world can build that better world. I can’t accept that we won’t succeeded. It’s going to take a lot of time, … but I have faith that we ultimately are going to succeed. I think people who are committed to providing opportunities so that everybody has a fair chance to realize their dreams and breathe free air and live in a healthy environment and care for their children and know that their health needs are provided for, those are things I think we can strive for.”