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‘There are times you must agitate’: a Q&A with new NAACP Minneapolis president Jason Sole

The criminal justice professor and civil rights activist was just elected as the organization’s new president, taking over for Nekima Levy-Pounds.

Jason Sole
Jason Sole

Jason Sole’s already hectic life just got a little busier. Last week the criminal justice professor, civil rights activist, and former chairman for the NAACP Minneapolis chapter was elected as the organization’s new president. The position was formerly held by well-known law professor and civil rights activist Nekima Levy-Pounds, who nominated Sole after choosing not to run for a second term.

Sole grew up in an impoverished neighborhood on Chicago’s south side and fell afoul of the law at an early age after joining a gang as a teenager. But after serving time in prison and several years on probation, Sole has become a poster child for urban youth redemption, fighting to find work, get into college, raise a family and eventually work towards a Ph.D. at Hamline University in St. Paul. And last month, after petitioning for an early termination of his probation, Sole was able to vote for the first time in 12 years.

MinnPost chatted with Sole earlier this week from his hotel room in San Diego, where he’s running leadership trainings for Latino youth, to learn more about the future plans for his branch, his criminal history, and how his fight for restoring voting rights for felons like himself could affect future presidential races.

MinnPost: Congratulations on being elected the new president of the NAACP Minneapolis chapter. You must be excited stepping into this new leadership role.

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Jason Sole: Yeah, I am. I’m excited. It will definitely come with a lot of opportunities to make change, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing significant differences in Minneapolis. But I’m a firm believer that if you wear the title you have to do the work. I haven’t had a chance to really revel that I was made president. I got right to the ground work. We’ve got an executive committee meeting coming up to help set the mission and the vision — where we want to go, what we want to accomplish in the year.

MP: What should we expect from the NAACP under your leadership? Do you plan to make any changes?

JS: With Minnesota being 49th in the nation in terms of black to white graduation rates, we’ve got to have some honest conversations about why that is … I also want to look at a number of different things like economic [disparities], the juvenile justice system, housing and jobs for people of color. But my main goal is developing other leaders. I want to be sure I can develop other leaders who can be speakers, other leaders who can carry this work forward. I don’t want to put it all on me and if something happens to me we lose a lot of our momentum. So, you won’t see me as much publicly … you’ll see a lot of new critical leaders to this movement.

MP: So, you want this movement to have legs without necessarily needing you?

JS: Absolutely. Nekima did it well. She built a solid group around her and everyone was working in unison. I want to do the same thing but make it even stronger. I was the only one nominated after Nekima. I want to make it so that we’re so strong that we have a real race for the presidency next round.

MP: Yet Nekima was often still the one in the spotlight. Are you saying you’re planning to share that spotlight more or try and step out of it?

JS: Nekima did exactly what needed to be done to give us credibility. She fought and stood front line, she spoke and did interviews. She had to at the time because we had a defunct branch. But she gave the branch life, she gave it meaning, she gave it purpose. Now that we have that, it’s not so much necessary for me to be in the front line.

MP: Nekima also used more confrontational and on-the-ground tactics to bring attention to issues she thought pressing. In fact, many newer civil rights groups like Black Lives Matter urge the importance of being disruptive when it comes to fighting for black issues. Do you think it’s important to continue that?

JS: Absolutely it’s important. There are times you must agitate. Frederick Douglass said it himself. You have to agitate otherwise you won’t get the things you’re requesting. We don’t want to do it, but if that’s what gets results, that’s what we’re going to do. I mean, we make phone calls, we write letters, we do a number of things. But people really only pick up on the protest part.

When BLM is doing something, we are really the only branch in the country to stand so closely with Black Lives Matter because we feel it’s the right thing to do. Nekima took a lot of risk supporting BLM because nationally, the NAACP is more policy and paperwork oriented. It’s a legacy organization and they want to preserve the legacy. So, we’re still trying to work through a lot of those kinks but I support Black Lives Matter and I’m going to stand next to them throughout. 

MP: Before becoming president, you were the NAACP chairman of criminal justice reform. You have your own history with the criminal justice system growing up in Chicago’s south side that helped shape your desire for reform. Tell us a little about that.

JS: I was raised in economically depressed neighborhoods and I fell into the trap like many other people around me. I started selling drugs, joined a gang and that led to a ton of trouble. But even though I was doing wrong, I always fought the right way to get out. I was able to get on the right path, get out of prison, get a job, go to college. Now I try to open those opportunities for others who may not get those chances in life. I mean, I don’t see a lot of three-time felons being professors. So, for me, I’m kicking down a lot of doors with my personal story. And for me standing as the president of the NAACP, that’s a lot of hope for a lot of those people behind the prison walls. That’s a lot of inspiration for people who come from the same background as me and I’m going to continue to set the bar high so they see it’s possible to get here.

MP: Because of your criminal history, you also haven’t been able to vote for almost 20 years of your life. Then earlier this year that got lifted.

JS: Yeah, it was 17 years. I graduated from high school in ’96, got caught with a gun in ’97, I went to prison in 2000, and I was released from prison in 2002. All those years I couldn’t vote. I was off parole in 2003. But then I was back facing another legality [for drug possession] and they gave me 20 years of probation.

The only reason I was able to vote this year was because I petitioned the courts. I wrote them a petition that said to take me off. I’m finishing a Ph.D., I’m a professor, I’m a father. I got all these accolades, all these letters of recommendation, I needed to get off probation and they understood it. Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be able to vote until 2026. 

MP: So you voted on Tuesday for the first time in twelve years?

Yeah, I voted [Tuesday.] I definitely did. It felt good, but the feeling didn’t last long (he laughs). I’m just picking myself up now.

MP: But a lot of felons in Minnesota don’t have that opportunity. Is that a problem?

JS: I’m definitely blessed. Everybody can’t get to that place where they can petition for early termination of their probation so they can vote. I think it’s overkill. If I’m safe enough to be in the community, I should be able to vote; I mean, if I’m working and paying taxes. It’s in our laws. No taxation without representation. We’ve been able to get that issue on the forefront, but it being an election year, we knew that it wasn’t going to go too far. But the NAACP’s work on that definitely set that stage for us to go in a little bit stronger this time around.

MP: Considering the disproportionate amount of African Americans in the criminal justice system, do you think if more felons were able to vote the presidential election could have turned out differently?

JS: Absolutely. Here in Minnesota, restoring voting rights would have affected more whites because of sheer population. But in Florida, that’s a big place. That’s why it’s a lifetime ban if you have a felony in Florida. [If felons could vote there], it would have even swayed the 2000 election. Bush wouldn’t have been elected.