“Anything that you’re doing in this space is going to require coalition building. Your work will require other people from different organizations, and being able to build and sustain relationships while being open, genuine, and caring about others’ work is important. That will help with actually getting the work done.”
- Jean-Pierre Brutus, Senior Counsel in the Economic Justice Program for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice
Jean-Pierre on who he is and his path to NJISJ…
“My family comes from Haiti, and as part of that growing up, you learn about the significance of the Haitian revolution, and its impact on the world in formal and both informal ways. That had an impact on the types of things that I was interested in studying when I went to college. I was pre-med, but I was more interested in things like social studies from high school, history, and politics. So I decided to major in Sociology and minor in African American studies at Georgetown. At the time, African American Studies was just a minor. It wasn't even a department yet. The head of that program was a professor named Angelyn Mitchell. I took multiple classes with her, including her class on Toni Morrison. We were able to read all of Toni Morrison’s then published books and an unpublished short story. I took sociology classes with Yolanda Gibbons and the late Timothy Wickham-Crowley. Those classes got me thinking about having an impact on people’s lives, that wasn't necessarily called advocacy at the time, but I was also interested in writing and researching issues of politics, race, and social and racial justice.
I decided that I was going to do a JD/PhD program at Northwestern, and when I visited the African American studies department, I met professors, graduate students, and some undergraduate students in the department of African American Studies that helped me to make my decision. I felt very comfortable there. I met with the late Richard Iton, and he was an incredibly generous human being. I met with Barnor Hesse, who became my dissertation advisor, and professors Martha Biondi and Reuel Rogers. It was tough to leave my family in New York, but given the kinds of intellectual activity there that was going on about Black political thought and politics and law, I decided on Northwestern. There, I was deeply involved in the study of race, racism, colonialism, and I learned so much from Dr. Hesse. I also give credit to the late philosopher Charles Mills and John D. Marquez, both of whom were on my dissertation committee.
I wanted to become a law professor, but I wanted some experience before teaching students. Recently, the New York City Council passed a new law called the Right to Counsel, where folks in NYC housing court were going to be given an attorney. Tenants were going to be given an attorney if they were within 200% of the poverty line. At that point, 99% of the tenants did not have an attorney, whereas landlords would have litigants. So with this law, I went to work for legal services in the Bronx as part of their first class of ten new housing attorneys to help tenants facing eviction. With direct services like that, you see how the law affects people’s lives, whether they are low income, people of color, women, people with disabilities, and folks that are in tremendous states of crises. Seeing so many cases, you see that so many individuals are facing issues that are resolved with policy decisions. I could only do so much as an individual attorney, but a few months later, I’d see the same client in court again. These issues are endemic, and they’re the result of structural conditions. To really help the folks I was interested in helping, doing policy work would be more helpful at addressing the core.
The Institute was doing the type of policy work that I was interested in, and in working under Ryan Haygood and the vision of the Institute, I’ve been able to do that. When I joined the Institute in December of 2021, I was told to lead their reparations work. They had just launched the coalition, “Say the Word: Reparations” to get a reparations task force in New Jersey. So far, we’ve gotten 20 municipalities in support of the task force, which you can check out on the NJISJ Website.”
What is a day that you’re most proud of?
“I’m most proud of the launch of the New Jersey Reparations Council on Juneteenth this month. There was a palpable energy and feeling of possibility of moving forward. We announced the council in Perth Amboy, which was actually the major port for enslaved people in New Jersey. Senator Cory Booker spoke, Mayor Ras Baraka, our President and CEO Ryan Haygood, Maisha Simmons from the RWJF, the co-chairs, Taja-Nia Henderson and Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammed, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, as well as committee members Larry Hamm and Reverend Boyer. They all brought a lot of energy and vision, and gave people an answer as to why we need an initiative like this, specifically in New Jersey. You could feel the sense of excitement and energy there, and there was just a real interest there. To see the reality of the beginning of the council, as well as the virtual meeting with the Council, you could feel that same sense of excitement. Folks from out of the country were joining- people from Europe, people from the west coast in different time zones… because this was something about really building a new future.”
NJISJ has been at the forefront of statewide reparations work. Jean-Pierre tells us what sets them apart.
“What distinguishes us from other organizations is our five part theory of change. We engage with the community and find out what folks are thinking on the ground. In terms of our reparations work, we have been the Community Fellow on the Rutgers University-Newark: Crafting Democratic Futures Project. The Mellon Foundation awarded the University of Michigan a grant for their Crafting Democratic Futures Project. When the university received these funds, they distributed them to nine other schools including Rutgers University to do work on reparations. This work included community dialogue across Newark on what folks think about reparations and what they envision it to be.
Another part of it is the Institute’s community research and analysis, where we produce reports, including making the two New Jersey one, where the racial wealth gap is over $300,000 here. We are a data informed, not data driven organization, and it helps give people context for the level of racial disparity in New Jersey.
When I’d do panels on reparations, I found that folks simply did not know about the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing institutional racism in New Jersey. At the Institute, I’m only one person, so we made an animated explainer video on reparations. It’s a 3 minute video on the history of slavery in New Jersey, ongoing racism in the state, and the need for reparations, all narrated by Mayor Ras Baraka.
We’ve done lobby days to talk to legislators about the importance of a reparations task force and we’ve had folks from the California task force speak about the importance of one. We’ve been advocating for this bill for years now with no movement, so we decided to launch our own task force, called the New Jersey Reparations Council. It’s made up of over 50 experts from across the state and country, with nine different committees. They will take two years to study the history of slavery, Jim Crow in New Jersey, and ongoing institutional racism, and provide recommendations to repair the harms of those racial regimes. In June 2025, the Council will release their final report on their findings with a virtual public session which will allow the public to provide their feedback. It’s co-chaired by Dean Taja-Nia Henderson from Rutgers University Law School and Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammed.
The last step of our theory of change is accountability. In June 2025, that’s not the end of the project, that’s just the beginning. Folks will take those suggestions and advocate for changes across New Jersey to make sure that those recommendations are taken up by the legislature to make sure that they are implemented and that we have a true multi-racial democracy in our state.”
How does the immigrant rights movement intersect with the movement for reparations?
“We want to take an intersectional approach to our study of reparations. At the Institute, we think of our work as investing in Black communities as communities. Even though Black immigrants have come to the US prior to the 1960s, they've been a significant part of the immigrant community since 1965 in this country, particularly by the work in the Civil Rights Movement to open up immigration in the US. Issues of immigration overlap with issues regarding criminal justice, democracy, economic justice, fair and living wages, democracy, criminalization and policing, housing, and more. We address issues that overlap with immigrant justice outside of our reparations work. Issues of racial justice have always been bound up with issues of immigration, especially since the late 19th century. We don’t think of our work narrowly when it comes to the issues of racial justice that we are pursuing- particularly in places like New Jersey where we have a significant population of immigrants. We know that there are important issues of political representation and being included on the Census, which affects our democracy and how our resources are being distributed into our communities. For example, it affects how new housing is created. All of these issues are interrelated, which is why we need to think in an intersectional way about the work we do, but also how we’re going to inform the work of the Council as well.”
If Jean-Pierre could give his younger self advice, it would be that…
“I’d tell myself how many different possibilities and positions are available in these types of spaces. You might not even be aware of them until you see someone who’s doing it. I wasn’t even aware of the position that I’m doing now until late in law school- I didn’t even know such a thing as a Policy Counsel existed.
Another piece of advice is that building relationships is key. We sometimes forget that we’re human beings- these organizations are still made up of individuals. Anything that you’re doing in this space is going to require coalition building. Your work will require other people from different organizations, and being able to build and sustain relationships while being open, genuine, and caring about others’ work is important. That will help with actually getting the work done.
I’ll also say that it’s necessary to have some perspective on reality as well. Broadly, this work can be consuming. You’re going to face defeats, and things aren’t just going to change automatically even when you have the coalition. There’s a reason why these issues are persistent, there’s a lot of power backing them up and helping to keep disparities, barriers, and inequalities in place. It’s going to take time and different tactics with lots of planning and thought. Wins can be small, they’re not always going to be big.
My last piece of advice is to maintain some level of hope to imagine that things can be different. You never want to come to cynicism and just accept that this is how things are. That kind of thinking is succumbing to power in its most insidious and subtle form. You want to keep pushing forward, even if there are different ways to do it.”
An inspirational figure in his life is…
“It’s hard to choose one person because so many folks have made it possible to be where I am, but the person that’s had the most significant impact is my mother. She was a physician and she immigrated from Haiti in the early 1970s. She gave me a sense of purpose and commitment to excellence and focus to pursue my interests. Throughout law school and getting my Ph.D., she was incredibly supportive through that and through my career. The things that she has gone through as a black woman, physician, and immigrant in the time that she came is very inspiring. She's an incredibly hard working and passionate person.”
Something that he’s passionate about outside of work…
“I like reading fantasy books and series. I’ve always enjoyed reading since the fifth grade, when my aunt gave me an abridged version of The Odyssey. Since then, I’ve read many of the fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire, the King Killer Chronicles, and more. My favorite series is The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. I love getting lost in the world and systems of magic and imagination. JR Tolkien was a professor of English at Oxford University, and when he was writing Lord of the Rings, they were called fairy stories at the time. In his essay, he talked about how his colleagues would ask why he would waste his time writing these frivolous stories. And he said that there is a type of escapism based on fantasy, but there’s another type as well: the dream of the imprisoned or enslaved individual. The ability to imagine an alternative reality is a part of the reason why I read these books. The purpose of fantasy is to give people alternative possibilities.
The last fantasy book I read was A House of Always (A Chorus of Dragons) by Jenn Lyons.”
In these turbulent times, something that brings Jean-Pierre joy is…
“My family and friends. I know it’s probably common, but just hanging out with my friends and seeing my family and loved ones is great. Even just going on a trip with my friends in the same space brings me a lot of joy.”
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