The past year has been less challenging for Dr. Jason Sole and his abolitionist work, in spite of the ongoing pandemic and the social unrest across much of the country.
The Hamline adjunct professor, who was formerly a felon, gang member, drug dealer and gunshot victim, has continued advocating for defunding the police, safer neighborhoods, and political education for communities.
“People are connecting and resonating with my message,” Sole said in a recent interview. “More things have happened to validate what I am doing. Even though the charter amendment (to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety) didn’t pass, 44 percent of the people spoke.
“Forty-four percent means a growing desire for something outside of what’s there,” Sole continued. “I know the number will grow over time, and we’re going to work to make sure areas that didn’t vote yes will understand we can build different forms of safety and responsibility.”
KICKSTARTER FOR INSTITUTE
Sole’s journey from incarceration to becoming a professor at Hamline in the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Department was highlighted in a Midway Como Frogtown Monitor article (a sister newspaper) in September 2020. Since then, much of the work he has started as well as new projects he has undertaken has continued to grow.
One of these is the Institute of Aspiring Abolitionists. “I launched a Kickstarter campaign. First time I’ve done that,” Sole said. His goal was to raise $100,000 in 60 days to provide quality, interactive educational opportunities for 15,000 people in this region by December 2022.
“I took bolder risks with a willingness to fail,” Sole said. “I knew how hard I worked, and I felt empowered.” He added that he knew there is always going to be pushback against the unknown. Sole recalled a quote by Martin Luther King: “I’m not a searcher of consensus. I’m a molder of consensus.”
The fundraising goal was met, and $105,000 was raised in 60 days in the name of abolition. Sole said he told people about the blueprints he created when he worked in the mayor’s office as the first Community-First Public Safety Initiatives director to the city of St. Paul.
Through his work as an abolitionist, Sole encourages people to check each other’s safety. His website, www.jasonsole.com carries a statement from the activist Mariame Kaba: “As an abolitionist, what I care about are two things: relationships and how we address harm.”
CONNECTIONS AND RELATIONSHIPS
On his journey from prisoner to scholar, Sole said he has met a lot of amazing people. As he reaches out with his ideas and projects, he has reconnected with many of them. “To reconnect with people who always had my back felt good,” he noted.
Regarding relationships, Sole said he truly knows what it means to be a friend to someone. “My relationships are primary,” he said. “We’re not here to have boundaries, stereotypes and not get along. I understand that, but I guess the general masses don’t. I don’t get lost in ‘Oh, my God, I have to achieve this or get to the next level, no matter who gets hurt along the way.’”
Sole said he cares a great deal about the relationships he has with his wife, kids, mom, siblings, cousins, nieces and the whole community. “I’m going to a basketball game tonight in Waterloo, where my childhood friend is now the coach. It is so good to go back and still be loved. That shows how my relationships have always stayed solid.”
Having conflict with someone you love can certainly happen, according to Sole. “When that happens, I am present, not lost in the clouds,” he said. “My work is important, but not more important than the people I have in my life.”
WORKING IN CIRCLES
Sole’s narrative has not changed. “The police have been choking us,” he stated. “When harm happens, we need to sit down and get justice for what happened.”
Sole calls upon aspiring abolitionists to be present every day, not just in times of crisis. “A lot of times we can see when others are not doing well,” he said. “We see a post or email that gives an indication of a cry for help, really needing someone. It might not be a crisis, but so what? We still need to care.”
The fact that everything teaches us to be apart disappoints Sole. “I cannot like you because of your race, color, clothes, gender, and religion. That part of life frustrates me,” he said. “I always show up because I know I can plant a seed.”
He said he likes working in circles, not top down or a pyramid. “I always offered up the opportunity to co-struggle with someone else.” As an example, when he was chosen to be captain of his basketball team in high school, he picked another senior to co-captain with him. “I want everyone to do well,” he said.
HUMANIZE MY HOODIE
Sole and a friend, fashion designer and activist André Wright, started another project that quickly turned into a movement, “Humanize My Hoodie.” Sole said that sometimes when you put something out to the universe, it resonates all over the country.
He started wearing a hoodie to teach his classes in an effort to make students more comfortable with Black men in hoodies. It quickly drew responses worldwide, resulting in a book and documentary.
Humanize My Hoodie empowers Black people to stand up against racial injustice, according to Sole. “The hoodie invites conversations and we are using the Humanize My Hoodie sweatshirt, as well as educational tools, to arm our marginalized communities with innovative ways to uplift humanity and fight against violence and racism,” he said.
Sole has also done a podcast and may do others in the future. He currently hosts a radio program “The Abolition Hour” on Frogtown station WFNU at 94.1 FM on Mondays at noon. On the show he shares some of his experiences with police violence in the Frogtown community. He outlines effective safety and accountable strategies to community members and shares some of his abolitionist work.
Hamline University has “allowed me to do what I do,” Sole said. He said he loves teaching there, and is grateful for his 13 years as a professor. “I am glad my students have learned how to love each other during the pandemic,” he noted.
RELATIONSHIPS EVOLVING POSSIBILITIES, RADIAL ECOSYSTEM PODS
Sole believes he is doing some of his best work during the pandemic. He helped co-create Relationships Evolving Possibilities, (REP) a network of dedicated abolitionists showing up to support others in moments of crisis or urgency. He also co-created Radical Ecosystem Pods to “fortify existing networks and support the creation of new networks by improving relationships between neighbors, identifying webs of support that already exist within reach, and reimagining what loving community looks like.”
Sole said that as a member of a pod who has trained in de-escalation and is on call, if something is not going right and his friend needs support, he has to be there.
“We just want to love you through your next step,” he said. “We’ve been getting calls, and we hope to get it to be around the clock. We’re not there yet, and we are not an alternative to the police yet, but we are working towards a world that is police-free.”
As Sole reflected on the many different paths his life has taken, he said it was not the end of his story when he was in jail or selling drugs or getting shot. “People knew I was still trying to accomplish something,” he said. “Once I started building trust, they saw me doing something else. I listened, and I never bought into the theory that I could solve everything by myself...”
He recalls the many strong Black women who have been part of his life. “I have got to give credit to them: my mom, sister, aunts and daughters,” he noted. He said he learned some skills from his mother and father in just trying to figure out life. And among many others, he recalls an uncle who got his PhD from Princeton. Although the uncle died from AIDS when Sole was only 10, the two have strong connections. Both were in the NAACP, and his uncle named a lot of abolitionists in his dissertation on slaves who escaped to Canada.
“There were a lot who loved him, and so many people are coming forth with stories about him. I am looking at his dissertation, and I’m going to build something around it.”
Sole has come such a long way, but experiences from his past still affect him and shape the work he continues to do. “I wrote an application to have my record pardoned, and Gov. Tim Walz and Keith Ellison approved it. But a Supreme Court justice said no without any explanation.
“Even though I can excel, I am still shackled and still not liberated,” Sole said. “It’s still just a part of my life and keeps me fighting the way I am. I think people can look through my eyes and see I am trying to be the best person I can be, no matter my circumstances.”
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