Admittedly, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2019, a lot of individuals have encountered unexpected circumstances such as social distancing measures, shelter-in-place ordinances, and mask mandates. However, when I accepted a position as a Non-profit Grant Writer Intern during the summer of 2020, I also did not expect that my role would include advocating for criminal justice reform.

Non-profits have been essential in addressing racial inequalities and criminal justice reform.[1] Several theories ranging from economic, political, and sociological serve as convincing rationales for support of the non-profit sector.[2] One of the most persuasive theories, the sociological theory, explains how individuals react to certain social needs and work together to build communities that fill systemic gaps in our societies.[3] The various social roles non-profits perform locally, nationally, and globally often satisfy the charitable and educational purposes that qualify these organizations for tax-exempt status.[4] In essence, non-profits, by their inherent nature, exist to provide a benefit to the general public and serve the overall public good.[5]

Non-profit organizations, like Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc., Equal Justice Initiative, Know Your Rights Camp, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are among the many racial equity non-profits in the United States.[6] These non-profits were conceived out of the apparent need for social justice and equity for Black Americans, and developed missions to advocate, educate and build communities through engaging in race relation conversations, increasing access to resources to minorities, and rectifying harms against human beings.[7]  #BlackLivesMatter (“BLM”) was founded in 2013 in response to Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent acquittal of his murderer.[8] Since then, the BLM movement has grown as communities across the nation responded to the intolerable murders of Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd among countless others both known and unknown to the general public.[9]

With this most recent outcry for criminal justice reform, countless organizations, including non-profits and for-profits of varying sizes and localities as well as government entities, have intentionally began to address the systemic issues caused by generations of racial inequities and biases.[10] As a Non-profit Grant Writer Intern for Ruth’s Way, a small, faith-based non-profit organization in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,[11] the effects of the BLM movement led me to not only confront my own privileges and biases from the community in which I was raised, but also to conduct research surrounding policing in local public schools, identifying disparities in access to health services between Black and non-Black youth and their families, and addressing barriers that disproportionally impact young Black girls.

Although I grew up just outside the Pittsburgh area where Ruth’s Way serves approximately 100-200 female youth each year,[12] until I began my internship with this non-profit organization I was completely ignorant of the fact that Pittsburgh Public Schools employ in-school policing measures that contribute exceptionally to the school-to-prison pipeline.[13] The University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems published an education area report, Just Discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Greater Pittsburgh: Local Challenges and Promising Solutions, which defines the school-to-prison pipeline as “the process whereby disciplinary experiences in school increase students’ likelihood of interaction with the juvenile justice system.”[14] The report also explains Pennsylvania Department of Education data collected between 2015 and 2016, which reveals overwhelming racial disparities in suspension rates among Black students in Alleghany County school districts.[15] For example, “Black students in Allegheny County [are] subjected to suspension rates that are 7.3 times higher than the rate of non-Black suspensions, a disparity rate that is above the [Pennsylvania] statewide level of 5.5 to 1.”[16] Furthermore, the report suggests that “this severe regional racial disparity seems to be the result of two intersecting patterns that simultaneously exert negative effects on Black students: (1) exceedingly high overall suspension rates in urban districts, where Black students tend to be concentrated; and (2) exceptionally high racial disparity rates in suburban, mostly White districts.”[17]

Increasing the use and presence of police in urban schools has transferred disciplinary action that normally would have been enforced by educators into the hands of law enforcement.[18] Arguably, “the placement of police officers in schools can result in the criminalization of school discipline, as [the police’s] increased presence results in higher rates of exclusionary responses [i.e. out-of-school suspensions] for a wider range of infractions” including infractions of non-violent behavior.[19] To apply this to my personal context, in my largely rural upbringing the only police exposure in my educational experience was during random drug searches about three to four times a year. Meanwhile, just miles away from my high school, Black youth in predominately urban settings were regularly sentenced to juvenile detention centers over behavioral issues that could have qualified as mere detentions at majority white schools like the one I attended.

Another report, Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race, published in 2019 by several University of Pittsburgh professors and professionals, noted that Pittsburgh Public Schools (“PPS”) refer students to the police at rates higher than 95% of other large cities in the United States.[20] In 2019, “two-thirds of all arrests of Black girls in Pittsburgh were made by PPS police.”[21] Of the arrests made by the police in Pittsburgh Public Schools, “[a]bout half of school-based arrests of Black youth (54% for Black girls and 42% for Black boys) in 2019 ultimately resulted in a charge of disorderly conduct,” whereas “just 10% and 20% of school-based arrests of White girls and boys” resulted in similar charges.[22] The apparent injustices are astounding and for young Black girls the injustices are even greater. In fact, in Pittsburgh, “Black girls [are] 9 times more likely than White girls” to be referred by Pittsburgh Public Schools to the juvenile justice system.[23]

Non-profit organizations, like Ruth’s Way and many others dedicated to racial equity, are finding a path forward, committed to eradicating racial injustices and equipping their communities with much needed access to resources. Non-profit organizations, while statutorily limited in their ability to influence legislation, are still advocating for major policy reformations.[24] One such reform in Pittsburgh Public Schools has been the “Counselors Not Cops” campaign, a collective effort supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Dignity in Schools Campaign.[25] Counselors Not Cops is centered around the notion that social and emotional learning practices, mental health resources, and community-led support systems can respond to conflicts in healthy ways and create safe schools.[26] On the other hand, advocates for continued policing in schools have justified the presence of law enforcement by citing safety concerns related to recent school shootings and drug abuse.[27]

Wherever the argument lands on Counselors Not Cops, Pennsylvania state law requires all school districts to have a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) with law enforcement.[28] In the summer of 2020 in response to the BLM movement, a proposed draft of the Pittsburgh district’s MOU was justifiably criticized for its overuse of city police in interventions with youth in Pittsburgh Public Schools.[29] To date, the MOU[30] currently states twenty-four infractions that, if committed by a student, require schools by state law to contact law enforcement and the proposed version seeks to add another seven infractions, increasing the presence of police in schools for offense that typically do not require such extreme enforcement.[31]

In June, as a part of Black Women for a Better Education, a grassroots collective of Black women who demand a better education for Pittsburgh’s children, fifty-five Black women signed a letter expressing concern that the high referral rates of Black students to police is prohibiting safe and healthy school environments.[32] Personally, I find it interesting that Pittsburgh is commonly cited as one of the most livable cities in the United States and practically, for others–particularly Black women and girls– that condition is simply not so.[33] The resurgence of the BLM Movement is not only a demand for justice of Black lives needlessly murdered, but is also a reminder to pay equal respect to the brave Black women who started this awakening through the means that the non-profit sector permitted, creating necessary avenues for continued societal change.

*Gina McKlveen, J.D., expected May 2021, The George Washington University Law School. After completing my nonprofit grant writer internship in the summer of 2020, my unsolicited advice is this: Take whatever job or internship that presents itself to you, but realize that your position may call you to advocate on behalf of people and issues you never expected. Keep showing up, continue educating yourself, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the unexpected impact it may have. Thank you to Mrs. Chatman, Krystopher and Shain for your brave conversations, continued presence, and unforgettable lessons.


[1] See Emily Patrick, Nonprofits Fighting for Racial Equity, COMMON IMPACT (June 11, 2020),


[3] See id. at 27–28.

[4] See I.R.C. § 501(c)(3) (2018).

[5] See SCHMIDT, supra note 2, at 30.

[6] See, e.g.,168 Ways to Donate in Support of Black Lives and Communities of Color, N.Y. MAG: STRATEGIST (Apr. 21, 2021),

[7] See About, BLACK LIVES MATTER, (last visited Nov. 11, 2021); About EJI, EQUAL JUST. INITIATIVE, (last visited Nov. 11, 2021); Who We Are, KNOW YOUR RTS. CAMP, (last visited Nov. 11, 2021); About NAACP, NAACP, (last visited Nov. 11, 2021).

[8] See About, BLACK LIVES MATTER, (last visited Aug. 14, 2020).

[9] See Jackie Menjivar, Black Lives Matter Protests: What’s Been Achieved So Far, DOSOMETHING.ORG (Aug. 13, 2020),

[10] See Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter for Nonprofits, NAT’L COUNCIL OF NONPROFITS, (last visited Nov. 11, 2021); Ben Hecht, Moving Beyond Diversity Toward Racial Equity, HARV. BUS. REV. (June 16, 2020),

[11]See Ruth’s Way at a Glance, RUTH’S WAY, (last visited Nov. 11, 2021).

[12] See id. 

[13] See TyLisa C. Johnson, Should Police Be In Pittsburgh Schools? Advocates’ Call for Removal Reignited In Wake of Floyd’s Death, PUBLICSOURCE (June 10, 2020), (“Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] has its own police force of about 20 officers, empowered to make arrests, though they aren’t authorized to carry firearms.”).


[15] See id. at 1–4.

[16] Id. at 3.

[17] Id.

[18] See id. at 8.

[19] Id. at 8–9.



[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] See SCHMIDT, supra note 2, at 544–45.

[25] See Counselors Not Cops: Ending the Regular Presence of Law Enforcement in Schools, DIGNITY IN SCHS., (last visited Nov. 11, 2021); Cops And No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students, ACLU, (last visited Nov. 11, 2021).

[26] See Counselors Not Copssupra note 25.

[27] See Huguley, supra note 14, at 8–9.

[28] Safe Schools Act, 24 P.S. § 13-1301-A, et seq.; see also Model Memorandum of Understanding from Pennsylvania Department of Education (Feb. 1, 2019),

[29] See Mary Niederberger, In Pittsburgh, Advocates Want Cops Out of Schools, PA. CAP.-STAR (June 24, 2020, 4:03 PM),

[30] See Memorandum of Understanding by and Between the City of Pittsburgh Dept. of Pub. Safety, Bureau of Police & Sch. Dist. of Pittsburgh (proposed May 2020),

[31] See id.

[32] See Sarah Schneider, Two PPS Board Directors Want to Reduce School Police and Rethink Safety, 90.5 WESA (June 15, 2020, 6:00 AM),; Sarah Schneider, City School Board Will Evaluate Superintendent’s Work Next Month, Some Want Him Out, 90.5 WESA (June 8, 2020, 4:29 AM),

[33] See Andrew Stockey, WTAE Listens: Being a Black Woman in Pittsburgh, PITTSBURGH’S ACTION 4 NEWS (July 28, 2020, 7:59 PM),