We the People is a blog series that features the stories of members, supporters, volunteers, and allies of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota. Together we are accomplishing critical work in our state to protect and advance civil liberties across the Midwest and beyond.
As the ACLU of South Dakota’s advocacy manager, Jett Jonelis oversees the organization’s legislative, public education and advocacy efforts and is responsible for developing issue campaigns to advance civil liberties and civil rights in South Dakota. While Jett is new to the ACLU and to South Dakota, they’re no stranger to making change. They're particularly passionate about criminal justice reform and helping people realize their potential as activists. “It is a lifelong commitment of mine to help others know that they can make a difference and to collaboratively build community power,” they said.
Name: Jett Jonelis
Hometown: New Haven, Conn.
When did you first hear about the ACLU of South Dakota?
I have always been passionate about the ACLU’s work, so I would regularly look for career opportunities nationwide. When I saw the listing for this position, I started looking into the ACLU of South Dakota specifically. I was truly blown away by their work to fight for the civil rights of all South Dakotans and center the voices of marginalized people across the state.
What made you want to apply for the advocacy manager position in South Dakota?
Sometimes thinking about the historical and current oppression of marginalized people in this country can feel devastating and even paralyzing for me. The thing that has always pulled me out of those feelings and spurred me to action is seeing communities come together to take care of one another and to fight against oppression in all its forms. This position is a dream for me because I get to contribute to pulling others out of those feelings in the same way. It is a lifelong commitment of mine to help others know that they can make a difference and to collaboratively build community power.
Which of the ACLU’s issue areas are you particularly passionate about and why?
I am particularly passionate about criminal justice reform. In its current form, our criminal legal system is ineffective at protecting public safety, rehabilitating justice-involved people, or creating mechanisms for true accountability. At the same time, it is extraordinarily effective at producing cycles of violence that threaten public safety, traumatizing justice-involved people and their families, and upholding white supremacy. We need to radically transform how we conceptualize and pursue justice and public safety in this country so that we can address the root causes of crime and create communities that are actually safe for everyone.
What is your favorite way to get involved in your community?
I really love supporting local art in all its forms from drag to spoken word to murals to music and everything in-between. I love supporting people’s creative expression and making people feel seen.
South Dakota is no stranger to anti-LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit legislation and rhetoric that feeds into our mass incarceration crisis. How do you suggest people fight back against things they disagree with while remaining socially distant?
There are tons of ways to use your voice in a socially distant way. It just depends on how you want to engage. There are so many different lanes you can take in advocacy so take the one that speaks the most to you because that is how you will be most effective and have the best chance of staying engaged in the long term. Do you want to educate people about an issue? Create social media graphics or host online learning events. Do you want to mobilize people? Join a text/phone bank. Do you want to educate yourself? Start a digital book club and learning group. Do you want to provide material support for people affected by the issue you are passionate about? Start an online fundraising campaign and gather resources. Do you want to start conversations that create awareness? Create art that speaks to your fight. Do you want to provide emotional support and build community? Host an online open mic or community conversation. These are just a few examples. No matter how you show up, you will be able to make a difference as long as you do show up. Join together with people and organizations that are fighting your same fight and always follow the lead of those who are directly affected by the issues you are passionate about.
You moved across the country for this opportunity. What are you looking forward to checking out in the Midwest outside of work?
I have always been fascinated with caves and different rock formations ever since I was a little kid so I am very excited to explore some of the national parks in the region.