Our History

Grassroots Leadership founder Si Kahn got his start as a young activist and organizer in the Southern Civil Rights Movement as a member of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Si went on to found Grassroots Leadership in 1980 as a resource and training center for social justice organization building. Originally based in North Carolina, Grassroots Leadership worked throughout the South to help build progressive, multi-racial organizations to both build power and create just organizations. Grassroots Leadership was one of the few organizations in the 1980s and 1990s to articulate in the board bylaws that no less than half of board would be women, no less than half would be People of Color. 

In the 1990’s Grassroots Leadership spearheaded the Community Assets Campaign looking at the privatization of public resources as one of the phenomena that was rolling back many of the gains that the civil rights and labor movements had made in the 1960s and 1970s. The campaign initially focused on four forms of privatization — education, healthcare, water & utilities, and prisons. Recognizing the rise of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on African American communities, the campaign ultimately shifted to hone in on the private, for-profit prison industry and the fight against corporations profiting from the imprisonment of human beings.

The first private prison in the U.S. was an immigrant detention center in Houston operated by the Corrections Corporation of America. The Houston Processing Center was built from the remains of an abandoned motel. From this inauspicious start, private prisons would go on to be a multi-billion dollar industry with large corporations vying for contracts to lock up people at the federal, state and local levels. Federal contracts for “civil” immigrant detention remain the cash cow of the prison industrial complex. But these companies and others continue to make inroads into state prisons, family detention, and an expanding array “services” for surveillance and control of human beings.

Today, Grassroots Leadership is a nationally recognized civil and human rights organization based in Austin, Texas fighting to end prison profiteering and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.