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Bloomington Agencies Expand Services With Cannabis Tax Grants

A restorative justice dialog circle of people.
Project Oz
Project Oz restorative counselor Robert Harris in a pre-pandemic photo at NWHS engaged in a Restorative Circle to build a sense of community by responding to conflict through authentic dialogue and repairing harm.

Two Twin City nonprofit agencies will expand services in areas of high need after being awarded state grants funded by marijuana tax money.

Project Oz and Prairie State Legal Services will both get about $200,000 to focus on areas of Bloomington affected by chronic and historical disinvestment, though amounts of the grants might not be final.

Prairie State Director Adrian Barr said his organization will use the money to do outreach to African Americans who traditionally distrust the criminal legal system.

"They generalize those experience to encompass all issues regarding the law. And as a result, they see no difference between civil and criminal law. So, they are less likely to seek help from formal institutions like Prairie State Legal Services," said Barr.

Barr said sometimes that mistrust and reluctance means Prairie State learns about an issue too late to fix something -- an eviction for instance.

"Sometimes, they have great defenses to eviction like poor housing conditions. And so, we could have worked with them to rectify the poor housing conditions or avoid the eviction if they would have contacted us earlier," said Barr.

Prairie State plans to hire a non-lawyer to do community outreach and get people in the door earlier, said Barr, adding he hopes that person will be from the city's west side. The outreach person may embed at the Boys and Girls Club, but Barr said the employee also will form links with other west side organizations, such as the West Bloomington Revitalization Project and Western Avenue Community Center.

Project Oz

Project Oz will use its grant to put workers in two District 87 grade schools and Bloomington Junior High School to work on restorative justice and conflict resolution.

Project Oz Director Lisa Thompson said the agency will embed workers at Irving and Sheridan Elementary schools and BJHS to help children learn conflict resolution skills.

"What restorative schools is doing is giving everybody an opportunity to feel supported in the school and decrease violence while addressing conflict," said Thompson.

Thompson said offering the program at the grade schools and junior high level will solidify skills needed for adulthood. The program already is in place at Bloomington High, Normal Community and Normal Community West high schools. 

Thompson said Project Oz used to serve the junior high level, with funding through the United Way, but that revenue disappeared nearly a decade ago. She said it is important to teach those skills at the grade school level to give children an early start at mastering skills and practicing empathy.

She said the money will affect 2,000 District 87 students.

Thompson said the state's Restore, Reinvest, and Renew program, or R-3, will make a big difference.

"It is one of the biggest equity-driven grant programs in the state's history. There has just never been anything like it," she said.

The grants are for one year, but renewable for two more. In all, 81 not-for-profits received $31.5 million statewide to help fund legal services for low-income residents, youth development, violence prevention, and economic development in areas hit by the war on drugs; more than 400 agencies applied.

Thompson said she hopes as marijuana tax revenues grow, the grants will, too; 25% of cannabis tax money is supposed to go to build social equity.


Listen to Project Oz Executive Director Lisa Thompson talk with Charlie Schlenker about her agency's plans for the cannabis tax grant program money.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.