COVID-19 swept through Brooklyn’s business community like a powerful tornado last year – demolishing multitudes of small businesses that entrepreneurs worked hard for years to build.

The Bed-Stuy Gateway BID knows first-hand the trauma that the pandemic caused in Brooklyn’s commercial corridors.

“It’s been a real challenge. The pandemic forced far too many merchants and small businesses in our community to permanently close their doors for good,” the BID’s Interim Executive Director Lynette Battle said. “Fortunately, those shop owners and entrepreneurs who pivoted to survive the storm will have a fighting chance to fully recover as economic conditions improve.”

Several members of BKLYN Commons, central Brooklyn’s premier co-working space, strategically shifted with the powerful winds positioning their brand to weather the storm and thrive.

BKLYN Commons is home to more than 300 indoor storefront businesses owned and operated by entrepreneurs, creators, change-makers, and forward-thinking innovators. 

They’ve formed a tight-knit community to network and collaborate with each other from BKLYN Commons’ two locations: Bushwick/Bed-Stuy and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.

Over the next three weeks, Lindy Hale, content writer for BKLYN Commons in partnership with BK Reader will share members’ survival stories in a series of articles that we’ve collectively named Straight Out of COVID.

It will inspire struggling entrepreneurs, as well as share ideas about how other small businesses, nonprofits and solopreneurs can reinvent themselves.

“We all have a story. This series is focused on sharing the journeys of local small businesses, nonprofits, and solopreneurs as they’ve pivoted to reinvent themselves and their brands amidst the global pandemic,” the series author Lindy Hale said.

She hopes that entrepreneurs and business owners alike, will be able to envision themselves in these stories to gain inspiration and insight to keep moving forward, to keep scaling through this time of crisis. 

Starting on March 16, BK Reader will post two articles per week, every Tuesday and Thursday, in the Local Voices section.

In today’s post, we share the story of CNHJH – The Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing. The social justice organization has a long history of adapting to change. That experience helped Deputy Director Kyung-Ji Rhee to navigate the organization’s most recent pivot at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


By: Lindy Hale
Co-Director Kyung-Ji “KJ” Rhee. Photo: Supplied.

Transformation is nothing new for the Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing (CNHJH), a Bed-Stuy organization that’s shifting the paradigm and practice of public safety and accountability from criminal justice to human justice.

In 2001, the late Eddie Ellis helped convene formerly incarcerated leaders to articulate a new vision of criminal justice based on personal and professional experience. 

Today, the organization is known as Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing (CNHJH). CNHJH is the first and only autonomous and self-reliant research, policy, advocacy, service, and training institution designed and developed by formerly incarcerated professionals and staffed by people directly impacted by the legacy of criminalization. 

Located in BKLYN Commons Bushwick/Bed-Stuy Location, CNHJH is spearheaded by Co-directors, Chino Hardin, a trans Black/Native man, and Kyung-Ji Rhee, a cis-gendered Asian woman.

We sat down with Rhee, who has been nationally recognized for her expertise in campaign strategy development, youth justice advocacy, and dynamic training design, to discuss CNHJH’s most recent pivot—one that unexpectedly took place at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

You became a member of BKLYN Commons in July 2020. Why did CNHJH relocate to a coworking space during this challenging time?

The sale of the building we had rented since 2011 closed in the middle of the COVID pandemic. Though we were invited to stay in our space for the remainder of the year, we opted to pivot and began to embody our rhetoric, not as some lofty dream, but in the now. 

The loss of our long-term space challenged us to focus on buying our own building so that we never had to be relocated again. Our goal is to construct a permanent home as a Human Justice Hub—a place with the tools, resources and creativity to not only resist, fight, and advocate, but also to heal, dream, and build. Soon, we’ll be launching a capital campaign to fund this space. Thankfully, BKLYN Commons allowed us to have a comfortable landing place in the meantime. 

At an extra-large scale, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating the exact population CNHJH works to empower. What impacts have CNHJH been able to make in the community over the past year? 

There have been a range of impacts because everyone’s situation is vastly different. CNHJH began giving out weekly stipends to members of the community at the beginning of the pandemic. Our first order of business was to get people’s phones turned on. However, we realized that monthly payments help people a lot more than weekly stipends. With monthly payments, individuals gained the ability to go to the grocery store and buy in bulk instead of making multiple smaller trips, reducing their exposure to COVID-19. So, we pivoted our program. 

Now, CNHJH assists 10 individuals and families with a monthly paycheck which guarantees income.  This program has helped our organization grow emotionally and politically. We believe that relationships are the foundation of everything and this monthly payment provides human reprieve, restored dignity, and a sense of support which strengthens CNHJH’s bond with the individuals the money goes to. At the end of the day, humans want to take care of other humans. People are supporting their own villages and monetary support helps to maintain those villages, especially during the pandemic.

How has being a member of BKLYN Commons allowed you to concentrate on programs such as guaranteeing income for families?

BKLYN Commons feels at home because, like CNHJH, it’s people and community centered. Our team felt that as soon as we walked in the front doors of the Bushwick coworking space. CNHJH is an open-door organization, meaning that our members can walk in for assistance whenever they need it. We needed to find a workspace where our members were comfortable and welcomed to come and go as they please.

Since BKLYN Commons is a space where everyone is similarly situated, you gain an immediate sense of collectiveness because everyone is sharing space. Plus, the flexibility and 24/7 access are unbeatable. We have more bandwidth to concentrate on assisting the communities we empower because BKLYN Commons empowers us as an organization.


“Oppression keeps us from exploring ourselves and seeing ourselves for who we really are. CNHJH provides the tools, the safe space, the brave space, the new space, so that we, as humans, can explore ourselves freely and continue to grow from within.” – Kyung-Ji Rhee

CNHJH continues to advocate for formerly incarcerated people through programming related and unrelated to COVID-19. The organization’s NuLegacy program aims to connect formerly incarcerated people to the land in order to disrupt cycles of violence, fear, and trauma caused by the industrial prison complex. For more information on NuLegacy visit: and 

CNHJH also offers Monthly Village Circles that are open to the larger community. Email to get involved.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of BK Reader.


Your contribution is appreciated.

Make a Donation

BK Reader is brought to you for free daily. Please consider supporting independent local news by making a donation here. Whether it is $1 or $100, no donation is too big or too small!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *