Justice-Involved Women Using Their Voices to Shape Criminal Justice Reform

Posted on June 14, 2019 | Vivian D. Nixon, College & Community Fellowship

WISH trainees listening to each other’s oral advocacy narratives.

Every few weeks, the Weissberg Foundation features a story from one of our Equitable Justice grantee partners to shine a light on their critical work. Learn more about these powerful organizations by visiting their websites.

College & Community Fellowship (CCF) was the first organization in the country working at the intersection of criminal justice and higher education for women. The mission of CCF is to enable women with criminal convictions to earn their college degrees so that they, their families, and their communities can thrive. We advocate for equity and opportunity for the communities we serve. As one CCF graduate so eloquently stated, “When you are released from prison, you have a sense of loss and think you have to fix everything right away. CCF helps you take one step at a time and to create new purpose in life. They inspire you to use incarceration as a stepping stone, not as a weight on your ankle.”

CCF was founded in 2000 by Barbara Martinsons, a sociology professor at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Barbara realized that many of her students didn’t have the resources or support to complete their degrees post-release, so she created CCF as a way to mentor women with criminal justice histories working toward their degrees in the community. Since its inception, CCF students have earned 359 degrees (including a PhD, a JD, and an MBA), with cohort graduation rates up to 93%, and a 19-year recidivism rate under 6% (compared to 40% for New York State over three years). For these women, earning a college degree is the surest and most cost-effective means of escaping the cycles of crime and poverty.

CCF aligns its work along three mutually reinforcing programming tracks: Direct Services, Technical Assistance, and Policy and Advocacy. Programs in our Direct Services track directly support the college and career aspirations of CCF’s students across the New York City metropolitan area. Programming in the other two tracks is nationwide in scope and seeks to advance equity and opportunity for the 70 million Americans with criminal justice histories, their families, and their communities.

    1) Direct Services provides higher-education and career-development supports such as individual counseling and mentoring, financial aid opportunities, and referrals to quality service providers for help with healthcare, mental health and legal needs;

    2) Technical Assistance trains education, direct service, and human resource professionals nationwide in evidence-based and best practices to support the diverse justice-involved populations they work with; and

    3) Policy and Advocacy educates both legislative stakeholders and the public at the local, state, and Federal levels and work to advance equity and increase access to education for currently and formerly incarcerated students.

In the last few years, the criminal justice reform movement has made great strides in achieving legislative change, effectively countering discrimination against people with criminal justice involvement, and increasing public awareness of the profound and wide-reaching consequences of mass incarceration. This progress is due in no small part to the active engagement and advocacy of formerly incarcerated people and others directly impacted by the criminal justice system. College & Community Fellowship stands firm in our belief that these individuals should be at the forefront of criminal justice reform efforts.

To prepare women to advocate for and advance these reform efforts, CCF created Women Influencing Systems & History (WISH) in 2018 to train directly-impacted women in issues-based education and storytelling skills to promote meaningful self-advocacy. WISH participants gain skills in understanding the policy process, reading and interpreting policy, understanding the different parts of social justice campaigns, and learning how to tell their stories to be better advocates for the causes that are important to them. With support from the Weissberg Foundation CCF has been successful in creating a growing pool of directly impacted women who can serve as advocates across criminal justice reform and other social justice campaigns linked to criminal justice reform.

“WISH has provided me with a new confidence,” states WISH alumna Lisa. “I am now more confident to use my position and resources to enact stronger mobilization for change. Further, I now know more than ever that my voice is not just my voice but the voice of many.”

For more specific information on WISH please go to our website: collegeandcommunity.org/wish or contact Jordyn Rosenthal at jrosenthal@collegeandcommunity.org

Vivian D. Nixon is Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), the nation’s first reentry organization to help previously incarcerated women earn a college degree, which is now widely recognized as the most cost-effective means of reducing recidivism and achieving and sustaining socioeconomic stability. As a formerly incarcerated woman and CCF program graduate, Ms. Nixon is uniquely positioned to lead the movement to ensure that justice-involved women and their families have a better future. She is a Columbia University Community Scholar and a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, the Soros Justice Fellowship, and the Petra Foundation Fellowship, and appeared on New York Nonprofit Media’s 2018 “50 Over 50” list. She is the Board Chair of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit that empowers those most affected by incarceration to drive policy reform.

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