Channeling Struggles into Advocacy: Gina’s Story of Resiliency

Channeling Struggles into Advocacy: Gina’s Story of Resiliency

10/18/2019

When Gina Williams first walked through The Fortune Society’s doors in 2013, she was holding her daughter, London. Gina came here seeking employment because she wanted to ensure she could celebrate London’s first birthday. Recently, Gina publicized the harrowing story of her pregnancy while incarcerated by testifying before the NYC Planning Commission examining the plan to build community jails and close Rikers Island, which City Council recently approved in a historic vote.

“My life was traumatic at Rikers,” Gina said. “I fought every single day with the Correctional Officers there. They tried to break me. But I said I wasn't giving up...I had a voice, and it needed to be heard.”

It was two weeks upon intake at Rikers when Gina discovered she was pregnant. In her emotional testimony, she recalled experiencing nausea and a host of sicknesses associated with pregnancy, all while confined to a small cell shared with a stranger. Guards compounded her struggles as some denied her food and others forced her to undergo excessive, non-routine body cavity checks. Despite this, Gina found support from other incarcerated women—and ultimately, it was London who emboldened her with the strength to persevere.

“This child came in my life for a reason, and she has a purpose,” she told herself at the time. “We both have a purpose, and you know what? I'm willing to fulfill it because without struggle there is no progress.”

She was eventually transferred to Bedford Correctional Facility, where she found improved conditions and a more caring staff. Soon after giving birth at Bedford, she came to Fortune, eager for a new start. At Fortune, she participated in the Employment Services workshop, and joined the agency as an Employment Services Assistant, helping others pursue career goals. She went on to use her skills in our Individualized Corrections Achievement Network (I-CAN) program, until she was offered a role within the Finance Team as a Bookkeeper. She is an active member of Fortune’s Policy Center Collective—a staff of thirty working collaboratively to advocate for social justice reform. Her story and resiliency inspire staff, clients, and advocates alike.

“You have to go through a fiery furnace, but it's up to you to sit there and be able to persevere and get through it,” she said.

One of Gina’s closest friends and mentors at Fortune is Danielle Rosario, Policy Counsel at the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy. Danielle said, “being in Gina’s presence is more energizing than any cup of coffee on the market.”

"If she’s not making the people around her laugh hysterically, she’s engaging us in challenging debates…said Danielle. "The reality is that Gina, and every person with lived experience that affords me the privilege of sharing space to learn, is MY mentor.”

Today, Gina frequently brings London to work, proudly calling her a “Fortune baby.” As she and her daughter stroll through the halls of Fortune, the strong bond between them is evident in their warm laughter, tight embraces, and playful conversation. They walk into her office, where Eugenia’s motto is proudly showcased on the wall: “Nothing seems impossible until it’s done.”

Years ago, some believed closing Rikers to be an unattainable goal. But now, because of the brave advocacy and storytelling from advocates like Gina, Rikers is closing. Criminal justice reform once thought to be impossible is on the horizon.

The Fortune Society is a proud partner in the #CloseRikers campaign, which on October 17, successfully moved City Council to vote YES on the plan to shut down Rikers.

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