Keep your eyes on the prize.
It’s a well-known phrase highlighting determination and persistence, made popular through song in America’s Civil Rights Era. For many, including individuals with justice involvement, this phrase still resonates. Staying focused on goals in spite of dehumanizing circumstances is often a key factor to one’s likelihood of success. For Fortune Case Manager Nelson Rivera, it was essential, and is one of the first words of advice he’d give individuals currently experiencing incarceration. “Mind your business,” he says, “Stay away from the craziness, because you’re in a place where there’s a lot of negativity.”
After 10 years in prison, Nelson’s path to reentry may have been considerably different had he not followed this advice himself. But learning from past mistakes and committing to a resolve to thrive is exactly what led him to The Fortune Society. Through our Employment Services program, he participated in the available two-week Job Readiness workshop, and was then offered internships with our Transitional Work Program (TWP) and the Individualized Corrections Achievement Network (I-CAN). In a matter of months, he received opportunities to further his career, and is now working with Justice-Involved Supportive Housing (JISH), a subset of Fortune’s Scatter-Site Housing program. On the surface, this may seem like a quick trajectory but, for Nelson, it’s the result of focused transformation cultivated over time: “[Prior to incarceration,] I was not a good guy. [But], my life now is totally different– 360°.”
A key component of that transformation was taking advantage of any and all available resources. Indeed, Nelson is always learning: “…that’s the biggest thing– the resources.” Nelson is also a part of Fortune’s Advocacy Committee, helping to expand the presence of our David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy (DRCPP) at important coalition meetings and other gatherings. “I’m constantly going out to different events. I’m meeting congressmen, assemblymen…,” he notes. They’re different environments from those he used to frequent in his past, and Nelson wouldn’t have it any other way: “I say this all the time: I’m never going back. Everybody says, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t say that.’ No– I’m saying that. I’m never going back because I’m never going to put myself in the same positions that I put myself in before.”
With eyes focused forward, today Nelson has dedicated his life to helping other people with justice involvement see that change is possible. He’s on-call at any time of day to address his participants’ needs. With 15 individuals under his care, it is a full caseload, and the complexity of the role can be challenging at times. Still, Nelson’s heart is full of gratitude. Without hesitation, he knows that the path he is on is where he belongs. “These are my people,” he says, “This is where I come from, so guess what? Who better to help them than me?”
From mental health to substance use treatment, JISH provides the necessary resources that individuals with especially high likelihoods of recidivism need to be independent members of their community. Nelson meets in person with his roster of individuals, which includes participant Jose Jordan, at least four times a month, and is in direct contact with them eight times a month. Each individual is unique, but Nelson is there to make sure they overcome adversities on their paths to success: “We don’t give up on them,” he says, “And that’s the main thing. The job is never to give up.”
Similarly, Nelson is not giving up on himself either. The world is promising for him now. Equipped with a new perspective, he wants to see more of it: “I’ve done a lot of things in my life and I’ve travelled a lot of places… but I’ve never gotten to enjoy it. Now I’m enjoying every little bit.”
*Article by David Leon Morgan