Four Ways Fortune Is Using Art to Activate Social Change

Four Ways Fortune Is Using Art to Activate Social Change


Have you ever been told to put yourself in someone else’s shoes?

The method leads one to consider perspectives beyond one’s own and, in doing so, builds understanding and empathy for the realities faced by others. This is what makes theater and the arts such a powerful tool for social change.

Social scientists have found that selfless acts, including donations and support for social causes, increase when one is emotionally engaged. The very existence of The Fortune Society is evidence of this fact: Fortune in Men’s Eyes, a harrowing play about incarceration, inspired our founder, David Rothenberg, to dedicate his life to reforming the justice system.

Fifty years later, theater and the arts continue to be a powerful force at Fortune. Today, our Creative Arts program works to inspire participants to transform their lives and become advocates for change. And we’re succeeding.

1. Voices of Fortune

Described as a “publication rooted in the belief that each person’s experience is a unique reservoir for strength and power,” our annual volume of artwork and poetry encourages readers to share the perspectives of those who have direct involvement with the justice system. It also gives the publication authors a platform for self-expression.

Through creative writing and visual art, authors and artists from our Prepare for Release (I-CAN) and Creative Arts programs—many of whom are currently incarcerated—process and depict their own realities, while sharing and imagining new futures. Their creative work often looks to political leaders and social movements for strength and guidance on how to advocate for their own lives:

Artwork from the Voices of Fortune publication by The Fortune Society

“Dr. King, you were a man with courage / a man with a dream / that the People unite, / that we become a team. / And although you’re not with us / we will fulfill your plan… / For we as a people / will get to the promise land.” – from King by Darryl S.


Other works focus on the struggles, pain, and regret experienced as result of the criminal justice system, giving voice to those who are often silenced:

“Don’t plea bargain with the Devil. / The Devil is the most beautiful image you’ve ever seen / – money, pretty car, pretty female or real good get-paid scheme / The deals and relationships can cost you dearly / – prison, death, multiple jail bids and / a lifetime of darkness” – from Don’t Plea Bargain with the Devil by Hubert C.


Artwork from the Voices of Fortune publication by The Fortune Society
by Anthony S.


Read more from the 2017 volume of Voices of Fortune here.

2. Justice 4 All Summit

In 2017, our policy team hosted the Justice 4 All Summit, a youth-led conference empowering people in NYC to advocate for safer communities, police accountability, and transparency within the criminal justice system. Attended by over 100 youth leaders, advocates, community members, and funders, the summit used creative arts, theater, and storytelling to discuss racial inequality, discrimination, and police relations in communities of color, as well as actionable solutions.

Photo from the Justice 4 All Conference by The Fortune Society

Photo from the Justice 4 All Conference by The Fortune Society

At the summit, a performance of an original play, “Profiled and Exiled,” depicted the barriers that young people with justice histories face. Spoken word performances further expressed this viewpoint to the audience. These works were coupled with discussion sessions featuring youth advocates from a variety of organizations. In these talks, policymakers, elected officials, and other stakeholders were given insight into the struggles faced by young people in their community, and were spurred to take action.

In her speech at the event, NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said, “It’s crucial to hear from people directly affected by the criminal justice system and to include your voices in decision-making. It’s critical for our society to include the voices of young people in particular…Equity and justice belong to everybody.”


By allowing others to experience their lives, through performance art and direct conversation, youth leaders created empathy and inspired change.

3. Theater of the Oppressed – The Legislative Theater Festival

The Fortune Society, Theatre of the Oppressed

The Fortune Society - Theatre of the Oppressed

In 2016, the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy (DRCPP) partnered with Theater of the Oppressed NYC to organize and facilitate a troupe of Fortune participants and staff, mainly veterans with justice involvement. The play created by the group, “Honorable Discharge: We Got Dissed,” illustrated the barriers faced by persons who were formerly incarcerated and in search of housing and employment.

At the 2016 Legislative Theatre Festival, the play led the performers, local residents, and NYC Council Members into a collective conversation about the housing and employment discrimination faced by Fortune’s participants. The policymakers in the audience offered feedback in real time, and a proposal and voting process furthered the conversation for change.

Halimah, one of the actors within the troupe, wrote an account of the personal benefits of the experience.

As she writes, acting “was immensely therapeutic to the veterans with justice involvement who participated. We were able to grow and open up by expressing their struggles and emotions through art.” Another participant, a former Fortune participant named Jerry, spoke on this subject at a public rally on the steps of City Hall.


Jerry and Halimah, like many of our Creative Arts participants, found that creative expression added meaning and passion to their lives. As Halimah writes, “These [theater] performances are among the most memorable and meaningful experiences I will ever have.”

4. Harnessing the Healing Power of the Creative Arts at the Beyond the Bars Conference

Fortune recently presented a workshop at the 8th Annual Beyond the Bars Conference, a convention hosted by the Center for Justice at Columbia University. Entitled “Harnessing the Healing Power of the Creative Arts,” our Creative Arts educators spoke on our model and results, while Fortune participants were in attendance to showcase their work.

The Fortune Society at the 8th Annual Beyond the Bars Conference

The result was astounding. When audience members asked questions on the effectiveness of our program, our participants took the lead in responding. Their personal narratives captivated the audience and moved many to tears.

As one of our young participants noted:

“I begged to come to Fortune because of this arts program. It’s the reason I still come. The people sitting at that table never gave up on me, never told me I have a bad idea, and come to work excited to work with me everyday. That’s worth more than any Master’s Degree!”


These examples are just a glimpse of the many ways Fortune seeks to engage our participants in  creative expression. Learn more through our individual success stories, or see our performers in action at the upcoming annual Arts Festival.

Celebrate with us as we support our participants in being their own advocates for change.

Don’t miss stories like this—Subscribe to the Fortune Weekly today.

*Article by Carmen Rojas

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