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.
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:
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:
Read more from the 2017 volume of Voices of Fortune here.
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.
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.
By allowing others to experience their lives, through performance art and direct conversation, youth leaders created empathy and inspired change.
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.
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.”
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 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:
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.
*Article by Carmen Rojas