Giving Back and Showing Up: How ATI Leaders Are Changing Communities

Giving Back and Showing Up: How ATI Leaders Are Changing Communities

08/05/2020

The Fortune Society’s Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) Leadership Team embodies the idea that change happens when directly impacted community members have a role in affecting it. Launched in the spring of 2018, the participant-led initiative cultivates the ingenuity, passion and leadership of individuals enrolled in the agency’s ATI program, which for nearly 30 years has been diverting individuals from incarceration and providing alternative opportunities to build and repair their lives.

Team members meet weekly (now virtually) to share and learn, and brainstorm new ways to inform and improve Fortune’s programming. It is directly from their suggestions that the agency now offers a music production and recording workshop. After expressing an urgency to “give back” and “do more” for their communities, the Team also initiated the launch of Community Benefit Projects (CBPs), which are entirely conceived and executed by the Leaders. The impact is multifold; Leadership Team Members restore and strengthen positive relationships with their communities, and give back through service while simultaneously building job readiness and a foundation for resilience. Community Benefit Projects are an opportunity for the Team to dream bigger for themselves and their neighborhoods, to transform their lived experience into strength, and to continue to orient themselves as emerging leaders.

Before COVID-19, the ATI Leadership Team was at the helm of several successful CBP initiatives such as organizing a winter coat drive, creating a mindfulness room at PS/IS 155 in Brownsville, Brooklyn for K-3 through 8th grade students and their families, and spearheading a renewal project at a community center in East New York to help create a place for recreation and learning for neighborhood youth.

ATI Leadership Team Members are the future. They are credible messengers and true changemakers. In many ways, they are like family to each other, with their bond extending well-beyond agency walls.

Learn more about three of the ATI Leaders—Jamile, Jonathan, and Doris— and how, despite the pandemic, they have continued to show up in new ways for each other, their families and their communities.

JAMILE

For Jamile, helping others is an inherent part of life, which her nine months on ATI Leadership have further cultivated. Today and throughout COVID-19, she continues to give to the community as a mother, sister, and neighbor.

Jamile joined ATI leadership in October 2019 out of a desire to deepen her involvement with Fortune. Since then, she has participated in several Community Benefit Projects such as distributing coats to people experiencing homelessness and volunteering at a soup kitchen in Coney Island. Her time on the Leadership Team has helped her build empathy for people leading different lives from her own.

"I love being part of the ATI leadership team…[and] being around my peers from Fortune,” she said. “I love learning about other people and learning about the things going on outside of my world.”

Among ATI leadership members, Jamile is known as “the mom” of the group. She’s always checking in on other members, offering advice and reassurance during challenging moments.

Outside of mentoring and supporting her fellow ATI Leaders, Jamile is also heavily involved in her own community. During quarantine, she has been helping her neighbors by giving them food and PPE if they were unable to go outside. She has also been homeschooling her two children and young sister. She jokes that she’s taken on the role of “teacher, a janitor, a principal, a lunch lady…”

Although homeschooling can be difficult for parents, Jamile encourages them to be patient and use this time as an opportunity to empathize with teachers.

“We're seeing what teachers go through on a daily basis…” she said. “I think that this is a great experience in the sense of we get to know our children more. We get to spend more time with them, and we actually get to see what it is they're struggling with when they get to school.”

During COVID-19, Jamile continues to participate in ATI group sessions and weekly meetings, and is proud of all she has learned about herself and the community.

“[Through ATI] I've learned to appreciate life and my family and freedom,” she said.

JONATHAN

Jonathan understands that one conversation can make all the difference in someone’s life. During COVID-19, he has continued to show up as a leader by mentoring youth. He dedicates time to calling young people in his personal network and offering motivational words on staying out of the criminal justice system.

“[Some of the youth] are still into negative things and I try to tell them that it's better than that, that we could be doing more,” he said. “I kind of facilitate with them.”

In his conversations, he encourages younger community members to find a job, build credit, and become more independent.

“You gotta start now, you gotta build now,” Jonathan tells them. “It’s never too late. You don’t want it to be too late.”

Although these conversations can be difficult, Jonathan hopes that, as someone who can empathize with the situations of some of the youth he speaks with, his words could impact the trajectories of their lives.

As a proud father, Jonathan is also profoundly shaping the life of his four-year-old daughter, whom he is also homeschooling and spends a lot of quality time with.

Jonathan first joined the ATI Leadership Team in early 2019 out of a desire to help the community, grow professionally, and find clarity in life. As part of Leadership, he has also participated in Community Benefit Project projects such collaborating with The Sleeping Bag Project to distribute sleeping bags, toiletries and information on available resources to homeless New Yorkers. It was a decision that changed his life, thanks to the positive people he found on Leadership who continue to motivate him every day.

“The Leadership [Team] shows me that I have hope in making a better future for myself,” he said.

Jonathan is proud of the steps he’s taken to build that future. It’s been over a year since he last engaged in substance use, and he says he has been staying on the right path and is focused on supporting his family.

“[ATI Leadership] means a lot because I’m around positive people…” said Jonathan. “Everyone has a different perspective on things. It’s interesting to hear other people’s stories, and you can relate to some of the things they’ve been through. We’re just here to help each other build.”

DORIS

When Doris first joined ATI Leadership Team in December 2019, she was initially nervous. She remembers her first in-person meeting held in Fortune’s large conference room, where she was introduced to the professionalism that is a core part of ATI leadership.

But months later, Doris considers the Team to be a family. She has many anecdotes about how she and her fellow Leaders have gone above and beyond to support each other.

“We’re family,” she said. “If any of us needs anything, we’re there for each other.”

Doris has dedicated much of her skills and leadership towards specifically helping the Fortune community. Today, she works with the Facilities Team at the Castle, Fortune’s supportive housing unit in West Harlem. Despite the long commute, she proudly shows up to help make essential repairs, keep the space clean, and ensure that residents stay safe during COVID-19. Prior to that, she interned with Fortune’s peer recovery center, the NEST, and with Fortune’s incident Review Committee.

Doris also participated in several Community Benefit Projects, and discovered that she is especially passionate about helping people experiencing homelessness, having experienced it herself as a teenager.

“[ATI Leadership Team] has shown me that there are other people out there with worse problems than we have…It’s given me a different aspect of the world,” she said.

As Doris continues finding new opportunities to give back, she is proud of how she uses her versatile skills to help the community, even while going through her own challenges in life.

“I’m so proud that I was able to get the opportunity to work in other fields because of ATI Leadership. It opened a lot of doors for me,” she said. “I was able to help a lot of [other] people while going through my own trials and tribulations.”

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