Initiating Change: How William Became a Leader

Initiating Change: How William Became a Leader

12/12/2019

When William Whitaker first came to The Fortune Society in 1990, he was reluctant. He was under a mandate to complete Fortune’s substance use program, and after 22 years in prison, just wanted to focus on taking care of his daughter and finding a job.

While in the waiting area, however, William overheard something that changed his mind—most Fortune staff were formerly incarcerated. He soon realized he had found the right place.

“Fortune gave me new coping skills, a toolbox, and I've held onto them forever,” he says.

After William completed a six-month substance use program at Fortune, he became a volunteer. He went on to work at Fortune for two years, first as Chief Librarian and then as an HIV/AIDS Case Manager. He also became involved in advocacy, primarily as Senior Outreach Coordinator.

William’s experience at Fortune prepared him for the real world by encouraging him to stay sober and giving him transferrable skills to build a career—skills that the environment he grew up in was not conducive to cultivating.

William grew up in Brooklyn, surrounded by people who engaged in drug-related criminal activity. Considering these circumstances, it was unsurprising that he became involved with the justice system.

“I was a follower the first years of my life and that's what got me in trouble,” he says.

Today, William is a leader. After working at Fortune, he went on to build an impactful career in government, holding several roles with influence on criminal justice reform in NYC. For decades, William has brought crucial perspective as someone with lived experience into his work.

In 1992, he became Deputy Director of Outreach Services at Rikers Island, educating incarcerated people about reentry services and discharge plans. He went on to work as Senior Liaison for the Department of Homeless Services, as well as the African American Community Liaison to former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. While there, William pushed for Brooklyn Borough Hall to have a reentry advocate, and it is now the standard for the office.

William is currently the Lead Advisor for Reentry Services at the NYC Commission on Human Rights, where he educates incarcerated people about their protections under citywide human rights law—especially employment discrimination under Ban the Box, a law that prohibits employers from asking about criminal records early in the hiring process.

Today, when William works with incarcerated people, they are sometimes skeptical of him. They see a man in a suit who works for the government—someone who seems so different from themselves.

“Then I tell them my story and the room goes completely quiet, because part of my story is that I grew up on Rikers Island,” he says. “I started at 16. No child should start at 16 at Rikers Island. And I'd give them the ugly details.”

Based on his own experiences, William gives them advice—make the effort to change and learn to ask for help.

“People gave me opportunities because I put the footwork in,” William says. “If you do the work, the opportunity happens.”

This sentiment lies at the core of Fortune’s mission—giving justice involved people endless chances in a welcoming environment, while understanding that they are responsible for their own change.

This non-judgmental atmosphere is the same one that William walked into 29 years ago when he first came to Fortune—and he still comes back to visit.

“The great thing about coming back here,” he says, “is the door's always open.”

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