I started working at The Fortune Society out of the desire to continue my fulfilling career in Human Services and become involved with Case Management. As a Transitional Specialist for our Drop-In Center, I travel to Rikers Island twice a week to help incarcerated people living with HIV and AIDS prepare for release. I work to ease their transitions into the community by reconnecting them with necessities such as medical care, transportation, housing, and entitlements.
While this work is deeply meaningful, Fortune changed my life in an unexpected way outside of my job function as a Transitional Specialist: it led me to develop a talent for theatre and rediscover my passion for the arts. By performing with Fortune’s veterans acting troupe in collaboration with Theater of the Oppressed (TONYC), I learned about the value of theatre in achieving reform and raising awareness.
TONYC is an organization that forms acting troupes with community members facing social, economic, health, and human rights issues around NYC. Through partnerships with city agencies and social service organizations such as Fortune, TONYC works with the troupes to create and perform forum plays that incorporate audience participation to spark discussion and pave the way for concrete reform.
Fortune and TONYC collaborated to create a popular theatre troupe as part of our Reentry Veterans Initiative with the hope of drawing attention to the numerous problems that justice involved veterans face. Fortune’s Reentry Veteran’s Initiative began in mid-2014 to develop a deeper understanding of the unique needs of veterans with criminal justice involvement, to expand access to essential services, and to increase awareness of the issues impacting these unique veterans. Together, our organizations created a forum play entitled: Honorable Discharge: We Got Dissed, addressing the neglect, homelessness, and joblessness faced by the NYC veteran community based on the real-life experiences of the actors.
Throughout the year, I’ve performed with our acting troupe three times at The New School, the Brooklyn Museum, and Columbia University. These performances are among the most memorable and meaningful experiences I will ever have.
In May, I performed in Honorable Discharge: We Got Dissed, which addressed the neglect, homelessness, and joblessness faced by the NYC veteran community. I also played a Ringmaster in The Housing Circus, which showed the struggles of a formerly incarcerated veteran as he tried to obtain a housing subsidy. In addition, at the annual Legislative Theatre Festival, I discussed issues such as Ban the Box, providing LGBTQ youth with more access to housing, and improving training for service providers who work with veterans.
During the plays, performers encouraged audience participation by asking them to share relatable experiences and propose solutions to the real problems portrayed on stage. The passionate discussions we sparked among audience members was invigorating and demonstrated how the arts can be a medium for real change.
One particularly inspiring audience suggestion occurred during a performance in which I played a Housing Specialist who was condescending and disrespectful towards justice involved people seeking homes. He felt that justice involved people should not be disrespected because of their criminal records and suggested that they could fight this discrimination by using the power of the people to unite and refuse the homes offered to them. There were also legislators and policymakers present who listened carefully to audience members’ proposed solutions.
The feedback we received for our performances was overwhelmingly positive. Many audience members said our performances enlightened them to the problems facing justice involved veterans. As our performances showed, using art to convey important messages allows them to be better understood by audiences. I hope that our performances will help lead to increased access to housing for veterans in NYC— it is especially unfair that they face housing discrimination after they sacrificed so much to serve our country.
In addition to broadening audiences’ understanding of these issues and encouraging reform, our collaboration with TONYC was immensely therapeutic to the justice involved veterans who participated. We were able to grow and open up by expressing their struggles and emotions through art. This personal growth will play an important role in helping us rebuild their lives.
The extensive availability of the arts at Fortune makes us a unique community for justice involved people. Through opportunities such as our Creative Arts program and theatre troupe, clients and staff can express their feelings about the struggles of justice involved people through multiple avenues. I plan to continue performing with our acting troupe and use my new passion for theatre to incite real change for justice involved veterans.