While serving time in a prison in New York, I worked as a law clerk and in this role, I witnessed the women around me facing a wide array of injustices. As a law clerk, I helped them with tasks such as obtaining work releases, parole appeals, and filing grievances against attorneys who wrote them insufficient appeals. The criminal justice system had victimized many of these women, some of whom could not speak English and lacked basic support from their families and the men in their lives. I also met women who were wrongfully imprisoned but had difficulty articulating their situations and speaking up for the rights they deserved while incarcerated.
Advocating for our rights as incarcerated women inspired me to develop important skills that I used as a Cold Caller, Account Manager, and Court Writer at The Fortune Society. I continue to use these skills today as a Grant Coordinator/Writer in the Development Department at Fortune.
One right that I helped advocate for as a law clerk was the provision of adequate living conditions in prison. The physical environment in prison was abysmal and our showers were filled with black mold. This became a serious health hazard and we would continuously request to have the showers cleaned. However, the prison officials ignored our repeated requests until I wrote directly to the commissioner himself. After receiving my written request, the showers were cleaned the following week.
As a direct result of this experience, I realized that strong writing skills were a critical tool of persuasion and had the power to promote justice and advocate for the rights of others. Since 2011, I’ve continued to use these skills to publicize Fortune’s mission, expand our services, and ensure that the criminal justice system treats our participants fairly.
Over the past few years, I have held various positions at Fortune that have allowed me to become familiar with the challenges our participants face and the funding we need for programs to address these obstacles. These diverse experiences gave me the knowledge and expertise that I currently use for my work in the Development Department.
My journey to Fortune started in 2011 at a job fair in New York City. At the job fair, I met Denise Dalton, who was Fortune’s former Director of Human Resources. We discussed my prior experience as a law clerk and my interest in legal studies, and she agreed to interview me.
I soon became a Cold Caller for Employment Services at Fortune. This involved reaching out to companies, pitching Fortune’s mission and forging relationships with these businesses with the hopes they would hire our participants. It was fulfilling to know that I was able to help our participants begin their transitions into the community by securing employment for them.
I was then promoted to an Account Manager and became responsible for placing participants directly into jobs. Account Management was challenging work and helped me develop outreach skills that I now use in my work in the Development Department. A large part of my work as an Account Manager involved conducting case management sessions with participants to determine what kind of work they were eligible for and preparing them for interviews and for entry into the workplace. Another important part of my job as an Account Manager was to build relationships with employers. In order to accomplish this, I would conduct cold calling, as well as travel door-to-door to persuade employers to hire Fortune participants. In addition, once one of these companies hired a participant, I would make sure these employers were satisfied with the employee’s performance.
After nine months with Employment Services, I decided that I wanted to work directly with our young men and women in the Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) unit. Having lived independently on the streets since the age of 16, I understood the struggles of being young, unemployed, and homeless and I felt that I could use this experience to help those enrolled in the ATI program. I applied to be a Court Writer in the ATI program and held this position for three-and-a-half years.
As a Court Writer, it was my responsibility to gather information on participants and write reports with the goal of persuading court officials to view them with more sympathy. Through my court reports, I wanted judges to understand that these young people became entangled in the criminal justice system because of the harmful environment they grew up in and not because they were inherently bad people. I hoped to show the Court that ATI youth, with Fortune’s support, could grow as contributing members of their communities. In the past, many judges have praised Fortune’s court reports for their quality and thoroughness. We take great pride in the ability of our Court Writers to surpass expectations in order to ensure that the criminal justice system treats our participants fairly.
As a Court Writer, I was able to draw upon my own criminal justice experience to answer questions the youth had concerning the criminal justice system. I was always available to listen to their problems and to provide them with encouragement. However, I also knew when they needed for me to be honest and tell them truths that might be difficult to accept. I identified with their struggles and wanted them to understand that they had already experienced the hardest parts of their lives while living in the streets. I reminded them that Fortune was here to help them turn the skills they acquired in the streets into positive, professional ones which could assist them in finding gainful employment. Many of the youth I worked with during this time return to visit and thank me which reinforces to me the importance of Fortune’s work.
My next assignment at Fortune brought me to the Development Department. This position enabled me to learn about nonprofit management and sustainability, including how nonprofits raise funds for programs. A large part of my current work involves acquiring the funds to expand Fortune’s services through grant writing. Most recently, I’ve been conducting outreach to develop programs for food security, which is shockingly low in impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods around the city. According to Map the Meal Gap, New York has a food insecurity rate of 13.5%.
In order to provide our participants and the West Harlem community with improved food security, we are working to expand Fortune’s food and nutrition programs around the city. We recently acquired funding that allows us to provide $25 vouchers to those who participate in our cooking demonstrations and nutritional workshops. Using these vouchers, people can purchase fresh foods from certain supermarkets, farmers markets and several Community Supported Agricultures (CSAs) around the city.
In addition, I recently worked on applying for a government grant that would increase Fortune’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outreach. Fortune received letters of support from agencies such as NYCHA, which would allow us to travel to their locations in underserved communities in order to set up outreach booths for nutrition education workshops and SNAP informational materials.
I will also be working on applying for a foundation grant that would allow Fortune participants and staff to grow herbs and produce sofrito to sell, using The Castle’s Rooftop Sky garden and space rented from the Queens Economic Development Corporation. Fortune has also applied for a grant to build more vertical gardens to mass produce the sofrito. The sofrito is set to be licensed by midsummer, and we will then market and brand the product.
This sofrito business would benefit both Fortune participants and the community at large. Our sofrito will be organic and have lower salt content than sofrito that community members purchase at stores. In addition, we plan to directly hire Fortune participants to produce, market, and sell the sofrito, allowing them to gain employment as well as entrepreneurship and marketing skills to help rebuild their lives.
Working with Fortune over the past four and a half years has sparked my interest in starting my own nonprofit. I believe that targeting specific groups within the criminal justice involved population through nonprofit work will increase their chances of success by eliminating distractions and obstacles. With this in mind, I hope to start an ATI program dedicated to providing education and employment services to young men between the ages of 16 and 24. Eventually, I want to start a similar organization for young women. I am currently pursuing my Master’s Degree in Public Policy & Administration, with a focus on Urban Affairs to learn more about resource development, strategic planning, grant writing, philanthropy, and nonprofit management.
It is challenging for nonprofits such as Fortune to obtain sufficient funding and resources for its programs. However, I am extremely proud to be a part of the team that is working towards expanding Fortune’s services in order to meet our participants’ needs. I believe that Fortune will continue to grow and go above and beyond in its mission of rebuilding lives.
*Written by Kandra Clark, Grant Associate at The Fortune Society