The Fortune Society: A Summer Well Spent

My internship this summer with The Fortune Society is one that has really opened my eyes.  When people think of those involved in the criminal justice system, individuals with Master’s degrees or those fueled by intrinsic motivation typically don’t come to mind.  Why not? This is because unfortunately as a society we’re taught that these people are somehow less “human” than we are and that they don’t deserve the same place in our society. One of the many things that my internship with The Fortune Society has taught me that these people have often experienced trauma, are in need of support and resources and are good people who are still trying and still hoping.

 

Me and some of the other interns/volunteers at a rally we attended on behalf of The Fortune Society.
Fellow interns/volunteers and me at a rally we attended on behalf of The Fortune Society.

While this internship has not solidified exactly which social justice issue I want to fight for within the criminal justice system,  it has reassured me that this is the field in which I want to work.  As had been my goal, I also learned about the criminal justice system and how it affects and individuals and family systems. Having the chance to see the effects this type of work can have on people is truly a remarkable and humbling. One moment that immediately comes to mind was how thankful a group of veterans were after we held a focus group to help improve policies that create reentry barriers for them.  This moment was such a fulfilling one because I didn’t realize how much of a toll veterans can face coming out of the criminal justice system until I had a chance to sit and listen to folks and shaking their hands.

One thing I realized about myself this summer is how privileged I am, and how privilege operates.  The fact that I have a home,  access to food and the ability to pursue a higher education – and that I can afford basic luxuries such as having a phone and leasing a car – are now things that I have a renewed understanding of because I know that so many people do not and will never have these things.

The participants of Pro Bono Day, an event Fortune holds to educate attorneys on the programs they have and the advocacy work they do.
The participants of Pro Bono Day, an event Fortune holds to educate attorneys on the programs they have and the advocacy work they do.

If someone is getting an internship within the criminal justice system non-profit sector, I would advise keeping an open mind, because the stories you’ll hear about an individual will far surpass the rap sheet someone has to their name.  As the founder of The Fortune Society, David Rothenberg often says, “the crime is what people did, not who they are.”  If someone is fortunate enough (no pun intended) to secure an internship with The Fortune Society, I would recommend to voice your opinions and don’t just be a yes-man.  Your opinions will be appreciated!  If you want to learn more about my experience at Fortune or are interested in interning there, here is the link towards the Brandeis Internship Exchange, and this is my email.

One thing of which I am proud that I did this summer was helping to make a mere dent in reforming the criminal justice system.  Seeing and hearing first-hand how this unjust system can affect not only the individual but their family and even community, a whole other dimension of the justice system unveiled itself.  I think it’s a dimension that needs to be discovered through hearing someone’s story from their mouth, not reading it in a newspaper or even reading this blog.

Completion at Rosie’s Place

I can’t believe how fast my ten weeks at Rosie’s Place have flown by! I am so thankful for the opportunity I had interning there and for the amazing staff who helped and supported me through everything. All of my expectations about the internship have been exceeded and I am surprised how much I have personally grown because of the work I was doing.

All day at Rosie's Place with fellow interns
All day at Rosie’s Place with fellow interns.

At the start of my internship, my four internship goals were to gain a deeper understanding of poverty and oppression from the women who come to Rosie’s Place as well as the root cause of these conditions; to learn more about who are poor and homeless women in Boston and what circumstances brought them to Rosie’s Place; to develop a greater sense of responsibility and ability to work to bring about social chance and equality; and to better understand how a medium-sized non-profit operates. My two department goals were to learn how to communicate effectively with all the different people that I encounter and to learn to take more initiative as I get more comfortable with the front desk. I am happy to say I did meet my defined goals through my daily interactions with guests and attending direct service meetings, Social Justice Institute seminars, and weekly intern meetings.

This internship has really helped me understand and see what it is like working at a non-profit and in direct service. Before the internship, I did not know that advocacy was a potential career option, but I have also learned that direct service is not the only path in social justice work. The success of a non-profit like Rosie’s Place is how multiple different departments work together toward finding solutions to poverty and homelessness on a small and a large scale. This summer in the workplace, one of the biggest lessons I have learned is how to find my voice to be more assertive. I also learned more about my levels of comfort as an introvert working such an extroverted job and how to set boundaries for myself.

My advice to a student interested in an internship at Rosie’s Place is it is completely okay to feel overwhelmed at first but you will always be supported by a great staff. The front desk staff members were there whenever I had questions and always had my back. My advice for a student interested in this field is the importance of self-care, understanding that the work is difficult and may lead to burn out if you do not set boundaries or if you bring your work into your personal home life. Volunteering is a great way to start getting involved.

This summer I am most proud of the personal interactions and connections I was able to make with guests, staff, and interns at Rosie’s Place. I very much felt included in the community and was able to share my ideas and contribute to projects that will exist even after I have left. The act of being present every single day made a difference in helping and talking to the guests because we are not just providing services for poor and homeless, we really care about our guests and finding solutions to end poverty and homelessness.

A Humbling Experience: Seeing the World From A Different View

Just in my time with The Fortune Society thus far, my experiences have already far surpassed any and all expectations I held for my internship before it began. The people I work for and with are some of the most genuine and driven individuals I’ve ever encountered; their unremitting desire to help others, despite the constant uphill battle, is a truly remarkable trait that makes this organization one-of-a-kind. In my contact with clients and staff thus far, one thing has become abundantly clear: a lot of people take a lot of things for granted. The fact that people can drive, gain employment with no clear discrimination, or even obtain individual housing or food, is now something I consider to be privileges rather than rights. To contextualize this idea, about a month ago I took a client to the Human Resources Administration to receive his food stamps benefits but was told he did not qualify due to his citizenship status (despite being in the country legally and even showing the staff proof of his legal status).

Another humbling event, or rather sequence of events, was a New York State Assembly hearing I attended in which the president of Fortune, JoAnne Page, testified along with others concerning housing barriers encountered by those with criminal justice system involvement. Within a couple weeks of the hearing, I attended a rally outside New York Governor Cuomo’s office to protest his reneging on a promise to construct 20,000 new supportive housing units over the next fifteen years with 6,000 of those coming in the next five. This was an issue that was explicitly mentioned by every individual who testified in front of the Assembly members.More information on his original promise is available here.

Rally outside Gov. Cuomo's office in New York City surrounding suppotive housing issues.
Rally outside Gov. Cuomo’s office in New York City surrounding supportive housing issues.

This summer, disregarding the obvious differences from my academic work, has contrasted from my experience at Brandeis because I’m able to observe concepts I’ve learned as theoretical, abstract ideas as real issues that impact real people. One particular course I took this past semester has really affected the way I perceive my experience with Fortune so far. As a seminar-styled course, we explored the ideas of justice and punishment in various fashions, including through historical context, literature, and even from a philosophical point-of-view. I find that I’m able to apply the concepts I’ve learned from this course to further delve into the intricate issues regarding the criminal justice system.

This is from an initiative Fortune held to inform their clients of their voting rights.
This is from an initiative Fortune held to inform their clients of their voting rights.

I’ve gained many things from my internship so far, but one of the most applicable to my future, whatever it may hold, is learning how to advocate for those who can’t do so for themselves.  In attending numerous events that included a call for action, the speakers have often taken personal experiences and applied them to others’ issues and subsequently systemic issues.  I find this to be a particularly effective because it takes an issue and makes it real, and one you can’t ignore.  I’ve also learned how to organize events to conduct studies.  Currently, along with others in the policy department, I’m coordinating a focus group to explore the unique needs of veterans with criminal justice involvement.  You can find out more about this project here.

My experience with The Fortune Society, even though I still have a bit to go, is undoubtedly an unforgettable experience that I will be able to apply to my life in the years to come.  I’m excited to see what’s in store for me for the rest of the summer!

A Brandeisian Takes on AJWS

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This is me on my first day!

I have just completed my first week at American World Jewish Service (AJWS) in NYC, and I am overcome with excitement for the rest of my time at this incredible organization. Thanks to WOW, I have the opportunity to intern at AJWS as a Donor Engagement Intern in the development division. AJWS is the only Jewish organization dedicated solely to ending poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world. Highlights of AJWS’ work includes campaigning to stop the Darfur genocide, fighting global hunger, responding to the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and the earthquake in Nepal, and working to end violence against women, girls, and LGBT people worldwide. Here is a link to the organization’s website for more information. Feel free to browse around!

Highlights from my week:

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Stephen McGill and me!

 

Walking in on my first day, I was nervous but excited and up for any tasks. However, I was happy to discover that at AJWS interns are not asked to get coffee and do photocopying. Currently, there are only two people working in Donor Engagement, so I was right away thrust into real work. I have been responsible for finalizing details for an upcoming Study Tour Trip to Guatemala, and beginning the prep work for another Study Tour Trip to Uganda. Study Tours are designed to provide major donors a first-hand look at the impact their dollars are making. When I first heard about Study Tours, I had a lot of critical thoughts and hoped that AJWS is not taking their wealthy donors to intrude into impoverished and oppressed communities in order to evoke more sympathy for the purpose of receiving larger donations. To my relief, I learned that donors visit AJWS’ grantees, local organizations which are funded by AJWS. Therefore, study tours are an important initiative to inspire donors to continue to give to AJWS causes.

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to help my supervisor prepare for an event where AJWS’ incoming president, Robert Bank was in conversation with Frank Bruni, the New York Times first openly gay op-ed columnist. It was great to hear Bruni speak about his journey. Here is a link to AJWS’ facebook page for pictures from the event.

Lastly, on Friday I had the opportunity to meet and hear Stephen McGill speak. McGill is the director of Stop AIDS in Liberia (SAIL), an AJWS partner organization. McGill is in New York this week to join United Nations delegates and civil society representatives from around the world for the 2016 United Nations High-Level Meeting to End AIDS. He along with many others is fighting to end the systemic exclusion of marginalized communities including transgender people, sex workers, gay and bisexual men, drug users, migrants and prisoners from this conversation and movement.

Looking Forward:

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This is my cubicle!

I am very excited to continue with organizing Study Tours, helping with a marathon fundraising event, and continuing to learn how to use Raiser’s Edge, which is a database widely used by nonprofits for compiling lists of donors and their information. My other projects will include creating an organized system that will, for example, have information about different venues and caterers that the Donor Engagement department can utilize to efficiently plan different types of fundraising events. In addition, I will be working with the communications department to brainstorm a template and write newsletters on the Study Tours.

My goal is to soak up all aspects of this organization’s work. I want to leave with a comprehensive understanding of the inner workings of a nonprofit organization. This includes learning both the positives and the negatives. I want to look into the difficulties that each department and the organization as a whole faces. I believe I joined the organization at an interesting time because the vice president of AJWS, Robert Bank, will be stepping into the role of president on July 1st. I am excited to observe and learn a lot from this transitional period. Attending and participating in meetings has already given me a perspective on the constant need for compromise when each department has a different vision and opinion of how something should be done. I plan to meet with members of the different departments that I am interested in to gain their perspectives on the organization, their contributions, and their journey. I am especially interested in meeting with members of the communication and media department because I am intrigued by how nonprofit organizations present issues and discuss the narratives of impoverished individuals. I want to investigate more empowering ways rather than dehumanizing or exploitative, to present these types of narratives.

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for my second post!

First Week at Rosie’s Place

The front doors of Rosie’s Place located at 889 Harrison Ave in Boston.

This summer I am working at Rosie’s Place located in Boston’s South End. Rosie’s Place is a sanctuary for poor and homeless women founded in 1974 by Kip Tiernan as the first women’s shelter in the United States, with the mission to provide a safe and nurturing environment that helps guests maintain their dignity, seek opportunity, and find security in their lives. Rosie’s Place provides a wide range of services and support for women including meals, emergency overnight shelter, education, advocacy, and many more found in the directory of programs and services.

One of the first things I learned about Rosie’s Place during my phone interview and reiterated during my first day was Rosie’s prides itself on being a sanctuary – not just a shelter – for women and being there to help with the needs of the guests who walk through the doors. Rosie’s is committed not only to help guests and their needs on the day to day basis but also working in public policy to change laws to bring social change in issues relating to poverty and homelessness.

My first week at Rosie’s as one of the eight summer interns (including Ari Keigan ’18) was overwhelming but very rewarding. I am in the Direct Service department and am on the front lines helping guests at the front desk.

As the first point of contact for guests, I work to create a warm, friendly, welcoming, and supportive environment and learn about the needs of the guests and direct them to how Rosie’s can help. I have covered the front desk before at my job at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, but I had not expected how busy and demanding it would be. It truly requires me to be flexible and be able to multitask.

The bulletin board with bios of the summer interns posted for the community to see.

For example, some of the tasks I am responsible for include answering questions in person and over the phone sorting, organizing and checking mail for the guests, and helping guests sign up for showers, laundry, phones or computers. During my first week I have already experienced having to answer the phone while organizing mail and politely asking a guest to wait before I can help them all at the same time. At first I was quite intimidated working at the front desk because I was afraid of giving out the wrong information but with the help of my supervisors, I was encouraged to ask questions and assured that it was okay if I put people on hold because I was not required to know all the answers right away.

I am grateful as part of my internship, all summer interns participate in a series of seminars that explore social justice issues on Friday afternoons. During our first meeting, we got the chance to listen and discuss how the week went in our individual departments. Two points we had discussed were checking our own privilege and wanting to help as much as we can but learning how to say no. We also discussed the four main goals of the internship and our two individual department goals.

The four internship goals are to gain a deeper understanding of poverty and oppression from the women who come to Rosie’s Place as well as the root cause of these conditions; to learn more about who are poor and homeless women in Boston and what circumstances brought them to Rosie’s Place; to develop a greater sense of responsibility and ability to work to bring about social chance and equality; and to better understand how a medium-sized non-profit operates. My two department goals are to learn how to communicate effectively with all the different people that I encounter and to learn to take more initiative as I get more comfortable with the front desk.

The work that I am doing is difficult but it is work that needs to be done, and I am excited for what is more to come.

Tina Nguyen ’17