NYN sat down with JoAnne Page, President and CEO of The Fortune Society, an agency founded in 1967 to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals become productive, contributing members of society.
The below interview has been edited for space and clarity.
NYN: What was your inspiration for devoting your career to working in the criminal justice system?
JP: I’m the child of a holocaust survivor. In fact, this month is the 70th anniversary of my father’s liberation from Dachau and the work camp affiliated with it. So I know something about injustice. I know something about the damage that institutions can do to people; about the kind of rage that people carry within themselves when they have reasons for anger.
I started doing volunteer work in prisons when I was 18 and realized that this is the place where I want to work. I wasn’t sure how – I thought I wanted to do criminal poverty law in New York City for the rest of my life, so I went to law school. I interned at Fortune during my law school period.
I graduated from Yale in 1980 and went to work at Legal Aid for two and a half years. I got frustrated there because I felt like I was pushing people through a revolving door.
So I started doing alternatives to incarceration work at what was then the Court Employment Project and created the idea of providing alternatives for serious felony cases. At that time, it was only the misdemeanors that were being considered for alternatives to incarceration.
I did that for six years, and then Fortune Society was looking for an Executive Director. Now it’s 26 years later. I don’t think I’ve held the same job for more than two years, even though I’ve had the same title, because as you look at the needs of people who come through our doors and try to meet them, you learn a lot about new things.
NYN: How have The Fortune Society’s offerings changed during your tenure?
JP: When I started, we didn’t offer anything around AIDS, because when Fortune was created in 1967, there was no AIDS. But by the time I came to Fortune in 1989, almost everybody in the place was either HIV positive, scared of being HIV positive, or loved someone who was HIV positive. So we developed some real cutting-edge HIV services.
And then over time, we realized that we had so many homeless people coming to us, and if they had a violent conviction or no drug-free time, we couldn’t get them into spots in the few decent places available. So we figured that if we tried to do it ourselves, we wouldn’t do worse while we were learning.
We were at the right time in the real estate market – this was 1998. We bought the shell of a building in Harlem, which had been abandoned for 20 years, and we created the Fortune Academy. We did it on a five-year plan – we opened it five years after thinking of it.
We have been running it now for over 12 years, and about 100 people go through the 60 beds each year. It’s magic. You get to see how people transform when they feel safe and valued and have supportive services. So Fortune learned to do housing.
And as we started serving more homeless people, we started serving more mentally ill people. What we found was that our clients either had no experience with mental health services or very, very bad experiences. For Fortune’s clients with mental illness, their experience often was that they were prescribed medication to control them – essentially chemical restraints. So even people who needed psychotropic drugs were very hesitant to use them.
But we found that if they are in a place where they feel safe and where they are getting other services that they want that don’t have stigma attached, we were able to get people engaged in mental health services.
NYN: How has your leadership role changed as The Fortune Society has grown?
JP: I would never want to be in a job that I knew how to do. So having the place grow and constantly challenge me is wonderful. It also helps me in terms of being able to delegate because I’m not going to be out of important work. I can delegate what I know and love while I’m learning something new.
I think the key is building the talent bank. More than half of our staff at Fortune was formerly incarcerated, as well as much of our leadership and a third of our board. That keeps us close to the issues that the people are facing and gives us a lot of knowledge and role modeling.
A lot of places struggle with how to find the talent they need – we sit on a mother lode of talent. Many people start as clients and then become interns, then trainees, and then staff.
In terms of my own growth, shifting from doing it to trying to grow the people who do it is quite wonderful.
NYN: What are some of the focuses of Fortune’s advocacy?
JP: Fortune has always been an advocacy organization – we started that way and it’s in our bones. We advocate on issues like housing discrimination against people with records. We actually have a lawsuit going right now against a Queens landlord who does blanket discrimination – if you have a record, no matter when it was, you get knocked out of eligibility for that housing.
We’re also looking at the intersection of immigration and criminal justice – how people who have lived in this country almost all their lives can get picked up on minor offenses and then be at risk of being deported to a country they don’t know, ripping their families apart.
One of our focuses is on what Fortune calls “collateral consequences,” which is that you may have a conviction that comes with a certain punishment, but the true punishments go beyond that initial punishment in many different ways – housing discrimination, job discrimination, and immigration consequences.
Simply put, one of the biggest issues we raise is: why are we locking up so many people? We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. We lock people up under conditions of solitary confinement that are considered torture by the United Nations. The second largest penal colony in the world is what you fly over when you come into La Guardia, Rikers Island.
Our largest mental hospitals aren’t hospitals at all, because we basically shifted from mental health facilities to prisons. We basically just moved the population over. So there’s plenty of room for advocacy.
NYN: What are your thoughts on the current relationship between nonprofit agencies and government actors?
JP: I think that the nonprofit world is at great risk right now. We’ve seen what happened with FEGS, but what we see now is an increasing pattern of government agencies only paying part of the cost of services, expecting you to raise the rest, having very tight restrictions about how you use the funds, increasing the amount of documentation that you need to do, and not being willing to pay infrastructure costs. All this while they look for more data and more financial reporting.
I think what you’re seeing is a critical period for the social services infrastructure. I’m hoping that changes will happen before valuable nonprofits go under. Fortune is doing what it needs to do to protect itself and be conservative. I’m very worried about some of our sister organizations which matter greatly.
Each month, New York Nonprofit Media sits with a nonprofit leader to discuss his or her professional experience, lessons learned, perspectives on the industry, and more. To recommend a candidate for CEO Corner, contact Jeff Stein at email@example.com.