Vivian Nixon has long believed that education is part of the solution to mass incarceration. She not only believes it, she’s seen it and she’s lived it.
Nixon is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit which focuses on assisting women with criminal justice histories earn college degrees. CCF prioritizes helping them access opportunities to achieve the dreams they had for themselves before coming in contact with the criminal justice system.
But before joining the team as Executive Director, Nixon herself was one of the many women—in particular women of color—impacted by the criminal justice system. She spent three and a half years in prison on drug-related charges, which proved to be a pivotal moment in her life of advocacy work.
“I learned about a world I had only read about through the media, which is the world of the inner-city, which was at the time crumbling [and] had been neglected,” Nixon told ESSENCE in an interview. “I would read about these things and never understood them until I went to prison and met women who came from these communities, and whose educational opportunities … whose access to the basic things like stable parenting and knowing where they’re going to sleep at night, was a question every day for girls as young as 16. Then I met women as old as 70 who had been living this kind of tumultuous lifestyle for years.”
One thing Nixon found common between these girls and women, whether they were aged 16 or 70, was a lack of access to education, prompting Nixon to become a tutor in the prison’s education program. Shortly after being released from prison in 2001, she was introduced to CCF. With the organization supporting her efforts, Nixon went on earn her Bachelor of Science degree from the State University of New York Empire State College.
Five years later, in 2006, she was appointed Executive Director—and education continues to be one of CCF’s top priorities.
“Education helps women to thrive…including those who’ve made mistakes in their life, not just those who we consider deserving, or those who can buy their way into education,” Nixon, who noted that women are the “backbone of societies,” stressed. “These things are essential for a healthy society. Women raise the next generation of leaders. Education is becoming more and more critical to obtain even the simplest type of employment that will sustain a livable wage.”
Nixon added, “People who work in warehouses have to have computer skills now, nothing is done manually. So, these opportunities don’t just help individuals, they create a more equitable society where people have the opportunities they need in order to survive.”
CCF also plays a critical role in the lives of women impacted by the criminal justice system by training other organizations to take the same holistic approach as they do. Collectively empowering and training the women impacted to become advocates for themselves, and others like them, increases access to higher education for all people who have a criminal justice history.
“We do not discriminate based on screening of what type of crime they may have committed. Our concern is to revisit the person that has the potential to be anything they wanted to be, before whatever events occurred in their lives that led them to prison. That’s where we start,” Nixon said.
“We ask a set of questions that determines where the women are in terms of goals and dreams,” Nixon said.
CCF then individualizes plans to meet the women where they are. According to Nixon, this step is powerful because the women are forced to focus on themselves at the core level.
It’s about giving women the opportunity to say, “‘I want to go back to that and create a life for myself that I dreamed about before I ever had my first encounter with the criminal justice system,’” Nixon said. “There are very few programs who take that approach.”
The focus, for Nixon and the CCF, is all about the person sitting in front of them and the realization, as Nixon puts it, “That if given the opportunity, this is a person who can thrive.”
The work of Nixon and CCF has drawn the attention of the Art for Justice Fund, a five-year $100 million grantmaking initiative, which—through the collective effort of artists, advocates and philanthropists—focuses on transforming the criminal justice system and solving the issue of mass incarceration. The fund awarded Nixon and the CCF with a promoting reentry grant of $100,000 to support her leadership within the CCF, which also allowed Nixon to take a sabbatical to continue pursuing her own education.
Nixon returned to school last year to work on a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia University, and intends to use the sabbatical to write a memoir about her life and experiences.
“I think it’s important for the folks who are newer to this work to be grounded in the movement’s history. The Art for Justice grant supports me and my leadership in our field as I write my memoir, helping me leave CCF and the criminal justice reform movement a little richer than I found them,” Nixon said. “It also means opening doors to new opportunities for me in my life post-CCF.”
The memoir, which Nixon hopes will be finished by next fall, will “weave in the story of CCF and my analysis of the policies and culture that have led our country to mass incarceration,” Nixon said.
“I hope that readers will put down my book with a new understanding of how deeply human we all are – even those of us that society wants to lock away and dehumanize,” she added.
In the meantime, Nixon and the CCF remain fixated on creating opportunities for women to be who and all they can truly be.
“When I say opportunity, I’m talking about real opportunity. Opportunity to dig into one’s own potential, one’s own inclinations, talents, and God-given gifts, and bring out the best of what is in them. Not to impose on [these women] the opportunity that society feels is best for them,” Nixon told ESSENCE. “That is the difference in our model. Because you can say, well, ‘they all had the opportunity to take minimum wage jobs in fast food stores.’ But if they lived in New York City, that opportunity could still leave them living in a homeless shelter, because you can’t afford housing in New York City on minimum wage.”
“I would question us to redefine what opportunity really looks like. Is there real equity in opportunity? Or do those who already have the most resources at their disposal also corner the market on opportunity?” she added.
Nixon is particularly passionate about this focal point because, in her words, she would not be where she is today if she did not have the real opportunities CCF provided for her by truly believing in her potential.
“The reason I was able to move away from a path of self-destruction is because I had opportunity placed in front of me. But in connection with that opportunity, I had a community of women who believed in me, of board members and supporters of the organization who believed in me, who thought I had a right to make choices about what I wanted to do with my life, and then provided the resources so I could pursue those choices,” she said. “That’s the reason I am where I am today.”
She added: “Everyone deserves that chance. There are no undeserving people. There are people who have not found the right opportunity and the right levels of support.”