It was once a radical concept to see the American criminal justice system for what it is—a system largely built on disproportionately criminalizing minority communities and the poor. But now, discussions on dismantling mass incarceration have moved from the margins to the center, with the closing of the infamously violent and dysfunctional Rikers Island in sight. Yet with this shift and growing public consciousness is a glaring exclusion that begs the question: where are the women?
Mobilizing for criminal justice reform can’t be done without creating a paradigm shift that centers the experiences of women and families. The New York Women’s Foundation has applied a gender and racial equity lens to this crisis to truly pave the way forward to justice, safety and the overall wellbeing of communities across New York City.
The role of philanthropy in this movement is one that can’t be underscored; those most impacted by systems of incarceration are also closest to the solutions, and therefore their voices must be heard in all aspects of advocacy.
These principles were put into practice at the 9th Annual Beyond the Bars Conference from at Columbia University, where this year’s theme Until She’s Free bolstered efforts to challenge the impacts of incarceration and criminalization on women and girls. Foundation President & CEO Ana L. Oliveira moderated the discussion A New Path to Justice: A Philanthropic Conversation on the Intersection of Gender Equity and Criminal Justice Reform, featuring Pamela Schifman, Executive Director, NoVo Foundation; Aleah Bacquie-Vaughn, Director, Circle for Justice Innovations; and Christina Voight, Program Associate, Open Society Foundations.
Setting out to demystify the culture and inner workings of philanthropy, the panelists provided a breadth of experience as experts of the field, committed to using philanthropy as a tool to resource the initiatives, organizations and leaders on the ground. “It’s more than money,” Ana Oliveira said. “It’s a concept of solidarity and creating the destiny of our grantee partners on their terms.” Solidarity also includes not only centering the needs of system-impacted individuals through funding, but in changing the culture of philanthropy to ensure formerly incarcerated people are given opportunities to hold decision-making positions. This principle is personal for panelist Christina Voight at the Open Society Institute, who is one of the few formerly incarcerated women to work in philanthropy. “Until I see more formerly incarcerated people in power positions that can actually take the money and say this is what we’re going to be funding, I’m not going to stop,” she said.
Part of demystifying philanthropy also means recognizing that the problems and solutions of a community live together. While allies and collaborators are needed in the fight, it should never be at the expense of those who are closest to the issues and have been system-impacted, Aleah Bacquie Vaughn of Circle for Justice Innovations suggested. “It’s not a terrible thing that someone who has had a great deal of privilege be involved in helping to solve a problem,” she explained.
“If you center the focus on the people who are experiencing the problem, they will tell you what the priority is. Our job is simply fund and resource that work so that the movement continues to grow.”
While philanthropy has made strides in funding some criminal justice reform initiatives—such as ban the box and outlawing shackling women during labor—there’s a still gap between needs, resources, response time and action. And when it comes to meeting the needs of cis and trans women and girls of color, particularly those impacted by the system, resources are often funneled away from them, Ana Oliveira said. “Changes are happening in philanthropy. We are constantly fine tuning ourselves to be able to do them faster and to be able to do them even more.” Pamela Shifman of The NoVo Foundation echoed these sentiments, as she detailed the awareness gained of scanning the field of philanthropy and finding how few resources were dedicated to women’s criminal justice reform. “We realized the ways in which we were not resourcing formerly incarcerated women and their leadership, and that was a real gap for us—and that is not acceptable,” she said.
The Foundation continues to drive this change in philanthropy with the Justice Fund, launched in 2018, supports community-based organizations working to advance the closure of Rikers Island, and related improvements within the local jail system through efforts that will give voice to a wide range of system-impacted community members. We are proud to count the Art for Justice Fund, Ford Foundation, Frances Lear Foundation and The Pinkerton Foundation among our partners in this urgent social action and advocacy effort.
Through The Justice Fund, justice-involved individuals, women and their families will be heard at all levels of government and supported by the organizations most closely in connection to them. “This is our own wanting to catch up with the incredible work that you all have been doing,” Ana Oliveira said. By working alongside community-based organizations, The Foundation can more successfully join forces to dismantle mass incarceration, and its effects on women, girls and TGNC communities.