The Fortune Society’s JoAnne Page on Healing the Formerly Incarcerated

This Wednesday, May 16, at the Trump Soho Hotel, hundreds of young philanthropists will attend the Second Annual Spring Soiree of The Fortune Society, held from 9pm until midnight. The event will be hosted by the Fortune Society’s Junior Committee, including event chairs Luke Weil and Louise Tabbiner. Fortune Society is a non-profit that offers services to formerly incarcerated men and women. Of note, old friend John Forté, who is back amongst us after a bid at FCI Fort Dix, will perform. Best known as a producer for The Fugees and for a solo career that has included work with John Legend, Talib Kweli, Fat Joe, DMX, Herbie Hancock, Carly Simon, and Tricky, to name a few, John used to hang at my joints before his fall from grace. And now, it is wonderful to realize that after his stint he is once again a productive member of our world.

John "frequently seeks to team up with charitable causes when performing on tour. In the spring of 2011, Forté undertook a nine-week performance tour through Russia. All proceeds from the tour were donated to local orphanages and the international foundations Operation Smile and Petra Nemcova’s Happy Hearts Fund. Forté has been working with at-risk youth to deter them from drugs and crime. He has taught a music course to 12–15 year-old students with InArms Reach, a Harlem-based initiative for children of incarcerated parents. In addition to using his musical abilities to help spread a positive message to children, he has been working with a New York-based charity called Music Unites to promote the arts in underserved communities, where he educates students on his version of life, lessons learned, and the pursuit of happiness through music. Forté has also been involved with various organizations dedicated to prison reform, mitigating prisoner recidivism, and reforming federal and state drug laws."

John came out of prison surrounded with love and teaming with talent and with lots of opportunity. This is a rarity. A person reentering society from prison is often burdened with debt, fines and an inability to find work or a place to live. There are few resources available to an individual and few choices except the ones that got them in trouble in the first place. Although it is in everyone’s interest to have the last crime they were convicted of and incarcerated for be their last misdeed, they are left with limited choices. Recidivism looms and everybody loses. The Fortune Society provides services that can change their world and therefore ours as well.

"Among those expected to attend are Vogue editor Valerie Boster, Vogue contributing writer Lauren Santo Domingo, gallery director Bettina Prentice, supermodel May Andersen, fashion designer Charlotte Ronson, star of Dallas’ Most Eligible Matt Nordgren, Socialite and Blogger Dori Cooperman, Antonio de La Rua, philanthropist and patron of the arts Fabiola Beracasa, financier Alejandro Santo Domingo, Sports Illustrated model Julie Henderson, and Real Estate Mogul and Owner of the Trump Soho, Alex Sapir."

The event is clearly a gathering of the have’s doing their part to help the have-nots. I caught up with JoAnne Page, Executive Director of the Fortune Society, who told me all about it.

Tell me about the work of the Fortune Society.
I believe that, if you care about issues of justice, the criminal justice system is the "belly of the beast." It is where issues of hope and despair, justice and injustice, racism and brutality, and how we treat those whom our society values most and least, all show up in their most naked form. The United States leads the world in incarcerating its citizens, with 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The two largest penal colonies in the world are the L.A. County jail system and Rikers Island, and we lock up a higher percentage of our black population than South Africa did during apartheid. Those are shameful statistics.

Fortune’s work is twofold: to advocate for a more just criminal justice system, and to provide a broad range of services to help men and women re-enter society after incarceration, or receive sentences that are an alternative to incarceration. When we succeed, everyone benefits: lives are saved, families are healed and communities are safer. Even though our work saves dollars as well as lives—for example, we save three dollars in incarceration costs for every dollar invested in our alternative to incarceration programs—we really struggle to raise the money to keep ourselves funded.

Tell me about the role of the young philanthropists, their motivation, and dedication.
It is wonderful to see young philanthropists like Luke Weil and Louise Tabbiner bring their friends together to have a party that helps to support Fortune’s work and to give hope to the people who walk through our doors. They are both members of our Board of Directors and have put a huge amount of work and caring into making the first soiree a success last year and to building on that success for this year’s soiree. We are honoring John Forte, who is gifting us with his music for the night and who deeply understands why Fortune’s work matters in the world. It will be a wonderful event supporting sorely needed services.

What motivates you personally to this cause?
The work that I do at Fortune is very personal to me. As a child of Holocaust survivors who knows something from my family history of the best and worst that human beings are capable of, it is both joyful and fulfilling for me to have my life work be about social justice and about creating a healing environment where people can rebuild their lives. I graduated from Yale Law School in 1980 with a commitment to work in the criminal justice system, and have headed the Fortune Society for the last 23 years.

I have the rare privilege of having the work that I do in my life be deeply linked to my values and to my personal history. Every day, I get to see people rebuild their lives, and grow to become people who matter in making the world better. Most of the people who work at Fortune, including members of our leadership, are people who themselves are formerly incarcerated and now are reaching back to help those who are coming out behind them. I believe deeply in the work that we do, and I get to see the faces of those whom we serve as they get their feet under them and start building new lives.

I taught a class at Sing Sing some years ago, and one of the men in my class told me that when he was growing up, he was told that he would either end up dead or in prison. I asked the other men in the class, and they had been told the same thing. Many of their friends were dead, and they had ended up in prison. Fortune is about giving people a chance at a future that holds more than death or incarceration and the soiree is a lovely event that will help usfund our work.

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