Leader to Leader: Vivian Nixon

Vivian Nixon, executive director of College & Community Fellowship.

Vivian Nixon, executive director of College & Community Fellowship. Aslan Chalom

Vivian Nixon has a lot on her plate.  

Vivian serves as the executive director of College & Community Fellowship, a nonprofit agency that provides educational support to women who have been involved in the criminal justice system. In addition to helping hundreds of clients pursue their college degrees and career goals, CCF seeks to promote systemic change through advocacy and policy work. The urgency of this work has only increased in recent months as the attention of the nation has focused on issues of race and criminal justice.

As one of the most high-profile formerly incarcerated nonprofit leaders in the country, Vivian has found herself much in demand of late. How does she balance the requirements of running a growing, multifaceted agency with the need to speak out on the issues of the day? How is the College & Community Fellowship adapting to the rapidly changing criminal justice reform landscape?

Funny, thoughtful, and disarmingly forthright, Vivian answered these and other questions by telephone earlier this month. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Berman: From my perspective, it feels like this is a moment of tremendous opportunity for an organization like yours. There is more and more interest in criminal justice, and more and more philanthropic dollars are being devoted to the field. At the same time, it has become a crowded marketplace, with lots of new agencies emerging. Where do you think CCF is heading – and how do you perceive the challenges and opportunities going forward?

Nixon: That question contains so much of what I’ve been thinking about over the last several years. I started at CCF in 2001 as a client. I didn’t go to college until I was 38. CCF really helped me – I had just come out of prison. At that point, the field was not crowded in the sense that it’s crowded now. There was just the beginning of a conversation started by President George W. Bush and the passage of the Second Chance Act. I was adamant from the time that I began working at CCF that a few things were missing from the conversation about reentry – the two that I cared about the most were structural racism in the system and what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline, although in my mind it goes beyond schools to the kinds of investments that we make, or don’t make, in certain communities.

I worked for years to insert those ideas into the conversation about reentry. That’s why I did so much public speaking and writing. Where we are now is different. I am not the only one out here saying those things; I’m not the only one saying education is critically important; I’m not the only one saying there’s a big structural racism component that we should be talking about. This now is the conversation. We are close to actually reinstating Pell Grants for incarcerated students.

This has become complicated because some people who come at things from an abolitionist frame have problems with that work. So it has become complicated, both ideologically and in terms of access to resources, because we’re no longer unique, we’re no longer an anomaly – we’re just part of a big crowd that all has the same underlying goal, which is to get rid of this very damaging system and replace it with something that really looks like justice.

Berman: Your comments raise something that I thought about a lot when I was running the Center for Court Innovation. On the one hand, there’s the strength that comes from being part of a movement. On the other hand, I think it’s really important for each agency to contribute something unique. If everybody’s saying the exact same thing, then there’s no need for me to say it, too. At least, that was the approach that I took. It sounds like you wrestle with those issues too, or maybe I’m just imposing my own worldview on you?

Nixon: No, you’re not. I think about our work falling into a couple of major buckets. We have a pretty robust direct service program specifically focused on helping women graduate from college. That’s one bucket. The other bucket is our public policy work on issues that are directly related to access to education for our population. A lot of our advocacy work is done collaboratively with other organizations. We believe that we should collaborate with everyone else who is doing this work but we know our main focus is education. So we’re not going to step on anybody’s toes who is working on bail reform or working on a jail closure or working on expungement or whatever. We will provide bodies when they need bodies at rallies, we will sign on to their campaign, but we will let others lead the way. We took that approach very intentionally.

Berman: It seems to me that one of the enormous strengths of CCF is that you have one foot in the world of direct service and one foot in the world of policy and advocacy. When that works well, it can be a very powerful thing because you can bring real-world, practical experience to policy conversations. But are those things ever in tension? Do you ever find it hard to be great at both direct practice and at advocacy?

Nixon: It was hard until I put the right team together. That took me a couple of tries. But if you have the resources to hire a team that is squarely focused on advocacy work while your direct service team can focus on that work, it’s much easier. For a while, I was doing all of the public advocacy work and the rest of the team was doing direct service work. That was really hard to manage because I couldn’t stay connected enough to the direct services to really make sure that it influenced my public policy work. As I built out the policy team, I was focused on trying to connect with directly affected people in the field who cared a lot about education and who were out there using their voices to elevate the issue. So many formerly incarcerated people who had gone to school while they were incarcerated were out there representing the issue. I would go up to every one of them after the conference or whatever event I was at, and that’s how I built my policy team. I hired them because they were awesome and they cared about the issue. Many had been through college while they were in prison. I then hired a lawyer who’s not formerly incarcerated but who knew a lot about government processes. So now my job is to help the policy team connect with the direct service team and figure out ways they can work together so that our direct services are influencing everything our policy team does.

Berman: CCF is focused on serving women. What are the unique needs of women returning from incarcerated settings?

Nixon: I had to actually develop a frame for this because I’m not sure that 20 years ago I would have said that we should only serve women. At first, I would have said, “No, everybody deserves an education; why do you want to limit this to women?” Back then, there was no other program in New York doing what we were doing. Some men were very vocal about not having access to CCF. In fact, there was a one-year window where we said, “All right, let’s try a pilot program with men and women.” And we knew within six months that if we made it permanent, our program would soon be 80 percent men. So we pulled back. Any man that had joined during that pilot year was able to finish the program. So we have, I think, a total of about 10 graduates of the program who are men.

Over time, what I realized is that there were not a lot of programs and services for women while they were incarcerated. That was a big problem in the ’70s and ’80s. The other problem is that women have this unique connection to their children. That’s not to say that the men aren’t connected to their children, but there is a disparity between the number of men who were custodial parents when they got incarcerated and the number of mothers who were custodial parents. So the primary thing on their minds when they get out is getting their children back. Hopefully, their children have not been permanently put in someone else’s care. And if they’re still in foster care, there are ways to get them back out of foster care. We are focused on supporting them in that effort – we know that if they don’t have that support, they will never be able to focus on school. 

The other thing I would say is that the stigmas are very different. I’ve learned over 20 years that there is a different type of stigma attached to women in the criminal justice system. Men are considered to have made a mistake, to have been caught up in an inner-city environment or poverty or lack of access to jobs. It is much easier for people to understand how men get involved in this system. Not that they get punished any less harshly, but post-incarceration, people are more likely to give them a chance than they are with women. I don’t know why; it’s just the way it is. This is especially true if they are mothers. “How could you dare walk away from your children or allow yourself to be in a situation where you were separated from your children?” is what people think.

Berman: Given these realities, what are the implications in terms of the types of services and supports that CCF offers to its clients?

Nixon: Our program is 100 percent about building self-confidence. At our meetings, there’s no top-down structure. It’s a strength-based approach. It’s about empowerment, about acknowledging the strength that we all have inside us. What we’re trying to do is remove that stigma, that feeling that “I don’t have anything to offer.” When I talked to Piper Kerman (author of “Orange Is the New Black”) about teaching writing in a men’s prison and in a women’s prison, she said that when she asks men to write, they will always make themselves the heroes of their own stories. The women never would. 

Berman: I’ve had numerous conversations with nonprofit leaders over the last several months.  It seems like everybody I have talked to has been facing two simultaneous challenges. The first is COVID; the second is staff unrest around issues of social justice. I’m wondering whether CCF is inoculated from either of these pressures.  

Nixon: Oh, we are not inoculated, not at all. I’ve learned more about who I am as a person and as a leader in this year than I have in the 19 years before.

Berman: Tell me what you mean by that.

Nixon: For the first five years leading CCF, if I didn’t micromanage it, it didn’t get done. So I was the bookkeeper, I wrote all the proposals, I wrote all the grant reports, I ran the community meetings, I met with all the funders. I went to every training possible to learn how to do all this stuff. I had to do everything because we had no staff. It took me four to five years to build enough belief in the organization and in what we were doing to have a team. 

There were breakdowns as we grew. When an organization grows from two people and then all of a sudden you have 18, the culture changes. People start to feel threatened about one thing or another. But that was a piece of cake compared to COVID. After COVID hit, within a month or two, we had George Floyd. And then Ahmaud Arbery. And then all of the “Karen” incidents. And Breonna Taylor. All back-to-back. I was in a place where I was feeling the weight of being a Black woman more than I had ever felt it in my life. It just was crushing down on me. I was in a bad place. At the same time, of course, my staff is reacting to all of these things too. But I’m not paying attention to that because I’m so wrapped up in how I feel and the fact that I’m exhausted and tired of dealing with this racial justice issue in this country. I was really afraid. I was afraid for my life and for Black people in general.  

In the midst of all this, I decided I wanted to promote somebody to help me with communications. My staff told me not to do it, but I promoted him. I won’t go into the details, but things went downhill from there and a lot of repair work had to be done. Eventually, I learned how to be more available to my staff. Being available and being an inspirational leader is not the same as micro-managing. You just have to communicate.

Berman: I’m assuming you’re doing most of this communicating by Zoom or some other virtual format. Does that add a degree of difficulty?

Nixon: Oh, yeah. We had that first staff meeting on Zoom. It was a very difficult meeting – I wasn’t prepared for it.

Berman: Do you think that part of the negative reaction you got from your staff was because you weren’t all together in a room where you could read people’s body language and where staff would have to acknowledge your humanity and your decency even if they didn’t agree with your decisions? It seems to me much easier to vilify someone when they are just a face on your computer screen.

Nixon: Yes, I do believe that. I think if I had been in the room and if people could have just felt and seen how much stress I was under and how I needed someone to help me manage the external communications and internal communications, they would’ve understood. I think Zoom had a lot to do with it. I also made a conscious choice in the moment to not be as vulnerable as I could have been. I was at a point where I couldn’t explain what my needs were without having a breakdown in the middle of a staff meeting. So I chose to be stoic about it.

Berman: It sounds like you’re on a more even keel now. How are you balancing the need for self-care and self-preservation with the fact that staff members are demanding more of you right now? 

Nixon: Well, I have a really great deputy executive director, and he and I talk frequently. He’ll tell me when my presence is needed. I have tried really hard to send inspirational messages at key points. I have tried to open staff meetings with a lighter activity where it’s about getting to know one another. We’ve onboarded five people that I haven’t met in person yet.

I’ve been doing more video messages to staff and also externally so that staff can see me out in the world representing CCF and giving them credit for the amazing work that they’re doing. We recently had our gala, our 20th anniversary, and we had to do it by Zoom. It was really disappointing not to be able to do it in person, but I tried to be as positive about that as possible. You’ve run an organization, so you know the deal. You’ve got 30 funders pulling at you one way and 30 staff people pulling at you a different way, and 30 partner organizations pulling at you a third way, and then your family and friends pulling at you a fourth way, right?

Berman: I recently stumbled across the fact that you went back to school a few years ago to get an MFA. Could you talk a bit about your interest in the arts? Does that have any impact on how you think about nonprofit management, or is it a totally separate interest of yours?

Nixon: The first thing we ask our students at CCF after they have just got out of prison or off parole or probation: “You want to reboot your life. Is there something you ever dreamed of doing and the opportunity never presented itself?” We don’t start with: “Well, here’s what’s available. This is what the workforce looks like so you have to go into this industry.” We don’t start there. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of programs do start. I understand that model – people need jobs – but that’s not what we do. We start with: “What do you love?”

Well, I never did that for myself. Everything I was asking our clients to do, I never did. I know what I love. I always wanted to be in the arts. I was a theater and chorus person in high school. I went to college when I was 18 and I majored in theater. The only reason I didn’t graduate with a theater degree is because my parents made me change my major to political science. I remember my mother’s exact words. She was like, “When I turn on the TV, I see ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ None of them looks like you. I am not paying for you to go to school to study theater. You need to major in something that’s going to land you a real job. You speak well, you’re smart: be a lawyer.” And that was it.

That began a long downhill spiral for me. I wasted the next 20 years of my life. But through it all, I’ve been writing. I’ve always written, even during my crazy years. I would always write a poem or jot down a thought because the arts is what I love. So I went back to Columbia and got an MFA in 2017, and now I’m doing more and more writing. 

I don’t know that it has helped me as a manager, but it certainly helped me between 2017 and now. If I hadn’t been engaged in that MFA program and hadn’t connected back to something that I really love, I don’t think I would have been able to get through that three years without a total breakdown. I think going back to school saved my life. I had to find something that was simply about me doing something that I love. Everything else about my life was for someone else.

Berman: I want to turn to your writing and ask about a few of the positions that you have staked out. For example, you recently came out in opposition to the First Step Act. Why was that?

Nixon: Well, it was not intended to impact the masses. First of all, it only affects the federal prison population. And even within the federal system, it was designed to only benefit people who scored well on a risk assessment test. That was going to automatically discount most African Americans. So I just felt that that was ridiculous. It was fooling the public into thinking it was going to do more than it would do. It was just a dishonest bill. The First Step Act became this big, glamorous thing that celebrities are involved in. Behind the scenes, thousands of people are not getting any relief from the First Step Act. In fact, some are being harmed by it. 

Berman: Another piece that you wrote that I found interesting was about #MeToo. You bemoaned the punitive nature of the movement and called for restorative justice. One of the lines that you wrote that struck me was, “Human fallibility is not a vice. It’s a fact.” I’m curious whether you got any pushback for that op-ed.

Nixon: I wouldn’t say that I have gotten pushback directly, but let me tell you what I’ve noticed, Greg. I’m a pretty observant person and I’ve been doing this a while. And I know that I’ve been removed from the circle of the anointed because I’ve been very vocal about certain things.  

Berman: I admire your courage. I know that I have been struggling to find my voice recently because sometimes my views are slightly against the grain. It’s hard in this current moment to have the courage of your convictions, at least for me.

Nixon: I think standing up for what you believe is a model for organizational leaders. That’s what I’m trying to do at CCF. Right now, we’re moving a little bit outside of the criminal justice arena, more into the education space as well as the racial equity space. I feel like if we don’t move out of the criminal justice silo, we’re going to lose the longer game. For me, criminal justice is like a magnet that is drawing all of this attention away from other social policies that we’re ignoring. 

Berman: I have heard that you are working on a book. Is it a memoir?

Nixon: Yes. 

Berman: One of the things that often distinguishes a good memoir from a less-good memoir is the quality of honesty. Do you think about that at all? How honest can you be in writing a memoir while also protecting the institutions that you are responsible for?

Nixon: The timing is what the timing is for a reason. I’m not writing a memoir in the middle of my career. I’m writing a memoir that is really a farewell. I’m 61 years old. I don’t have another 20 years in me. There are other things I want to do. The target date is 2022. When I finish the book, I hope it will be simultaneous to Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people being resolved because that’s one thing I really want to accomplish at CCF. And then I hope to continue a life of teaching and writing.