Three decades of leadership, activism and lessons learned leading The Fortune Society

The organization’s executive director JoAnne Page sat down with New York Nonprofit Media to discuss her tenure at the nonprofit and what’s next.

JoAnne Page, CEO of The Fortune Society

JoAnne Page, CEO of The Fortune Society Photo courtesy of The Fortune Society

Being the child of Holocaust survivors, JoAnne Page experienced a calling for social justice at a young age. Having been a volunteer since age 10, Page also grew to discover that criminal justice reform was her life’s passion. After graduating law school, Page developed a track record of starting programs that provided services to incarcerated people, many of which are still going strong today. Then in 1989, Page took her work to the next level, becoming the the CEO of The Fortune Society.

Under Page’s leadership, The Fortune Society has grown from a budget of from $700,000 to more than $60 million, while expanding alternatives to incarceration, HIV-specific reentry programs, and substance abuse and mental health treatment services. Among Page’s most notable accomplishments was leading a team that raised $43 million to build a 114-unit mixed-use homeless reentry supportive and affordable housing residence with an on-site service center. 

Now, after more than three decades at the organization, Page plans to retire by the end of this year. She spoke with New York Nonprofit Media to discuss what inspired her to commit to a lifetime of criminal justice reform work, her time at The Fortune Society, lessons learned and what’s next for her.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on your upcoming retirement, effective Dec. 31. Tell me what your career and life was like before coming to Fortune Society.

I'm a child of Holocaust survivors, and that has marked my life because I wasn't supposed to be here. I've always had a passion for working in social justice and working against systems that damage people. So when I was in high school, I was cutting class to attend trials in New York City. I saw that the criminal justice system was largely not worthy of the word justice. That really inspired me to work in that system. When I was in high school, I took a training program that teaches decision making to people in jail and I volunteered in that program. I volunteered at Rikers Island, and I volunteered at Green Haven (Correctional Facility). I knew what I wanted to do from then on. 

I went to Yale Law School and I continued doing volunteer work in the prison. And I set up a program that took Yale Law students to Green Haven because I was thinking that people I was going to law school with were going to be people who were politicians, judges, policymakers, and would shape what happened with our criminal justice system. And I wanted them to have first-hand knowledge of the people there. So I'm proud to say that I graduated in 1980. And I handed that program over to other law students coming behind me, and they handed it to others and it's still going strong. More than 40 years after I left law school, numerous people that I work with have passed through it, either on the law school side or on the side of incarcerated persons. I then went to Legal Aid and did criminal defense work for three years. But I felt like I was pushing people through a revolving door and only seeing them come back with bigger cases. I wanted to dig into the elbows on system change. So I went back to my law school advisor and I was told about an opening at the court employment projects, which is now CASES, and I was there for six years and developed the first felony alternative to incarceration program in New York City. And those programs are still going strong. When I when I was in law school, I interned for summer at the Fortune Society and I fell in love with the organization, with its values, with its culture, with the way in which it worked with people. And after six years I wanted to do quality work, as well as creating services and running services, and I remembered the Fortune Society because policy work advocacy is half of its mission. I applied for and got the CEO job. 

You have a track record of starting programs that are successful and have longevity. What advice would you give to other people who are taking on leadership roles and starting nonprofits or programs?

There are several factors to having a program that is worth having and that is providing for the long term, you need to have a clear idea of mission. I am proud that under my leadership, Fortune Society has had the same mission since our founding and all of our programs line up with it. When we seek a funding stream, when we apply for a request for proposals, for example, the first question we ask, is it within our mission? The first is you need to know what your mission is, and avoid mission creep. You need to stick with your mission. You need to be a fanatic about quality.

Another is that you need to hire people who are passionate and mission driven because the size of the issue that we deal with is much greater than the resources and if somebody doesn't have passion, it's like a cold hand on warm skin, people recoil. Hire dedicated people, and a mix of people with life skill and life experience and professional skill. And many of the people we have have that mix. So Fortune, at least half are composed of people who are formerly incarcerated. Our board is at least one-third of people who are formerly incarcerated, the leadership contains a critical mass of people who were formerly incarcerated. And at this point in time, the two leaders are myself, a white Jewish woman who's nearing 70, and the Deputy CEO, who is an African American man who is formerly incarcerated, and come January 1, he's going to be the CEO. I think that the sticking power of Fortune is its value driven, its where we build the world we wish we lived in and it attracts people who are passionate and bring their life experience and dedication to social justice and dedication to helping individuals with it when they come. We do a new staff breakfast every week, and the kinds of people who are attracted to work at Fortune just bring tears to my eyes, because they come from such different backgrounds. But the values are all shared. Fortune is the place where we pride ourselves on what we call our high recidivism rate, that's normally used for people who get re incarcerated, but what we do is we use it for people who return to Fortune, both participants returning for services, returning to celebrate their first child, returning to ask for help, returning to share their triumphs with the community and staff and leadership. The founder of Fortune Society, David Rothenberg is back at the moment here and he just made his 90th birthday and he's back as a volunteer and the four living board chairs that I've had through my year are all involved with fortune in some way years and years and years later. I think fortune is a really special place, and it’s also a community and it's a values driven community, but it's also a warm community where people laugh, and people hug each other. When my uncle died, Fortune was supportive of me. We show up at family members funerals, but we also celebrate individual birthdays. We have since shared joy of watching people who come to us, traumatized windstorm with angry faces, and we have to watch the first mile and that's worth venturing out into the world. That first sense of achievement, and learning to be a good parent when you have been parented by the state and not had anything that a child deserves. Fortune is a good place and people cherish it and want to stay but I am proud of the programs I've built both before fortune and after fortune. I will be still working in this world just not so hard.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in taking on the position?

The biggest challenge was that we were having a budget of $800,000 a year and bringing in $700,000 in income. So we either need to grow or to cut and I was spending nights sleeping at the building, writing proposals. The funding was the biggest initial problem and it has stayed a problem all my 34 years. It is an incredibly difficult job to keep our nonprofits funded and to deal with cash flow issues and they've only gotten worse over these 34 years. I can see we seemingly are dealing with contracts that don't pay the full cost of the work and dealing with late contracts and having to do the work without cashflow by borrowing and increasing administrative burden without funder willingness to pay the cost of the administrative expenses. I'm leaving my successor with an extraordinarily difficult job that has been difficult over my 34 years. But I'm proud that I'm leaving Fortune Society in very good financial shape because I've built up a significant fund balance through my year. But I think it's unconscionable that we're paid so late and that nonprofits are being paid so late and so little and struggling because we are the first line of service for the most vulnerable people in New York City. The government relies on us but it also exploits with poor pay for staff or failing to pay us for the full cost of the work and piling administrative burdens on us while not paying the full cost of the system that we need to meet those administrative burdens. The environment is enormously challenging.

How has the organization changed in the past 30 years under your leadership?

We've grown enormously, we grew 50% in the last fiscal year, just because as we expand our services, we are in higher demand by funders. The addition of our clinical services but most especially our housing services make us sometimes the only applicant who is able to provide the significant wraparound services. We've also grown in infrastructure, so you need to have a good finance department, you need to have a good IT department, you need to have a good HR department. Because of our growth, we've been successful in building those. Smaller organizations are at much greater risk because they don't have the infrastructure that enables them to safely comply with the administrative burden of funders, which increase by the year. Every time there's a scandal, either with nonprofits, or with other city providers, another layer of rules are put in place and they just layer off and layer on and they don't get reduced but they get more and more overwhelming. The other thing is that when I started at Fortune, we had one 10,000 square foot floor in Manhattan, and now we're citywide. We've got buildings in all four of the boroughs, not Staten Island, but Brooklyn, Manhattan, queens and in the Bronx. We've got 10 locations at this point as well as having 500 or more staff. We also have developed greater depth of services and the clinical services and the housing services are an illustration for that. 

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about criminal justice reform through the years?

When I started fortune, we were just going into the period of mass incarceration and drug lords. Essentially filling the jails and prisons with people of color who were low income and had substance abuse dependency. I think that we have as a country, recognized that we give incalculable damage to communities and to families and to individuals and we engaged in a period of reform where the jails and prisons were less used and where there was much more focus on prevention, both primary and secondary. I'm saying secondary prevention because what you want to stop is the revolving door where people are incarcerated and a bleak future that means that their likelihood of being re incarcerated is much higher. I think that the tide is going out and that we are re entering a period of mass incarceration and I'm fearful that we have not learned the lesson that we learned on our failed war on drugs, which really was a war on poor addicts of color. There was an article in the Times recently about the least known port where New York City is essentially repeating the policy of so called ‘broken windows’ where if you lock up people or give citations to people for things like drinking beer on their stoop, you supposedly make communities safer. But what this does is it scoops up poor people of color from those small number of neighborhoods that are the predominant feeder of the jails and prisons and then it hurts them in terms of earning capacity, and life opportunities for a lifetime. I'm grateful that marijuana has been decriminalized in New York, because there's huge damage done. The people who stopped and frisked and had a joint in their pockets and had that as a reason that criminalizes them for life is no longer available. But if you are an immigrant and you get stopped and frisked and you get arrested, or you get a summons, that can damage you for life. And I'm fearful that we are regressing and we are seeing Rikers Island fill up again and we're seeing tough on crime talks around the country again, and we're seeing what was inadequate reform of the bail law be cut back based on their stories, and not on data. The tide is going out on justice reform and we are I think sliding back into a period of mass incarceration, with all of its heartbreak, and all of its damage and all of its spending and multigenerational damage. So I'm not happy about the trends we're seeing but I think that advocacy to close Rikers Island to protect bail reform to fight mass incarceration is more needed than ever. And that's a fight I'm in with a lifetime commitment to it as is Fortune.

Let’s talk a little bit about the current state of the criminal justice landscape in New York City. As advocates rally for Rikers Island closure, amid federal monitor reports about the worsening crisis on Rikers Island, what’s going through your mind? What is your perspective on this current situation in the city? How do we repair this broken system?

I think the biggest solution is to be using carceration as a last alternative, rather than as a default. If you have $500 in your pocket, you can fight your case, while you're on the street, and keep your job and keep your family. If you don't have a penny in your pocket, you are going to be on Rikers where the punishment precedes conviction. You are brutally punished before being found guilty of anything. And what people often do is plead guilty just to get out of that hellhole and then they have a criminal record hanging around their neck. The presumption should be released and the solution is to lock up fewer people. But there are some people who, for community safety, need to be locked up at least for a period of time. You want them in humane conditions, you want them in a condition that makes them get better. Rikers always has been a hellhole because I have people, fortunately, who I talk to regularly who were locked up maybe 30,40, 50 years ago, and it was a hellhole then. It was referred to as gladiator school, because young people learned to be gladiators to fight for their life. One person I work with said ‘At Rikers you're either predator or prey’, and that is a horrible lesson to teach people and it's a horrible lesson for the communities that those people get released to. But Rikers is worse than I've ever seen it and that is because of unchecked violence due to diminishing control over the institution, especially due to uncovered posts. What I mean by uncovered posts is there is no correctional officer, for all or part of the tour of duty on post where if a correctional officer was there, he or she could intervene when people inflict violence against each other, when people have a medical emergency, when people are a suicide risk, and I've never seen a situation where correctional officers were not covering posts and where the union was protecting them against consequences. It has been rampant at Rikers. A federal receiver is not going to transform Rikers, but I think that a federal receiver could minimize the number of uncovered posts. Rikers is out of control and the level of violence is worse than the historic level of violence. That is both doing untold damage to human beings, and untold damage to communities. I also think that since the pandemic, the processing of cases has slowed down, so people are in Rikers Island for longer than they used to be because the cases drag on and drag on and I think that attention to the speed of case processing would be really valuable. It costs $500,000 a year to lock up a single person, that is money thrown away in order to do damage to people's lives. We are also seeing an increasing percentage of mentally ill people locked up in Rikers, the estimate is that that's 14% and more of the population. Rikers Island is no place for a mentally ill person because it piles trauma on top of trauma, especially when they're mentally ill and they can't make bail on fairly minor crimes that don't pose a risk to the community. It's just a tragedy. We're just seeing human damage because of Rikers and it is not in New York City's self interest to be damaging people and sending them back to the communities and doing it for $500,000 a year per person. Something needs to be done to intervene because it's getting worse and worse. And the decision that Department of Correction made to cut out all their services provided by outside providers, including Fortune Society, and five other organizations was a tragic mistake and caused damage upon damage. 

What are you excited about and what’s happening next?

I never am going to fully retire. This is a commitment I've made with my life. It brings me fulfillment and joy but in terms of work life balance, I've always put Fortune first, and what I'm looking forward to is more leisure time. I'm going to be writing a book that is really about lessons learned. I still am going to be doing what I am most passionate about, which is creating housing for folks who are formerly incarcerated. I'm going to continue in advocacy, it's just that the balance is going to be different. As I have said, it's been the honor of a lifetime to build Fortune, but I will be grateful not to be worrying about cash flow all the time, or getting people paid or funding services at a level where they have quality where the funding is inadequate. So I have enormous confidence in my successor. I will be available in any way that Stanley Richards needs. But I think that what I'm going to be doing as I'm hitting 70 is building in more time for myself, and time to document lessons learned. But I am not going to let go of commitment to services that help people build new lives, or advocacy against systemic damage to human life. So it will be a different balance. But I'm not going to give up the work that I've anchored in my life, just put it in more perspective and give myself more time.