Shades of Freedom

Knowledge, Power and Freedom: The Past and Future of College-In-Prison

Episode Summary

For nearly three decades, prisoners have been denied access to a college education – but it wasn’t always that way. The Reverend Vivian D. Nixon, Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship, joins our podcast to explore her own journey through both prison and college, and to tell the story of how federal policy was shifted over time, as part of the ‘war on drugs’ and the continuation of Jim Crow via the justice system. Reverend Nixon calls out the power of education to create change in individuals, who can then change our society and our underlying beliefs about who is valued, and who is not. Recent bipartisan federal legislation will remove one key barrier to college-in-prison, but much remains to be done to erase stigmas and embrace education and opportunity for all people.

Episode Notes

For decades, prisoners have been denied access to college educations. Recent bipartisan federal legislation will remove one key barrier, but much remains to be done. 

The Reverend Vivian D. Nixon, Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship  – an organization that helps the women and families most harmed by mass criminalization gain access to opportunity – joins our podcast to explore her own journeys through both prison and college. Reverend Nixon calls out the power of education to create change in individuals, who can then change our society and our beliefs about who is valued, and who is not.

Guest Bio

Reverend Vivian D. Nixon is Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF) a New York City organization that helps women and families most harmed by mass criminalization gain equitable access to opportunity and human rights. Reverend Nixon identifies herself as a joyfully Black woman whose release from correctional oversight gave rise to a search for true liberation and guided her academic and career choices. Her work at CCF, and beyond, advances justice through economic and social equity, anti-racism, civic engagement, and artistic expression.

Instructed and ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Reverend Nixon has an MFA from Columbia School of the Arts, and currently teaches at Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action. Recognized with multiple honors, she is a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice and Fellowships with programs at the Aspen Institute, Open Society Foundations, and Pen America. Reverend Nixon has published book chapters, essays, and poetry, recently co-editing a collection of essays by justice impacted advocates: What We Know: Solutions from Inside the Justice System. Two book-length projects are in the works.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, The Aspen Institute is nonpartisan and does not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or parties. Further, the views and opinions of our guests and speakers do not necessarily reflect those of The Aspen Institute.

Visit us online at The Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative and follow us on Twitter @AspenCJRI.

Episode Transcription

Shades of Freedom

Episode 4

Knowledge, Power and Freedom: The Past and Future of College-In-Prison

Guest: Reverend Vivian Nixon

February 15, 2021

Copyright 2021 Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative

Announcer (00:00):

Welcome to Shades of Freedom from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. This week's guest is Reverend Vivian Nixon.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (00:10):

When you are educated, you have access to multiple ways of knowing and multiple ways of communicating. And that gives you power to talk to different groups of people. It changes your concept of what you're able to do as an individual.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (00:31):

Welcome to shades of freedom. I'm your host Douglas Wood, director of the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. Our guest today is Reverend Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship. CCF is a nonprofit that creates individual and systemic change by supporting formally incarcerated women to receive a high-quality post-secondary education. CCF also provides comprehensive assistance for returning citizens and works nationally on advocacy and policy. Before Vivian became the leader of CCF, she was a student there.

Vivian continues to receive many accolades and fellowships for her work at CCF. Last spring, Vivian received an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts in writing and nonfiction. Vivian is truly a Renaissance woman, an ordained minister, author, poet, activist, professor, and nationally recognized cultural critic. It's an honor to have her as our guest today. Vivian Nixon, welcome to Shades of Freedom.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (01:41):

Thank you, Doug. Thank you for having of me. I'm very happy to be here. I'm not sure I recognize the person you introduced, but she sounds great.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (01:51):

That's because she is great. Last spring, Vivian, I was thrilled to watch you virtually receive your MFA at Columbia. Can you speak to us about your path to higher education and what it did for you?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (02:06):

I did grow up in a household where education was very much enthusiastically encouraged, especially by my mother. But I was the rebel child who kind of did not always want to follow instructions. It wasn't that I didn't like school. I did. I was actually bored through most of my early childhood education. So while I didn't pay attention in class, I managed to always pick up whatever was necessary to pass the required standardized tests. There was nothing about my cognitive skills.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (02:42):

It was unheard of it at that time I think to look at certain communities for children who were gifted in different ways and put them in advanced classes and see if that would fix the problem. A lot of the African American children that I went to school with ended up being put in remedial classes because of their behavioral problem. Well, they couldn't put me in remedial classes because all of my testing proved that that wasn't the problem. I did try to go to college when I was 18, which was kind of the rule in my family.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (03:18):

You leave high school. You go to college. I had a great first semester because I was majoring in theater arts, and I loved it and did very well. I did the unheard of. I mean, I was a freshman and landed the lead in the annual performance. But that December when my grades came in an envelope in the mail, not by email, it was that long ago, my mother opened that envelope and I thought, wow, she's going to see all these As, and boy, is this going to be a good day for us. It was just the opposite. She was furious that I had chosen theater arts as my major.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (03:59):

She went into this long diatribe of that was a waste of money and that I was never, ever going to succeed as an actress. That when she turns on the television, she sees Charlie's Angels and none of them look like me. The reason I remember that so clearly is because it was that impactful for me. So, she made me change my major to political science and told me I was going to be a lawyer. And I changed my major to political science and flunked out of school. Years went by and a whole series of events that I'm writing about in my memoir, ultimately, I landed in a county jail.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (04:47):

The first time, the judge sentenced me to five years probation. The second time, I got sentenced to three and a half years in prison up to seven years, but I got out in three and a half years. And when I was in prison is where I rediscovered my love for the arts. I started to read again. I read all of the classics of the Harlem Renaissance, and I started to write again. When I got out, I went back to college. The only reason I was able to do that is because of College and Community Fellowship.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (05:23):

It was the only organization I was able to find when I was released where their response to helping me succeed after prison was college.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (05:35):

Vivian, say more about what CCF does to combat these ideas about incarcerated women.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (05:40):

Before I started working at CCF, I would hear about the criminal justice problem in America always framed as there was something wrong with this group of people and we're the largest incarcerator in the world. For me, that was not the correct narrative. The narrative is really about what assets are we hiding away, are we banishing from our society because we can't figure out how to draw out of them the best that is in them.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (06:12):

We can't figure out how to build strong, healthy, vibrant communities where well-being is equitable, where the public education system provides the same resources to every child no matter what zip code they live in. If we could figure that out, we would definitely figure out what we see as a crime problem. The criminal justice system that we have now is a symptom of a much bigger set of structural problems that we have in the United States that have a lot to do with systemic racism and our attitudes about poverty.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (06:55):

As you well know, Congress recently repealed the ban and on Pell Grants for people behind bars. You spent the last 15 years advocating for this change. Can you tell us about your work?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (07:06):

Yeah. Pell Grants were initiated in 1972 by Senator Claiborne Pell. It is the primary means that the federal government provides tuition aid to people who don't have the financial means to go to college. The criteria is very simple. If you meet the financial criteria, take the necessary amount of credits. If you go to an accredited school, you are eligible. No other status matters. Your income is what matters. Except when they passed the law in 1994 through the crime bill, they made people in prison ineligible.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (07:43):

That meant that colleges who wanted to come inside the prisons to teach couldn't get reimbursed for the tuition. It was a horrible time from 1995 all the way through December of last year. That option wasn't available. It became a little more available during the Obama administration when advocates began to have a real conversation about what it would mean to bring college back to prisons. CCF had been having this conversation since 2001.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (08:18):

The response to us was always, "That is not the priority. The priority is making sure that people get jobs, housing, making sure they have access to substance abuse treatment." My answer to that was always all of that is true, but why can't education be part of that? We kept pushing and pushing, pushing. We had a conversation in 2010 at the time Martha Kanter was the head of the Department of Education. She suggested to us at that time that we do an experiment, that the department use its discretionary funding to test out what a pilot would look like for Pell in some prisons.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (09:02):

Being advocates, we were like, no, we're going to try to push this legislation through. And we did. We tried. We tried for several years and we just weren't able to get enough sponsors. So finally, in 2014, after the Ford Foundation and some other partners invested heavily in proving the concept in California, we were able to go back to the Department of Education and say, "Okay, we'll go for the experiment." And that's when Second Chance Pell was initiated. I think that that woke up a lot of people.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (09:40):

The Second Chance Pell pilot put college in I believe 22 states. When all of these states started to see that this is a good thing, the reports are coming back that this is progress. It continued under the following administration. And then ultimately, bipartisan support allowed it to pass in December. It was a long arduous process, but it has finally arrived, but it doesn't mean that there's not still work to do.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (10:16):

The Pell Grants are a huge step forward, but what other policies still need changing?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (10:22):

We need to learn to separate people who are an imminent threat to themselves or to society from people that we're angry at or people who have problems that we don't know how to solve. I try to be really descriptive in terms of how this plays out in people's lives. I just read a paper last week that I found fascinating because it imagines a whole new way of policing that doesn't involve this big police force that acts as kind of a punisher or a deterrent, but it imagines that there's an entity in a city that is responsible for the well-being of that neighborhood.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (11:14):

What does it mean to be responsible for a neighborhood's well-being? Well, it means that you may have somebody in your neighborhood who habitually does something that's a crime. I'm going to go with Eric Garner because it's a well-known case. Eric Garner lived on Staten Island. He sold loose cigarettes. And for those who have never lived in a low income neighborhood, people buy packs of cigarettes and then sell one at a time for a higher price in order to make a profit because they don't have a job and this is the street economy.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (11:47):

People need to make money. We have to ask ourselves, the question, is doing that activity so dangerous that it requires a response of six to seven police officers, right, to not only harass this guy on a regular basis, but ultimately kill him by choking him to death because he was selling loosies. If we had an entity that cared more about the well-being of the community, maybe over all those years that he was known to be doing this activity, instead of getting arrested multiple times, somebody would've tried to figure out a way to find a sustainable way for him to make a living, right?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (12:32):

I don't know what his individual limits were that he couldn't find another way to make a living, but there are people out there who do know these things. Why wasn't there an option for him? That's what I'm talking about, looking at our society as we care about well-being more than we care about punishing the people who can't do it the way we want them to do it.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (13:02):

I want to stay on this idea of neighborhoods and communities. There's been a big push across the country for communities to have the opportunity to self-determine what safety and justice means for the them. What are your thoughts about that?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (13:17):

I think that we've had that model, and Elizabeth Hinton wrote a wonderful book about this. I can't remember the exact title, but it's about the connections between the war on drugs and the war on poverty and mass incarceration. That really we talk about the war on drugs being the beginning of this thrust to incarcerate so many people.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (13:40):

Elizabeth Hinton's book explains that there was a time right after the Kerner Commission and that report that Johnson figured out, yeah, if we invest more communities, these communities might be able to solve some of their own problems. And that's what happened, right? There was mass investment in daycare, summer camps, summer youth employment, and communities began to thrive. But here's my analysis of what happened. The people who took over that process of self-sustaining communities didn't look or act or talk like moderates.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (14:21):

They were fairly radical in their perspectives about government and freedom. When groups like the Black Panthers did breakfast programs and built up these communities... I mean, I remember going to the breakfast program every morning before school. What I saw was adults and sometimes college students who really cared about us, who helped us with our homework, who fed us breakfast. I mean, their politics were of no consequence to me. I was too young to understand what their politics were.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (14:57):

But eventually because of their politic, because they also wanted to fight against things like police brutality and poverty and the Vietnam War, the government kind of just did an about a face and said, "We're didn't mean to support that. We meant to support kids getting breakfast, but not this actual political power." Right? And as soon as it turned into political power, they turned off the spigot and then they started instituting these tough on drug laws and other laws, conspiracy laws literally going after the Black Panthers and other groups.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (15:40):

I'm not advocating for any group that did actual harm in the name of justice, but there were some people that were just targeted. There was a whole period of dismantling all the good work that had been done when we were investing in communities.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (16:02):

Beyond the myriad of economic opportunities that education provides, how does it change intangibles, like someone's sense of self?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (16:10):

We recently at CCF added a civic engagement component to our work. Up until now, we've worked on access to college. We've worked on career development. Adding the civic engagement component empowers people to understand that when you are educated, you have access to multiple ways of knowing and multiple ways of communicating. And that gives you power to talk to different groups of people. It gives you power to sit before the legislature and talk about why it's a good thing to restore Pell Grants.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (16:46):

It gives you power to demand that if the federal government comes into New York City and writes a report that Rikers Island is horrific and dangerous, then you have the power as a community to demand that the City of New York close down Rikers. It changes your concept of what you're able to do as an individual. When you feel powerless to change your circumstances, it immobilizes you. Education opens that window to what power means and what collective power means.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (17:24):

We are seeing, I believe, the results of that collective power in things like the election of two Democratic senators from Georgia, because that's never been done before. We are changing as a society because we're a more educated society.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (17:42):

In addition to education, you are a big advocate of the arts. How do the roles that education and art play and rehabilitation compliment each other? And how is each one unique?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (17:54):

I was an avid reader as a kid. And being able to visit all these worlds that I would never be able to physically visit, but to visit them in the mind, to read about histories that were different from mine, lives that were different than mine, and use my imagination, it stimulates the brain in such a way that you can imagine something different for yourself. The arts influence us in that. It gives us the ability to see something other than what is right in front of us, to see the world through other people's eyes.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (18:39):

And to create art is kind of the reverse of that. It's the ability to show the world how you see the world, to have the world see life from your eyes, from your perspective, from your point of view. That exchange is really fascinating to me.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (19:03):

You mentioned this a little earlier, but you have a memoir in the works right now. And I was wondering, what do you hope it will achieve and what do you want your legacy to be?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (19:14):

This memoir has been really hard to write, and that's why it's not finished yet. My motives have changed over time. At first, I almost fell into the trap of writing one of those rags to riches stories kind of. My life was horrible and now it's wonderful. No. That's not how it turned out actually. There was still a lot of hiccups along the way, a lot of hard lessons to be learned along the way, a lot of pain along the way. Because I learned that living in this body, being a black woman, also having a criminal history, it means something about how the world sees me.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (19:59):

And every minute of every day, whether I'm doing it consciously or subconsciously, I'm working to combat a narrative that is inside people's heads, and that is exhausting without even... You don't even know how exhausting it is until you slow down long enough to think about it, right? To have to prove it to your employer, to funders, to everybody you meet that I'm okay now, right, even with this criminal history. I'm okay, even though I grew up in a housing project and didn't have a lot of money.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (20:36):

I'm okay, even though I'm an African American and the descendants of slaves. It's exhausting. What this memoir is turning out to be is in the form of art trying to get other people to see how black women view this world. There's a lot of sacrifice and a lot of pain that comes with it. That's the direction I'm going in with the memoir. The legacy is not about me, but it's about every other black woman who has worked alongside me. It's about the students at CCF who I see out there in the world doing wonderful things with their lives.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (21:20):

And it's about all the women who came before me, my mother, my grandmother, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, the list goes on. Black women have stood in the pathway of danger for our whole community from the time we lived on plantations. And without going into... Although I think at some point America needs to understand the graphic details, but without going into the details, black women really used their bodies as a shield to protect the lives of our husbands and our children and our fathers and our mothers.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (22:06):

This is the year. This is the year, I believe, that black women will finally be recognized for those contributions. And I hope my memoir contributes to that.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (22:20):

I ask all of our guests the same final question at the end of our conversations. The question is, what does the title of our podcast, Shade of Freedom, mean to you now and for the future?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (22:35):

Well, I think of shades as kind of stages. Technically, when I was born in 1960, I was free. I was not enslaved. I was not captive. But I can remember it even as a kindergartner and a first grader not feeling totally free. I can remember periods in high school and specific incidences where I knew that my level of freedom was different than other people's. And all throughout my life, I can see the points in my life when it was made clear to me that I wasn't fully free. I thought I was free when I graduated from college finally, right?

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (23:35):

That had been my failure. I took on this job at College and Community Fellowship, and for a while I felt free. I felt, this is it. This is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is my life. And then I started to feel trapped again, imprisoned again. That's when I went back to get my MFA. I'm beginning now to, I think, experience that shade of freedom that has no limits, because I've decided to let go of expectations from other people and to really embrace what freedom means to me, not how it's defined by the world.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (24:24):

And that can only be found, I think, when one identifies their true calling and has the freedom to pursue that calling, whatever it is. That's the world I would love to see created for every person no matter what their race, gender, or economic status.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (24:49):

Thank you so much, Vivian. It's been such a pleasure speaking with you this morning, and we look forward to all the great things you're going to do in the future. Thank you so much.

Rev. Vivian D. Nixon (25:00):

Thank you so much for having me on the show, Doug. It is always a pleasure to work with you and with the Aspen Institute.

Announcer (25:11):

Thanks for joining us for Shades of Freedom from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. We'll be back soon with more thought-provoking guests, so please subscribe on your favorite podcast app. This podcast was produced by Erin Slomski-Pritz, with research assistance by Willem Patrick. It was edited by Ken Thompson. Special thanks to Christian Devers and Wanda Mann. CJRI's programs are made possible by support from the Ascendium Education Group, Arnold Ventures, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Maya and Mike Crothers, and Google.