What happens to a woman after she leaves the world of criminal justice or prison? Vivian Nixon knows first hand. She’s living in the “after life.”
Vivian grew up on Long Island, New York, in a typical working class family. But, privately, she had great expectations.
“I always had these huge dreams of doing something big in my life. I felt I was called to be great in some way, although I didn’t know in what way.”
In high school, Vivian joined theater groups and the chorus, setting the stage for her dream of becoming a Broadway actress. Much to her parents’ dismay, she continued her theater studies in college, but her plans came crashing down with her mother’s hurtful words: “You are not beautiful. You will never be an actress.” Feeling sad and depressed, Vivian dropped out of school and went to work, falling in with a bad crowd, acting out and occasionally breaking the law.
“I started using cocaine and went into a steep downward spiral. In a way, I was leading a double life. While I was miserable at my job, I was doing things my parents expected of me. I attended church every Sunday.”
The turning point came one day with a knock on the door. Vivian was arrested for crimes she had committed in the past. She was convicted and sentenced to up to 7 years in prison. Some of the women she met there had been in prison for 10 or 20 years. They had endured poverty, domestic violence, and the tragic loss of children. They had virtually no education and even less hope.
“It made me wonder, ‘How did we ever expect these women to have a chance?’”
So Vivian began tutoring the women, helping them with things like homework, with writing letters home or to their lawyers.
“It became my life. I was not wasting time. I had a purpose.”
After spending several years behind bars, Vivian emerged stronger, with a new dream—the dream of giving women just released from prison a second act through education and jobs. She interviewed for a job with the non-profit College and Community Fellowship. When the Director of the program asked her what she wanted to do, she replied, “I want your job.” Today, she has it! Vivian is the Executive Director of CCF. Founded in 2000, CCF is a community of women that envisions life beyond criminal conviction and shares the determination that higher education, not past convictions, will define their future.
Women who enroll in CCF’s programs receive academic counseling, college- level tutoring and mentoring, and programs in career development, financial literacy, community building, leadership development, artistic expression, and public policy and advocacy. More than 70 percent of CCF students are recovering from addiction; 75 percent are mothers; 50 percent are survivors of domestic abuse; 85 percent are women of color. CCF envelops women in support services that help them re-build their sense of self-worth and develop leadership skills while they complete their higher education.
“When our students graduate, they become engaged in our society in a way they never had been before,” says Vivian. “Education doesn’t just help you get a better job, it makes you a better citizen. It’s not a silver bullet for the problems of our society, but it will reduce crime a great deal.”
For Vivian, who never made it to the Broadway stage, leading CCF is the role of a lifetime. Her amazing resilience in the face of personal setbacks makes her a Hearts on Fire star and gives hope to people of every age and circumstance that they, too, can make something of themselves and make a difference.
Check out opportunities to be an intern or a volunteer with CCF or find out how your donation can change a life at collegeandcommunity.org.