Jun 17, 2010

"Changing Perspectives, Rebranding Reentry"

On June 15, 2010 the Fortune Society and the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay, in collaboration with the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force, held its last installment of the 2010 Harlem Reentry and Public Safety Forums. The forum was entitled," A Community Approach to Reentry: Changing Perceptions, Rebranding Reentry."

We chose the topic of messaging around reentry because no matter how dedicated we are as providers or individuals with incarceration histories, we cannot accomplish our missions without engaging the public and convincing them that reentry matters. During the forum, we sought to answer the question: "How can we message around reentry in a way that changes the conversation from one about fear to one about families and communities and reinvestment?"

Luckily, to help us begin thinking about answering this question, we were joined by four distinguished panelists: Mr. John Caher, Director of Public Information for New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Ms. Collen Roche, Principal Managing Director, Linden Alschuler & Kaplan, John Kofi Sanful, Executive Director, Career Gear and Tom Robbins, Staff Writer at the Village Voice.

Mr. Caher suggested using public access television to deliver your message to the viewing public, and offered us a look at a clip of his reentry program that discusses issues affecting reentrants. He is also in the process of creating a Speaker's Bureau composed of formerly incarcerated individuals who have been successful in their transition back into the community. The Bureau will aim to improve the public's perception of returning individuals by doing outreach at community gatherings.

Ms. Roche gave a host of useful tips to help engage the media:

-Identify reporters in your area who report on criminal justice related activities and reach out to them. Invite them to have a cup of coffee and tell them about your program and your expertise.
-Know what is unique about the story you want to pitch and immediately identify this for the reporter. Be succinct! Get your story out in two sentences!
-Never call a reporter after 2pm.
-When something you have done is covered in the media, send it out to everyone you know, including key constituents in your area.
-Approach editorial boards that have an interest in your area of focus.

Mr. John Sanfur, Executive Director at Career Gear, spoke about his work helping men reinvent their image following incarceration. He also addressed innovative ways to get attention from the public, and used the Celebrity Tie Auction sponsored by Career Gear as an example.

Finally, Tom Robbins, a Staff Reporter at the Village Voice, (author of "Holidays Off Ice," an article about three men celebrating the holidays post-incarceration) encouraged the audience that "stories of hope, which is what you have to offer" sell, they just must "be carefully put together." Mr. Robbins advised that the combination of a hopeful story with the statistics around the cost of incarcerating an individual versus the cost of keeping them in the community with supports is naturally compelling. He suggested that community based organizations "focus laser-like" on promoting one story at a time.

Thanks to all our panelists and attendees for making our forum series such a success!