Apr 25, 2013

Profiles in Leadership at the Harlem Community Justice Center: Catherine " Anisah" Thompson

Catherine “Anisah” Thompson formerly served as an AmeriCorps member at the Harlem Community Justice Center (a project of the Center for Court Innovation), and a peer advocate with the Correctional Association of New York, the Fortune Society, and Goodwill Industries’ Project Caring Communities. A recipient of the Coalition for Women Prisoners advocate for Justice Award, Anisah received her certificate in Office Technology from LaGuardia Community College. She was interviewed as part of a series focused on women leaders working at the Harlem Community Justice Center (HCJC). She was interviewed by Ana Billingsley, an Intern from the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. 

What do you do at the Harlem Community Justice Center?

I am a reentry case manager. I started here in October 2010 as a volunteer, and then I got hired in the capacity of a reentry aide in 2011. In 2012 I was promoted to case manager.

What was your pathway to justice work and what advice do you have for young women entering this field?

My pathway to justice work started as an advocate. I began advocating in 2004-2005 for women who were formerly and currently incarcerated. Most of my work was really about trying to reform the criminal justice system for women.
My advice to young women would be have a passion and really look at the differences between men and women when it comes to working in any area of the criminal justice system. Even trying to defend women, know that you have to have a passion because it’s a lot of work.

What role have women mentors played in your educational and professional development?

I’ve just met some really powerful women. I met some women in my advocacy circle that were really inspiring and powerful enough to help me to empower myself and to share that with others. Most of that came from women that were actually in the field doing the ground work, opening doors and changing laws. 

In what ways do you exercise leadership in your current position at HCJC and in your community?

I use my advocacy skills. I’ve learned that if there is something that needs to be done, then you ask for help, however, you also make sure that you put your part into it. I’m always the first to jump up and move a chair, or hang up someone’s coat or invite someone into the Justice Center. So people see that, “Ok she’s taking the lead, we should follow because it’s something productive and it’s positive”. In my community, I am the first one to say, “let’s advocate for some change”. There was a shelter assessment building built in my area and a lot of the homeowners didn’t want it in the community, but my thing was to advocate for it, it needs to be somewhere, and it needs to be accessible. I also advocate for programs for the youth in my community. In 2011 I sat on my community board and advocated for changes in the schools, but they proposed something they were trying to put up in a school zone that didn’t make sense to the kids so I spoke up. And I don’t have small kids but I think of every child as my kid, so I do stuff like that in my community.

What has been the most challenging experience you've had as a woman in the justice field?

Working with parole. I use to work with women who were dually diagnosed. They were homeless, formerly incarcerated, had substance abuse issues and a mental health diagnosis. And working with the parole office was really challenging at first because they didn't have the compassion to work with these people. Their whole aura was about either complying or getting locked up, and some people just couldn't, on or off their medication, actually comply with parole mandates. That's why half of them wound up incarcerated, you know they couldn't really follow the law, they didn't respect the law, they didn't know how to. So that was really challenging for me, but it wasn't a reentry setting, it was just straight parole. Everything was by the book or you get locked up and it was challenging to watch some of the women who really wanted to do the right thing, but couldn't and couldn't get assistance. Since I’ve been here I have seen that our parole officers have taken a different approach. They are compassionate and open to listening to clients, working with them to find the right kind of services to comply with their mandates.

So how do you think people perceived you as a woman coming in with a more compassionate approach?

I think in the beginning people were a little afraid of me. Because I am so outspoken and advocate for everything I believe is right, they were very timid as if I were intimidating to them so they wouldn't say too much to me. They were like, "where did she come from, she's just a volunteer, she's got a lot to say!"

What challenges do you think persist for women in this field today?

Not enough hands on experience or not enough knowledge of the criminal justice system, and sometimes not enough knowledge of community resources. I believe because I was an advocate and actually worked with women in the community, I had networked throughout the five-boroughs with different organizations and agencies. So having that knowledge and knowing where to go, when to go, and who to call, helped me a lot. So that would be really challenging if somebody didn't have that kind of information. It takes time to accumulate a network of organizations that work with housing, employment, free medical, stuff like that."

What aspect of your career are you most proud of?

I'm most proud of the work that I do that I can see coming back. Like when guys and girls get jobs and they start to navigate some of the systems on their own after getting the information from me. Just watching them grow, watching somebody get where they need to be or get what they need as a service is so enlightening knowing that you were a part of it. If you give somebody an inch and they go the whole yard. Being able to get folks to a point where they can say, "Ok, I'll try this" and to see their life change.

What do you hope to achieve professionally in the future?
I hope to be able to get my masters in social work. I just decided to go back to school for the fall, and I started, and I'm excited. I'm setting small goals, I'm in a two year college, and I'm gonna complete that. Then I'm gonna work on my four year, then I'm gonna complete that. And then my long-term goal is my masters, so I'm looking at the next 5-6 years being in school, but I'm focused.