Through Advocacy Lab, Students Work to Change Reentry Policy

A unique NYU Wagner course is offering students the opportunity to learn about and work directly to change housing policies for people reentering communities after being incarcerated. Their aim is to get the federal definition of homelessness updated to include those recently released from prison, giving them access to shelter and social services.

Through Advocacy Lab, which has been taught by NYU Wagner Professor David Elcott with other faculty members since 2011, students gain an overview of and training in how to affect US public policy through advocacy campaigns, legislative lobbying, issue branding, coalition building and community organizing. This includes exploring different forms of issue advocacy and identifying a value base; managing the strategies, tactics and activities of organizing and running a social justice advocacy campaign; and conducting research, marketing and evaluation.

This semester Advocacy Lab has partnered with The Fortune Society, which provides services including housing, employment, education, substance abuse treatment and family reunification to individuals recently released from jail or prison. Through its reentry programming, The Fortune Society works to promote alternatives to incarceration and strengthen the fabric of communities.

The students are helping to build Fortune’s housing policy agenda, with the aim of getting the federal definition of homelessness updated to include those recently released from prison. This change would give recently released individuals access to services guaranteed to individuals defined as "street homeless," such as access to shelter and social services, providing them with the necessary safety and support to reform their lives.

"Through Advocacy Lab, students are on the front lines of shaping the conversations on issues of homelessness, housing, and incarceration with The Fortune Society, a nationally recognized partner,” said Caroline Ross, an NYU Wagner student and Advocacy Lab organizer. “Students have the opportunity to directly apply the theory and policy frameworks we are learning in the classroom to on-the-ground experience."

To that end, students are spearheading the following projects:

  • Bringing "The Castle II," the play by David Rothenberg that tells stories of individuals recently released from prison (and that led to his founding The Fortune Society), to NYU Wagner for the greater NYU community on April 29, 2013.
  • Developing key policy positions for Fortune on federal and state legislation related to homelessness
  • Expanding research on the correlation between housing, an improved criminal justice system and societal outcomes
  • Enhancing the implementation and analysis of the organization's national reentry housing survey
  • Working with Fortune's communication and media strategy teams to tailor messaging to different key stakeholders
  • Visiting community members living at The Fortune Society's Castle Gardens to better understand the experience of reentry into the community and to see a proven model of whole-community integration with formerly incarcerated people that is viable and thriving
  • Identifying and reaching out to key contacts in the housing reform community

Professor David Elcott, who is an RCLA-affiliated faculty member, explained, “Our relationship with The Fortune Society gives students the opportunity to directly interact with experts in the field of housing and criminal justice policy, while they apply the focused, high-quality, research and advocacy skills characteristic of a Wagner education. We see the Advocacy Lab model as the future of public service education and an essential way to develop the next generation of social justice leaders.”