“History teaches us that change is often made when an organized segment of those most affected, leading in solidarity with allies, disrupt business as usual.”
—social justice innovator and strategist Makani Themba

Ed Trust celebrates the accomplishments of our inaugural cohort of the Justice Fellows Policy Program during a graduation ceremony in our DC office.

The Justice Policy Fellowship prepares formally incarcerated people to advocate for more fair and just policies. With nearly 2.12 million people who are incarcerated in the United States — the highest incarceration rate in the world — the fellows are advocating for federal and state policies that ensure incarcerated people are set up for successful reentry by providing key resources, including access to a college education, national food and housing assistance, employment opportunities, and election participation.

The eight fellows comprise a vibrant and nurturing community of directly impacted, formerly incarcerated individuals who have overcome the odds and attained their bachelor’s or master’s degree, created programs and organizations for the formerly incarcerated community, engaged in state legislative advocacy efforts, and more.

“As someone who struggled with funding, housing insecurity, and adequate employment during my pursuit of a degree, I am very sensitive to the uphill battle many may face on their journey in higher ed,” said Mary Baxter, a Justice Fellow graduate.

Throughout the fellowship, the Justice Fellows used their lived experiences to inform, review, amplify, and reflect on Ed Trust’s policy recommendations for justice-impacted students. The fellows also participated in advocacy training by attending sessions on making a compelling message, engaging policymakers, and being media-ready, to name a few.

“The most important takeaway from this fellowship is learning about how policy is created. Since taking part in this fellowship, I now have a better understanding of how to communicate with legislators, what policy should look like, and I’m intentional about how to effect change in Louisiana,” said Ed Trust Justice Fellow graduate Montrell Carmouche. “Since being part of this fellowship, I’ve registered to be a lobbyist in the state of Louisiana.”

“Ed Trust launched the Justice Policy Fellowship exemplifies power sharing,” said William Freeman III, Ed Trust’s new higher education justice initiative manager and Justice Fellow graduate. “There is just so much equity and inclusion work to make a measurable difference.”

Perhaps the program’s most remarkable accomplishment of “power sharing” was the partnership between Ed Trust and the fellows to create and release “Beyond the Ban“— a collection of new state policy toolkits for advancing college opportunities for justice-impacted students. Together, we conducted comprehensive policy scans in eight states with the highest concentrations of incarcerated individuals — California, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. The policy toolkits examine states’ policies and barriers for currently and formerly incarcerated people. The toolkits also provide advocacy tools and resources for those pushing for change.

“Being an Ed Trust’s Justice Policy fellow has provided a great opportunity to see different parts of the social justice work and develop relationships within the community,” said Ed Trust Justice Fellow graduate Jarrod Wall. “This whole experience is a model for other organizations to see what it means to not just talk about including people, but to actually do it the right way.”

“This program is tripling our impact as education advocates in so many ways,” said Denise Forte, Ed Trust’s interim CEO, during the graduation ceremony. “One of the things that we at Ed Trust are intentional about is how we elevate voices. But we can only do that when we are listening and when we have access to stand by close and hear the voices and know what’s true and what’s not.”

In response, Ed Trust Justice Fellow graduate Alexa Garza said to Denise, “The credibility you give us. The Ed Trust name speaks volumes in and of itself…you guys got my back. So, I appreciate that. Thank you for that. Look at us now. And this is just the beginning.”

The fellowship also created a sense of community. Said graduate Patrick Rodriguez, “The most exciting thing about being a Justice fellow is being in community with my peers. The coming together of eight impacted people to not just talk about what we are going to do when resources are provided to us, but together we are getting things done. That’s been a really big impact, and it’s also re-solidified the idea that my voice matters.”

Graduate Rabia Qutab summed it up best: “One of the most important things I am taking away from this fellowship is lessons of value.” She continued: “As a formerly incarcerated woman and a woman of color, I know that we often underestimate our value, integrity, honor, and what we bring to the table. The message I want to bring to formerly and currently incarcerated people is this – know that your value is high, your lived experience matters, your narrative matters, and what you bring to the table is priceless.”

Satra Taylor, a former Ed Truster who helped bring this program to fruition, said in between tears, “Out of the 400 applicants, you all were the selected eight. I am just in genuine awe at what this has become. As you all begin to go the separate ways, I ask that you continue to flourish.”

To hear the justice fellows in their own words, see the Instagram story.