Vivian D. Nixon is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit committed to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. An alumna of CCF’s program, Nixon advocates nationally for the return of college-level education to our nation’s prisons and is an advocate for formerly incarcerated individuals impacted by mass incarceration. She is a Columbia University Community Scholar and a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, and the Soros Justice Fellowship. Nixon received her B.S. from SUNY and is currently a creative non-fiction MFA candidate at Columbia University.
Vivian Nixon has written articles for VICE, HuffPost, and Boston Globe among others. She has appeared on several MSNBC news shows and is a regular speaker on criminal justice reform panels.
Vivian is one of few formerly incarcerated women leading a nonprofit agency, using her experiences and visionary perspective to challenge common beliefs and conventions about what formerly incarcerated women are really capable of.
During 3 ½ years in prison, Vivian gained clarity about the correlation between access to education and incarceration. She describes her most formative experience as tutoring fellow incarcerated women. In prison, Vivian began to formulate her own ideas about the ways that the criminal justice system disproportionately burdens women. Upon release in 2001, Vivian finished her college degree as a client of CCF, and began applying her perspective to the emerging discourse about criminal justice reform. Vivian joined the staff of CCF in 2004. Vivian’s work at CCF has helped remove individual, institutional, and systemic barriers to higher education for women with criminal justice histories- a population disproportionately comprised of women of color.
Vivian’s work has changed the conversation around higher education in criminal justice reform. Never content to accept that subsistence living equals reentry success, Vivian has dedicated her personal time and resources to ensuring that major players in the movement – from activists and service providers to philanthropists and policymakers – understand that people with justice histories are still people: they have dreams, skills, and strengths, and are capable of more than minimum-wage jobs.
Vivian’s leadership went against the grain. She rejected the notion of subsistence living for women coming out of prison. She rebuked the idea that past convictions automatically render people incapable of responsible citizenship. She fought to expand the idea that people should be able to recapture their dreams. She pushed the notion that women should be free to choose how to build a safe and secure life for themselves and their families. She shifted the conversation and moved powerful institutions to make decisions. She fought for a new paradigm, a new narrative, a new vision and helped achieve it.
Personal sacrifice is amplified when one fights for a cause to which they are intimately connected. The sacrifice is magnified when that cause supports those deemed “unworthy.” Mass incarceration was seen as an urgent threat to Black men, but Black women, who fought against mass incarceration while they themselves were being criminalized and imprisoned in astronomical numbers, were overlooked. While men who have done good work upon release are championed as people who have overcome the untenable circumstances that have oppressed Black men, the few Black women in movement leadership roles are not seen as legitimate movement leaders, but as caretakers of progress. They are not championed as leaders but embraced as supporters. They take on traditional caretaking roles by sacrificing their own personal growth and development and self-care. Vivian has changed the notion of what it means to be a Black woman in a leadership role in social justice movements.
After 18 years, Vivian’s work of ensuring full access to education and opportunity beyond subsistence has broken barriers. Her pivotal role in getting the Obama Administration to reintroduce federal funding into college-in-prison through Second Chance Pell is now sustained by well-oiled institutions boxed in the traditions of government funding and white male fundraising bonafides. This is a matter of both structural repression and practicality. These victories could not exist without the work of ordinary citizens, like Vivian, working in small under-resourced minority-led organizations. Those who used their stories in service of a movement made it palpable to make systemic changes that allow others to move on with their lives.
CCF continues direct services to help women in NYC earn their college degrees, but Vivian has guided the organization to address systemic change. She had a hands-on role in developing Second Chance Pell (providing college to more than 20,0000 incarcerated students). Working in community, Vivian influenced the removal of conviction questions on State University of New York applications and the Common Application. Vivian’s work has inspired hundreds of other formerly incarcerated women to take on leadership roles and fully engage as citizens both nationally and in their local communities. And, while remaining a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, Vivian is currently embodying the values of the organization she leads: today, in her mid-50s, Vivian has returned to school to earn her Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. Vivian’s belief in the value of education has been reflected in her awards and acknowledgements: she’s been honored by the New York Women’s Foundation and the Tribeca Disruptive Innovator Awards.