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Introducing the Community Justice Fellowship Program

The Wurzweiler School of Social Work Community Justice Fellowship Program (CJFP) was developed in response to the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and a resultant increased awareness of and a growing societal demand for a response to the many problems plaguing local and national justice systems in the United States.

In the May 31, 2020, issue of News You Can Use, the student newsletter, Dr. Danielle Wozniak, vice provost and Dorothy and David I. Schachne Dean of Wurzweiler, had this to say not only about the death of George Floyd but the conditions that led to the tragedy:

What do we do when too many in our nation are looked at as dispensable and dangerous? When racism is written into the very fabric of our society and is inescapable? When the fruits of that racism permeate not just communities but whole populations curtailing access to health care, education, livelihoods, safety and quality of life?

We take action….It is our obligation as social workers to be a part of the discourse and decision-making that must come next.

By the first week of June, Wurzweiler faculty established an online space to share “Racial Justice Advocacy Resources” with students who wanted to take action for racial justice but did not feel empowered to do so because they want to stay safe from COVID-19 and/or their schedules were very demanding.

The opportunities presented through this space included discussion about systemic racism, with links to relevant sources; directions on how to contact political representatives calling for their support on legislation like The Eric Garner Excessive Use of Force Prevention Act; and opportunities for providing personal financial donations to responsive organizations.

As the summer of 2020 progressed, dozens of students, faculty and staff of Wurzweiler came together through a series of virtual community dialogues organized by Dr. Lisa Henshaw to discuss their personal experiences and reactions as a social movement began demanding substantive systematic change in the face of racial injustice.

“The role of the dialogues,” said Dr. Henshaw, “was to offer space for students to engage in critical dialogue and mutual aid and share their voice, so that they can shape the process of moving forward as a school community.” These dialogues also helped guide the Wurzweiler administration as they created concrete programs to combat racial injustice, such as creating an Anti-Racism Committee (ARC) and holding continuing education sessions like “Living in the Shadow System: Addressing Racism Through Community Justice” and “Justice Equity in Action: Fighting for a More Inclusive World.” Each of these sessions attracted nearly 150 social workers and students from the WSSW community of alumni, and beyond.

The Community Justice Fellowship Program is another responsive initiative created by WSSW to prepare students to challenge injustice.

Goals of the Community Justice Fellowship Program

The CJFP aims to prepare leaders among the students in the MSW program to identify and address inequities in the criminal justice, juvenile justice and child welfare systems, especially those that disproportionally impact individuals and communities of color.

The faculty and staff who lead the CJFP will identify up to 10 students each academic year who have an expressed dedication to practice and leadership in the area of community justice and who also meet the standard of academic excellence in the graduate program. They will be eligible for financial support because they will be expected to put in time and effort beyond that expected for students in a normal course of study.

Funding for the CJFP is being subsidized by Elaine Schott, a longtime supporter of Wurzweiler and vice chair of the Board of Overseers. This initiative provided Elaine, a social worker with a deep commitment to advocacy and social justice, with a compelling reason to dedicate resources to our students.

CJFP fellows will complete field placement (internship) over the course of 600 hours in an academic year. Student-learners will be matched with agencies who are leaders in the movement for criminal justice reform and racial justice.

In addition to supervision and guidance in their field placement agencies, a small group of faculty and staff will provide supervision and mentoring to the fellows on a monthly basis to provide specialized leadership training, allow for sharing of insight between fellows, and support coordinated response to identified areas of interest or concern in the field of community justice.

In return for receiving their specialized education and support, the fellows will, with faculty and administrative help, organize a virtual conference in the spring 2021 semester that will highlight concerns in this area of practice and spotlight the work of the agencies where fellows are placed.

Meet the First Cohort of CJFP Fellows

Priscilla Mota-Willis

Priscilla Mota-Willis is a first-year student at Wurzweiler. She works as Senior Director of Fellowship at Drive Change, where she is responsible for creating opportunities that empower young people returning home from jail and prison to find careers within the hospitality industry. She received her B.A. from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2018.

Mota-Willis is also the Founder of Brown Girls Awakening, LLC, which designs workshops where women of color come together and share tools and practices to support each other during these uncertain times.

She lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey, with her daughter, son, and husband.

Penelope Fisher-Birch

Penelope Fisher-Birch is a first-year student and inaugural Community Justice Fellow at Wurzweiler. She is currently an intern at Brooklyn Defender Services in the adult Criminal Defense practice.

Fisher-Birch was an attorney before coming to social work, most recently representing independent artists in copyright litigation. She received her B.A. from Oberlin College in 2008 and her J.D. from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 2013.

Fisher-Birch lives in her beloved hometown of Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two cats.

Nadine Evans

Nadine Evans is a second-year student at Wurzweiler, currently working as a Child Protective Specialist at NYC Children where she has spent over a decade protecting the city’s children.

Evans currently interns at Assessment N Counseling, where she provides individual therapy. She also interns at Community Capacity Development, an anti-violence organization that serves the Queensbridge community.

Evans received her B.A. from the State University of New York at Purchase in 2004. She lives in the Bronx, New York, with her son.