Professor Nina Rose Fischer Creates Change in Communities with Her Work in Harm Reduction and Youth Justice

Professor Nina Rose Fischer Creates Change in Communities with Her Work in Harm Reduction and Youth Justice

Professor Nina Rose Fischer Creates Change in Communities with Her Work in Harm Reduction and Youth Justice

Nina Rose Fischer, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies (ISP), has made it her life’s work to help youth from underserved and underrepresented communities meet their full potential. With more than 20-plus years of field work as a researcher, therapist, policy writer and developer she’s created real change across schools, juvenile detention facilities, and communities. And here at John Jay, where she’s continuing her family’s City University of New York (CUNY) legacy, as a professor and co-director of the John Jay-Vera Fellowship program, she’s mentored students to overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams. “I want every youth I meet to have confidence in their own voice and to know that they have the ability to create positive change in their communities and in their own life,” she says.

“Harm reduction is critical because it’s about reducing the harms that are caused not only by our own potential engagement and behaviors but by the systems that are set up to fail us.” —Nina Rose Fischer

Most recently, Fischer’s work in harm reduction—educating a community about a substance, knowing what is in it, and the potential response to the substance—garnered her the Dr. Andrew Weil Award for Achievement in the Field of Drug Education. “The award was for research I conducted over the last two years, evaluating a classroom-based, harm-reduction education curriculum for high school freshman in New York City and San Francisco,” she says. The study observed 712 high school freshmen who received a significant increase in harm-reduction education. The increase in knowledge correlated with a reduction in substance use from pre-study to post-study. “The whole notion of harm reduction is critical because it’s about reducing the harms that are caused not only by our own potential engagement and behaviors but by the systems that are set up to fail us,” says Fischer. “This work is really important because students learn what harm reduction is, what the different substances are, what different policies are in place in their schools and communities, and how they can advocate to change that policy to what they think is a fair and just policy.”

Fischer
Fischer in her office

Finding a Purpose
Creating a fair and just society has been Fischer’s goal all her life. Growing up in both New York and Chicago, as the daughter of first-generation Americans, she was able to see firsthand the social disparities in place. “Since I was a kid, I noticed how people were treated differently based on their race and social class. I can remember being in the seventh grade, and my white math teacher making only the black male youth run laps around the gym when they didn’t have their homework,” recalls Fischer. “I got really angry about it, and at that young age decided I wanted to do something to create positive change.” In college, while earning her bachelor’s degree, Fischer founded the Rape Response Coalition on her college campus, where she established rape response and sexual harassment protocol and policy; developed sexual assault and oppression prevention curriculum; instituted workshops for freshman students around preventing sexual assault; and counseled survivors of sexual assault. In tandem, she worked at a domestic violence and rape crisis center where she developed and conducted domestic violence trainings for doctors and law enforcement officials, educating them on how to detect when someone was experiencing domestic violence and how to work with survivors of abuse.  

Fischer’s work with domestic violence and rape victims led to working with at-risks youths from underserved and underrepresented communities. “At ‘last chance’ schools in San Francisco, I wrote harm-reduction curriculum and trained teachers on different harm-reduction interventions. I also developed assessment tools and conducted evaluations of interventions with teens for the department of public health,” says Fischer. She also became involved in youth justice, working in juvenile detention facilities where she implemented harm-reduction and violence-reduction education and interventions, and mental health services. “Being inside the detention facilities I was able to see firsthand the demoralizing conditions of confinement for the youth,” she says.

“There’s this idea in criminal justice about control and order, when it should really be about care and concern.” —Nina Rose Fischer

Digging deeper, Fischer found there was a lot of trauma built-into the system. “There’s this idea in criminal justice about control and order, when it should really be about care and concern,” says Fischer, adding that she met wardens who cared deeply about the youth but didn’t have the tools or skills needed to help rehabilitate them. “Instead of being trained to de-escalate or counsel, they were trained to do takedowns and restrain,” she explains. She began to run workshops where staff could talk about their feelings, learn new techniques about de-escalation, and set goals to support youth instead of being punitive. “Once the staff felt validated, they were open to hearing new ways of learning,” says Fischer. “More often than not, they wanted the kids to return to their communities and be successful.”

Fischer speaking during the fifth annual Abby Stein Lecture
Fischer speaking during the fifth annual Abby Stein Lecture

Creating Policy and a Rehabilitative System
Working in the detention facilities opened Fischer’s eyes to the important role policy plays in creating the systems youth maneuver within. “A lot of youth end up languishing in institutions for years and they aren’t given the support they need to be socialized in a positive way and be successful in their communities. I was struck by how at the end of their stay in detention, youth were pushed off a ‘cliff’ without a parachute back into the community,” says Fischer. “Policy plays such a critical role in how justice-involved youth are treated and what services are offered to them. We are so siloed within our systems that instead of saying ‘here’s a creative way to support youth, their families, and communities,’ the system is set up to recriminalize them.”

“The juvenile justice reentry policy was about creating and implementing programs that would make it possible for the youth to succeed when they reentered their communities, rather than getting caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system.”  —Nina Rose Fischer

Not one to sit idly by, Fischer took her years of field experience and research, and began to work directly with policy makers. “I was able to use all that anecdotal, 20-year experience of field work, and develop programs that looked for new alternatives for incarceration and changed how New York State does reentry,” she says. Fischer collaborated with the departments of Social Services, Probation, Community Mental Health, and community-based organizations to develop and implement programs meant to help high-needs youth and their families. In Brooklyn, New York, she helped establish a juvenile reentry program with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. And, while working in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Office of Public Safety, where Fischer served as Director of Special Projects and Juvenile Reentry, she was in charge of administrating all Public Safety juvenile justice reentry programs. “I co-authored a statewide plan writing juvenile justice reentry policy,” notes Fischer. The goal, she says, was to create policy that would make the system flexible and accessible enough for justice-involved youth to do well. “The juvenile justice reentry policy was about creating and implementing programs that would make it possible for the youth to succeed when they reentered their communities, rather than getting caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system.” 

Nina Rose Fischer
Fischer

“The student body here at John Jay, and across CUNY, really reflects the diversity of New York. To be able to teach at a CUNY college that is so critical to the lifeblood of New York City is an honor.” —Nina Rose Fischer

Coming to John Jay
In 2013, Fischer made her way to John Jay, intrigued by the idea of serving as a bridge between criminal justice and social welfare. “Being able to be that bridge for John Jay is really important to me because criminal justice should be about providing social welfare,” says Fischer. But, her story with the City University of New York (CUNY) system goes back years before that. “My parents are both graduates of CUNY and credit it with saving their lives,” says Fischer, adding that a degree from CUNY meant upward social mobility for her parents who grew up in the Bronx, New York. “The student body here at John Jay, and across CUNY, really reflects the diversity of New York. To be able to teach at a CUNY college that is so critical to the lifeblood of New York City is an honor.” 

At John Jay, Fischer is able to combine her passion for education, research, mentorship, and justice in the classroom. “In ISP we’ve created an incredibly collaborative and experiential learning community for our students. We bring the professional world into the classroom. Students learn how to do research right away. They go out into the world, do a social action, and then analyze the effect of that action,” says Fischer. “It’s about being able to see what’s happening in the field through sophisticated analytic theories—we use critical race, class, and gender theories in class.” Unpacking that, Fischer explains it’s about understanding the role racism, classism, and sexism play when it comes to issues, such as mass incarceration. “It’s about being aware of the layers and understanding the different drivers and motivations; how our identities cause different experiences.”

Through the John Jay-Vera Fellows Program, Fischer is able to conduct “intensive mentoring” for students committed to social justice and public service. She came to the program through her bond with founding director, the late Abby Stein. “Abby and I bonded immediately over our kind of approaches to psychoanalysis, therapy, and trauma,” recalls Fischer. “She was generous enough to work with me and guide me. Her greatest piece of advice was to really make sure our students fulfill their potential.” And Fischer is doing just that, holding students accountable for what they want to achieve and being a mirror to them constantly. Recalling one example, Fischer remembers a student who she helped guide during a difficult time. “I had known this student since her freshman year, and when she joined the Vera program I noticed something was going on. This brilliant young woman who was a fantastic writer, was suddenly down all the time and it was negatively affecting her ability to function in school,” says Fischer. “After sitting with her and learning her story, we created a plan for her to leave the abusive environment she was in. This student went on to graduate from John Jay and became one of the top teachers at her school; she’s now so happy with her life.”

Nina Rose Fischer, Alisse Waterston, John Jay-Vera Fellows alumna Andrene Wright ’17 and Caroline Reitze during the fifth annual Abby Stein Memorial Lecture
Nina Rose Fischer, Alisse Waterston, John Jay-Vera Fellows alumna Andrene Wright ’17 and Caroline Reitze during the fifth annual Abby Stein Memorial Lecture 

“When you create a supportive and safe environment for people to tell their stories, process experiences, and heal, you create a pathway to positive change.” —Nina Rose Fischer

Publishing Her Book
If being a researcher, professor, and co-director wasn’t enough, Fischer’s now adding book author to her list of accomplishments. Expected to be released fall 2020, her book Youth Police Initiative: Interdependent Fates and the Power of Peace will look at the relationship between youth and police. “The book is about an intervention program that started in Boston called the Youth Police Initiative, which I’ve been observing since 2004,” she says, adding that field observations and interviews were conducted for the book. “Through the program, youth and law enforcement had conversations, shared their experiences, and worked together to improve relations between community members and law enforcement.” The program, which has successfully helped reduce arrests and better interactions, has spread from Boston to 26 different cities across the United States. “What you see is this amazing shift because of these open and honest conversations happening through the program. Participants had a greater understanding of each side’s perspective. Hearing each other’s stories changed perceptions and tactics on both sides,” says Fischer. “It’s just this wonderful humanizing effect and it shows that when you create a supportive and safe environment for people to tell their stories, process experiences, and heal, you create a pathway to positive change. And positive, meaningful change is possible anywhere.”