Bronx Recovery Center Organizes Symposium to Address Stigma

On Saturday, September 10, 2011 The Bronx Community Recovery Center, in association with the Bronx Cooperative Alliance, Palladia Inc., Delta Sigma Theta and Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, hosted a half day forum, Breaking the Stigma

Mandy Restivo, Deputy Project Director of Bronx Community solutions, and Co-Chair of the Bronx Reentry Working Group had the honor o f addressing the sixty person audience as the key note speaker.  Below, please find an excerpt of her speech. The full speech is available at

Good morning, I am honored to be here today to talk with each of your about the important issue of reentry and the role of stigma.

To get us going this morning, I want us to get a sense of who is in the room:

n           Raise your hand if you have a family member who was formerly or is currently involved in the criminal justice     system.
n       Raise your hand if you work for a reentry program, other non-profit organization, or a religious institution.
n           Raise your hand if you have been  home from incarceration for one year or more, three years or more, five years or more, and finally, ten years or more.
n         Raise your hand if your involvement in the criminal justice system does not define you. If you are more than someone who is “reentering society”

The title of the conference today is Breaking  Stigma. Stigma occurs when one aspect of a person defines the entire person in a negative way—when your identity is reduced to just one characteristic or event. Every single person in this room is more than their criminal record, more than their job, more than their status as father, mother,  brother, or daughter.Yet we are each called here because we are touched, personally, by the criminal justice system and the issue of reentry. Because we care, and want to see change occur for ourselves, and our communities.

The Borough of the Bronx, and those in the reentry community, face stigma every day. This stigma is reinforced by the statistics that are told over and over again. 

For the Bronx, one phrase, “the Bronx is burning,” has defined this Borough for decades.  The Bronx is seen as a borough of crime, poverty, and despair. The statistics that are repeated constantly reinforce this image. Statistics such as: In the Bronx there are over 29,000 people living with AIDS. The Bronx is ranked as the unhealthiest of New York’s 62 counties.  The Bronx has the highest unemployment rate in the state; and 31% of Bronx residents live below the poverty level[1].  128,313 former inmates live in the community and as many as 12 per 1,000 residents are newly released each year[2].  The story here, while holding truth, also misses the mark in a big matter --- the strengths of the Borough and its people. The people of the Bronx are resilient. This Borough is filled with art, culture, and industry. Not to mention, the Bronx Zoo, the NY Botanical Gardens, and Yankee Stadium, home of the only 27-time world champions anywhere.

 On some level, we have internalized the negative stereotypes, believing we are second class citizens as compared to the rest of the city. Some of you may remember the “earthquake” we had a few weeks ago. My favorite quote of the day was “If this was Manhattan, they would have evacuated us.”  We, as a Borough, should not wait for someone else to come save us. If things are that bad, we might just need to symbolically evacuate ourselves and start the hard work of rebuilding.

The challenge is: How do we break stigma while addressing the issues that face our communities? The antidote is two-fold.  The first is to examine and acknowledge the systemic issues that lead to mass incarceration of certain populations, and the second is to create communities that empower individuals to thrive. First, the systemic issues. In 2008, New York City paid $539 million to imprison residents sentenced to prison or jail.  A disproportionate amount of these residents came from 24 of New York City’s neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are home to about 16 percent of the city’s adult population, but account for over 50 percent of the city’s admissions to prison each year[3].

In order to address these systemic issues, we need active, engaged, voting citizens. This brings me back to the individual.  Martin Luther King said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” Following this logic, our lives begin when we speak up about the things that matter.  This symposium today is an opportunity for you to begin to talk about the things that matter: to understand your rights, to engage in challenging conversations about masculinity and manhood, to create healthier support systems.   It is only through true community engagement and building that we will be able to address the very real issues of stigma, addiction, unemployment, housing shortages, and mass incarceration. Very real conversations need to be had with employers to address their reasons for being reticent to hire those people formerly involved in the criminal justice system, and each side may need to hear some hard truths. Family members who may have been hurt will need to find their way toward forgiveness.  Relationships will need to be repaired. Politicians will need to be engaged; the media will need to be written to.  The work of rebuilding ourselves, our families, and our communities will not be easy, but I believe each of us is up for the challenge.

There is currently a void to be filled in the conversation about reentry and the criminal justice system in the Bronx. That void should be filled by the individuals in this room, because if we do not tell our stories, someone else will, and we might not like the narrative. So I ask you again: Are you more than your criminal justice record? How many of you are willing to do the internal and external work necessary to address the very real issues faced by Bronx residents? How many of you are ready to serve as role models for the people in this room, but also for the youth in our communities? The antidote to stigma is action, may each of you find the resources and support today to begin to do the active work of rebuilding yourselves, your families and communities.

It is an honor to be here today, and to have the chance to build a different story of hope, healing and promise.

[1] Mellow, J., et al., Mapping the innovation in correctional health care service delivery in New York City. Available
[2] Glaze, L., & Bonczar, T.P. (2005).Probation and Parole in the United States, 2005. Bureau of Justice Statistics,
U.S. Department of Justice: Washington, DC.
[3] NAACP Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate, 2011 Available at