At Trellis Foundation, supporting public policy change is crucial to our mission of helping low-income students and students of color succeed in postsecondary education. That’s why our funding strategy includes breaking down the systemic barriers faced by students from communities facing historic and persistent barriers to higher education. One way we do this is by supporting policy fellowships that allow students to be directly involved in developing and advocating for policies that can make a real difference.
As a graduate fellow at Education Trust and Trellis Foundation, I’ve seen how policy fellowships can prove life-changing for individual students and a critical strategy for systems change. Foundations that support policy change and advocacy as a strategy to address big questions and barriers should also support policy fellowships as part of their mission-critical work.
Growing up, education was always a priority in my household. My parents instilled in me a strong belief in the power of knowledge and the opportunities it could provide. While life took an unexpected turn when I was incarcerated at nineteen, I enrolled in college courses, determined not to let my past define my future.
Attending college allowed me to acquire knowledge and served as a platform for personal growth and transformation. The classroom became a sanctuary where I was judged solely on my intellectual contributions, not my past mistakes. The power of learning and its immense impact on my life drives my passion for improving access to higher education for all individuals impacted by the justice system.
Upon reentry, I decided to pursue my master’s degree. A pivotal point in my life was when I applied and was selected for the Education Trust Policy Fellowship. I found an opportunity to use my lived experience as an empowering tool to fight the barriers to higher education faced by others currently or formerly incarcerated. This policy fellowship led to many new professional opportunities, including becoming a Graduate Fellow with Trellis Foundation and seeing systems change from the perspective of philanthropy.
My incarceration altered my self-perception and my position in society. Locked behind those doors, I lost my voice and became just another number within an impersonal system. Becoming an Ed Trust fellow and having my voice valued, not despite my criminal justice involvement but because of it, inspired me to advocate for others. Through this experience, I realized that my unique perspective as someone who lived through the systemic failures of the criminal justice system equipped me with powerful tools for change and a perspective often overlooked by both professional advocates and policymakers.
However, the benefits of my policy fellowship extend beyond my personal growth. I directly influenced policy change at the organizations I worked with.
- I co-authored “Beyond the Ban: A Tool Kit for Advancing Opportunities for Justice Impacted Students – Texas.” This tool kit analyzes state support for currently and formerly incarcerated post-secondary students.
- In collaboration with various advocacy groups, I helped pass legislation to improve conditions on medical transportation for incarcerated females, prohibit the replacement of in-person visitation with virtual alternatives inside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and create a pathway for incarcerated individuals to apply for SNAP benefits while in custody six months before release.
- I helped draft language for Texas House Bill 4251, “Postsecondary Education in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).” I met with stakeholders and testified before lawmakers on creating guidelines that would allow procedural consistency for colleges interested in entering or expanding postsecondary programming in the prison space while preserving TDCJ’s ability to remain flexible in operating its facilities.
In closing, it takes dedicated individuals with deep knowledge, lived experience, and innovative ideas to drive policy shifts and achieve systematic change. Policy fellows can be these pioneers, creating a ripple effect that can positively influence policy, research, and public discourse. Supporting policy fellowships can help funders advance their strategic goals and advance a more sustainable, inclusive, and equitable future for us all. As the Greek philosopher Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”
About the Author
Alexa Garza’s passion for advocacy is rooted in her personal experience of incarceration and the stigma she faced in her community upon release. She hopes to use storytelling as a way to change the narrative around system involvement. Alexa aspires to provide her unique perspective to elevate the often-neglected voices of incarcerated women of color and their lack of support in pursuing higher education while in the system. She is eager to participate in research and analysis that will support effective policy reform that will provide access to higher education for all individuals impacted by the justice system.
Alexa holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration and has completed certification through the Library of Congress as a braille transcriber.