In honor of Women’s History Month this March, we decided to feature clients that commit themselves to empowering and uplifting women and highlight the inspiring work they do. Today, we are pleased to present Ivy Woolf Turk, the founder of Project Liberation, who has made it her life’s work to help women who have been incarcerated find their worth and achieve their life’s goals.
When successful real estate developer Ivy Woolf Turk found herself incarcerated in a “sea of suffering strangers,” her life as she knew it became a mere semblance of what it once was. She spent nearly four years in federal prison, where she soon discovered that “it shouldn’t take a stint in prison for a woman to find her worth.”
While working as the GED teacher in prison, Ivy noticed that despite differences in age, race, religion or socioeconomic background, there was a common denominator in each of them: “a lack of self-worth or agency to say no.” She identified similar pathways leading women to the mistakes they've made and recognized that in order to overcome these pathways, women needed to have the tools and skills to create a sustainable foundation. Ivy was motivated by this discovery to teach “beyond the book” and began to teach journaling, meditation and yoga. She watched women take responsibility for what led them to where they were and gave them the tools to connect to their own values, intrinsic wants and desires.
Ivy was later recommended for early release and quickly realized that life on the outside was even worse than life in prison. She understood that if a highly educated, skilled woman couldn’t make it in this “non-felon friendly world,” what were the women without these tools and skills, those still in prison supposed to do? Ivy was inspired to return to school to become a certified professional coach, where she learned how to deal with trauma and move people to where they dared to dream to be in life. Upon graduating, she created a curriculum that fuses life coaching elements with writing, arts-based intervention, and ancient and modern trauma-informed modalities.
Ivy began implementing her curriculum with the Women’s Prison Association, but after cutting ties with this organization, an opportunity arose where she was approved by the probation office to begin moving out on her own. Although it was exciting, it came with its own set of challenges and fears, so many that Ivy planned on canceling a previous commitment to speak at The Women’s Forum the very next day. She ultimately decided to give her speech, “This Could Have Been You,” and spoke with 100 women about her experiences, exposing the injustices of the prison system and her program. Ivy soon learned that the pathways she had identified, leading women to incarceration, were of great interest. Among those in attendance were the then Chief Justice of the Southern District of New York, lawyers, marketing specialists, and law enforcement officers, all of whom were moved by her message and encouraged to donate their time and skills to her cause.
“I was liberated that night. And from that liberation, Project Liberation was born.”
What has your work been like with Good Counsel Services?
Ivy met Elizabeth after being accepted at the Centre of Social Innovation as an Agent of Change fellow, where they built both Project Liberation and Good Counsel Services side-by-side. Good Counsel has helped Ivy by providing legal services, particularly with Fiscal Sponsorship agreements.
“Elizabeth and I are very good friends, both personally and professionally, and we’ve watched each other’s dreams come true.”
What inspires you to work with women?
“Women are the fastest growing yet most underserved in the incarcerated population. The pathways leading them to the prison system are very different from men, meaning that prisons aren’t made for women. We face isolation from being ripped away from our families, lack of programming and poor medical conditions. Project Liberation within prisons helps a woman to face herself and her genuine wants instead of pathologizing the belief that she is broken or bad. It sees a woman as whole, despite her past mistakes. We try to combat a system that is one-size-fits-all, created by outside ‘experts’ who’ve never lived the experience. It nurtures through identifying the limiting beliefs that get in the way and helps women to see where they want to be in life. Project Liberation leads women to a place where they can stand in and act on their own values. The only way to sustain something is if the motivation comes from inside, so Project Liberation tries to make sure women can find their intrinsic motivation to push themselves towards their dream lives.”
What do you think is the greatest challenge women face in the world today? How does your Project Liberation help overcome them?
“The greatest challenge women face, especially incarcerated women, is that they’ve never been given tools to build a safe and self-loving personal foundation or the agency to have the courage to stand for who they are and do what they love. The way Project Liberation works is twofold. First, it’s a workshop series that brings tools to grow self-worth, self-esteem and allows women to finally feel safe in a community where they’re not alone. It creates a space where women can see that their problems are not only theirs. Everyone has similar experiences, even if the overall story is different. Our logo is ‘Re-Writing the Story, Re-Righting the System,’ so we try to help each individual rewrite their story by overcoming, facing, feeling and healing their trauma.
The second part of Project Liberation is advocacy. and into their community. There are a lot of programs in the criminal justice arena that focus on mass incarceration, housing and employment readiness, but many are focused on keeping their nonprofits alive. No one focuses on what is needed for a woman to access her own power and develop past trauma and grow from it. We’re a trauma-informed organization who advocates with trauma-informed messages, and create a community around that.”
What do you think your greatest impacts have been?
“Since the incorporation of Project Liberation in 2016, we’ve served almost 400 women, women who are now living lives they’ve never dared to dream.”
The women come from diverse backgrounds—there are women living in permanent housing, women living with their children, women who have gone back to school or started their own businesses, women who have stood in the face of adversity and overcame it.
Unfortunately, since the beginning of COVID-19, the physical program space in East Harlem and the Bronx was shut down. However, Ivy continued her work and gives the women in her program a community of support weekly via Zoom. Ivy and Project Liberation have created a community that nurtures trust through personal growth, one that extends far beyond the length of the program’s workshop series.
What do you envision for the future of Project Liberation?
“I see us building a really beautiful online learning platform that can be used for self-study or for group work. We’d have expanded reach and with the financial ability to do it, over time, the curriculum can be made into a platform that serves many more women. I also see us expanding into prisons around the country for an opportunity for self-learning, where a woman can explore herself and begin to heal through programming on the inside, then we can greet women on the outside for reintegration. We can then stand by her side and be a support system and conduit to care for other things needed, like housing, employment and deeper modalities for whatever comes up in whatever stage of life they’re in. The real mission for Project Liberation is to leave no women behind, so out of Project Liberation is a whole other group of women who are imprisoned in their lives in other ways, like illness, bad relationships, or being stuck in a career that they hate. We’re going to roll out another platform called A Liberated Life, where women who can afford to invest in themselves can learn how to identify and move past what was imprisoning them in their lives. Hopefully, helping these women can also work hand-in-hand in funding Project Liberation to expand nationally.”
Any advice for those wanting to do socially-driven work?
“My greatest advice would be to pause and notice what is really, truly important to you. Include what is uncomfortable so you can walk your talk and do the work on yourself to understand why this is important so you can continue to learn and grow through the obstacles and adversity. Be authentically who you are, do what you love, and in trusting the process, rather than living in the fear of the outcomes see how you can prevent yourself from getting stuck in the narrative. ALLOW YOUR ADVERSITIES BECOME YOUR GREATEST TEACHERS!”