Tanya Jisa: Cultivating second chances

photos courtesy Tanya Jisa

photos courtesy Tanya Jisa

by Todd Cohen

Tanya Jisa found her mission in 2006, when she read in a newspaper article that roughly one in 100 Americans was behind bars. A trained social worker, Jisa had worked at a juvenile detention center, an abortion clinic, and two medical schools. She envisioned combining her desire to help women coming out of prison break the cycle of incarceration with her own love of farming. She imagined women doing meaningful, healthy work on a farm while learning the life skills they’d need to help themselves.

Jisa worked part-time for five years to make that dream a reality, and then in 2011 she left her job at School of Medicine at Duke in Durham to work full-time creating Benevolence Farm. The 13-acre farm in Alamance County is scheduled to open in December and, when fully developed, will provide jobs and a home for two years for up to 12 women released from state prison.

“I wanted to create a program that would help women to get out of that revolving door,” says Jisa, 47. Too often, she says, “They would just get in the system and keep going back.”

She estimates that creating Benevolence Farm will ultimately cost $875,000. So far, she has raised $275,000, including $190,000 from the Arizona-based Snider Family Charitable Fund, through Jen Snider and her partner, Erin Kimrey, who live in Hillsborough. Benevolence Farm was also given 11 acres of land and purchased two adjacent acres with an existing house that will serve as a home for four women until a more permanent structure is built.

This past summer, 18 students in the College of Design at N.C. State designed and built a barn for Benevolence Farm. The Farm paid for the materials with $25,000 in contributions from individuals. Still in the planning stages are a main residence to house all 12 women, and several smaller structures, possibly including a composting outhouse, rain barn, and sheds.

Benevolence Farm will work with state re-entry officials, chaplains, and social workers at the N.C. Department of Public Safety to identify potential candidates, who will likely include women serving five years or more. It will pay the women a wage to work on the farm, and charge them for room and board and for programs on financial literacy, job readiness, family reunification, marketing, and entrepreneurship. It will set aside some wages to create savings accounts for residents. And it will partner with nonprofits and other agencies to provide educational classes and social and legal services.

Jisa, a native of Mansfield, Ohio, has a master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis. Most recently, she coordinated and oversaw continuing education for physicians at the School of Medicine at Duke. She lives in Carrboro with her partner, Rhonda Goolsby, a landscape designer and a coffee buyer at Whole Foods.

BARN RAISING Tanya Jisa (in yellow hard hat above) worked with NCSU Design School students, below, to erect a barn for Benevolence Farm this past summer.

Tanya Jisa, above in yellow hard hat, worked with NCSU Design School students, below, to erect a barn for Benevolence Farm this past summer.

FinalReview_grp2What led you to the idea for Benevolence Farm?

Part of what attracted my partner and me to this area was the food and farming. I love to cook and she loves to garden. We were getting to know the farm community and went to conferences and farmers markets. How could I be a social worker and integrate it into the food and farming movement? Then I read the article in The New York Times that talked about one in 100 people in the U.S. being behind bars. I thought, “I want to do something about that. That’s crazy.”

What did you learn working at the juvenile detention center?

A lot of the kids I was seeing didn’t have the same resources that I had. I thought I’d go back to school and do social work and work with these kids in school, and divert them from ending up in juvenile detention centers. There must be some way of catching up with these kids before they land in jail. I did an internship at a high school and realized you can’t really do all that much. Your hands are tied in what you can talk about, like HIV and birth control. You can’t be explicit. You had limited access to resources. So I got a part-time job at an abortion clinic. That changed my focus. I became more interested in women’s issues and reproductive health.

Who were your parents?

Burk Jisa, a real estate appraiser, and Mary Jisa, who was a substitute teacher and provided administrative support at a real estate office. Her primary occupation is working with and for my father.

What did you learn from them?

They’ve always been involved in the community. Mom served on the board of the local humane society, the Richmond County Humane Society. They both love animals. Dad was always involved in the University Club. It gave scholarships to kids at my high school. They always have been actively working to make the world a better place. It’s important to give back. I learned by example.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was young, I wanted to be a pediatric nurse. I wanted to work with babies at the hospital. I was the youngest of three. Maybe I wanted a younger sibling to care for.

What is your earliest memory of philanthropy?

I grew up across the street from a young woman in a wheel chair. They were always doing the Jerry Lewis telethon and walkathon. We would be so excited to be walking with her in the walkathon.

Who are your heroes?

Faye Wattleton. She used to be president of Planned Parenthood. She’s a woman of color who moved into a very important position with a very important organization in the country, and she did it with a lot of integrity, and surpassed a lot of barriers to get there. She was persistent.

Who do you admire in the Triangle?

Heidi Norwick. She founded the Women’s Resource Center in Alamance County. She’s now the head of United Way of Alamance County. She puts her money where her mouth is. She gets it done. She’s determined and kind and super-talented – and using that for the good of the community.

What motivates you each day to give back?

Thinking of those women who are sitting in prison with no place to go.

What do you like about Triangle?

I like the progressive nature of the Triangle. I like that people care about sustainability. I love having access to at least 10 farmers markets, and that I can go to restaurants that support our local farms.

If you could fix a social problem, what would it be?

Public transportation. I would make it free, earth-friendly, sustainable. It touches so many parts of our lives, and is one of the hugest barriers for people getting out of prison – anybody who can’t get to the doctor, or to work reliably every day, or to the grocery store. And it gets us out of our cars.

What inspires you?

Rigorous honesty.

What does philanthropy mean to you?

Giving back, sharing our resources.

What do you do for fun?

Cook. Dinner with friends. Documentary film.

What is your favorite movie?

Being There. It’s funny. It says money and property and prestige don’t hold a lot of water. It’s more about what’s in your heart and speaking from your heart.

What are you reading?

We’re All Doing Time: A Guide to Getting Free, by Bo Lozoff. It’s about meditation practices, primarily targeted to guys in prison.

Where do like to go for vacations?

Europe. Italy. There’s an awesome farm over there, Spannocchia, near Siena. It’s an organic farm and castle. You can stay there. I’ve been there twice.

What is a pet peeve?


What is your philosophy of life?

Keep it simple.

If you could invite anyone, living or dead, to dinner, who would it be?

Martin Luther King. I adore what he did for us and for me and for the world. He gave us another way of thinking about how to solve insolvable problems.