A Scholar’s Journey

Tisch Scholar Anjuli Branz, A13, has a passion for assisting people as they interact with the criminal justice system.

“From the beginning, the Tisch Scholars program has been the hallmark of my time at Tufts,” said Branz.

Branz’s interest in the day-to-day realities of the criminal justice system was sparked as a sophomore, when she chose the Middles District Attorney’s juvenile diversion program for her first Scholar’s project. Started by Tisch Scholar Dean Ladin, the program works with first time minor offenders. “Basically kids with no record who’ve made a mistake,” Branz explained.

“Youth in the program enter a diversion contract based on their case,” the sociology and psychology major added. ”This aims to address underlying issues – often counseling for things like aggression and classes about things like cyber safety. But there was also a community service component, and I was able to help them develop that aspect.”

Branz met with families and the juveniles to draw up the diversion contract, and worked to create meaningful opportunities with community partners.

“Ideally we could find a match between a youth’s interests and a potential mentor, and hopefully turn a negative experience into one that had a benefit for the community and made a difference for the young person going forward,” said Branz.

Branz’s success got the attention of Mindy Nierenberg, senior program manager at Tisch College.

“Mindy encouraged and supported me to pursue a position in the Brooklyn DA’s office, in their counseling program for victims of domestic violence” said Branz. “She recommended me for the Career Services Summer Internship Grant that helped support my work.  That was big for me, to have recognition and support for this kind of work, and a push to do more of it.  That summer experience was the first time I realized that social work was the career I wanted to pursue, because of how meaningful the work felt – being able to empower individuals in intense periods of crisis to improve their situations.”

Branz then spent her junior year abroad, first in Paris, then Madrid. A fluent speaker of Spanish, in Madrid she worked in a therapeutic program for domestic violence offenders.

“It was a diversion program, based at a prison,” said Branz. “So while they weren’t prisoners, they had to come to the prison every week, which definitely makes an impression. Many of the men who were mandated to come to the program were hit hard by Spain’s financial crisis, there were a lot of financial issues, and some of them were dealing with homelessness.  Being a part of the program gave me a lot of insight into the situation of my host community, and I was really impressed by the innovative efforts in Madrid to improve the prison system.  It was very powerful to see that despite enormous difficulties people are doing positive things across the world.”

On her return to the U.S., Branz spent the past summer as a Tisch College Active Citizenship Summer Fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.  Her fellowship was supported by Tisch College’s Hugo Bedau Fund, established in honor of Professor Bedau’s commitment to civil liberties.  Prof. Bedau passed away over the summer, and Tisch College is proud to support students who are furthering the work to which he was so committed.

“Vera is doing some of the most innovative criminal justice work in the world,” said Branz. “They’re right at the intersection of research, policy, and implementation, and it was a tremendous opportunity to get to work there. I was working at a demonstration project, called Adolescent Portable Therapy. It’s an at-home drug treatment and family therapy program for juveniles involved with the criminal justice system. I was doing intakes, giving families an overview of the program and the requirements, conducting psychological assessments of the adolescents and working to connect them with the right counselor at the program. I also translated the program’s legal documents into Spanish to improve service effectiveness for its many Spanish-speaking clients.”

It was at Vera that Branz reached out to the head of the Boston Reentry Initiative, a connection that would turn into her senior Scholar project. A partnership between the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, the Boston Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the District Attorney’s Office, the Boston Reentry Initiative focuses on offenders in the house of corrections with a high-likelihood of re-offending after release.

The Initiative works exclusively with individuals with drug and/or gun offenses.  Early into the offenders’ time they come to a panel with speakers including assistant district attorneys, parole officers, police, and representatives from community agencies.

“The message they get from law enforcement and the DA’s office is harsh – if you re-offend we will put you right back here. But community organizations talk about the resources that are available, the chance to have a different kind of life, and wanting them to succeed after they’re released.”

Following this panel, inmates can choose whether to be a part of the reentry initiative. Nearly all of them do, and they are assigned a case manager to work with them over the course of their sentence, helping to make a plan for reentry that will help them meet the challenges such as housing, education, and employment.

“The next stage of the initiative, the part I’m working on, is to create a family component,” Branz continued. “When most offenders are released, they look to family for housing, financial support, and possibly child care. They can be a huge resource. At the same time, offenders are almost always returning to problematic situations. There may be a history of domestic violence and other kinds of family issues. So we need to identify the most pressing needs and find ways to connect offenders to the appropriate services.”

In her current role, Branz is drawing heavily on the resources and lessons she’s learned throughout her Tufts experience.

“My experience at Vera have been particularly valuable – they have so many resources that I am able to draw on for my project, and my exposure to family therapy has been so helpful in knowing what kinds of approaches are most effective,” said Branz.

Branz also wants to bring her work to Tufts students.

“There’s a real lack of awareness of issues of reentry and incarceration on campus. Like myself, most Tufts students are privileged enough to have very little personal connection to the criminal legal system. It’s an incredibly important part of our society, however, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that it’s truly perpetuating justice” she said. “So to increase engagement here, I’m working on putting together an event series about the issues. One panel I am planning will focus on the logistical side, practical issues, with representatives from the community, like what the offenders see in the House of Corrections. Another will have people who had been incarcerated and their families, to talk about their experiences. Provost Harris has been very supportive of this work, and he has incredible resources. He was involved with the Federal Interagency Reentry Council that was convened by Attorney General Holder, and we’re working to hopefully have a speaker from the Council in the spring.”

Looking ahead beyond graduation, Branz is planning for a career in social work. But she feels there are a few things she needs to do first.

“I’m moving to India for a year,” she said. “My mother came to the U.S. when she was 19, and I have family in Mumbai. Social work involves interacting with people in a very personal way, especially as I hope to work with individuals experiencing crisis and trauma. Before I feel I can be an effective social worker, I need to understand my own background and have a better understanding of the power and privilege that I bring to the table.”

Branz’s approach reflects her understanding of active citizenship.

“It’s about doing what is meaningful to you to improve the community you live in, and the lives of those around you. You have to do what you can with the resources you have, and I am so grateful for the resources Tisch College has given me, and the amazing community of the Scholars.”