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Rewriting the Narrative for Community Investment with Susan Burton

Susan Burton’s life story is incredibly powerful. She is a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, the founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and an outspoken voice to end mass incarceration. And in this episode, she shares why she founded A New Way of Lifeshines a light on the policies and practices that encourage mass incarceration, and offers advice for leaders and organizations for building infrastructure and investing in their communities. 

Susan’s advice is so incredibly transparent, honest, and powerful. It encourages us to rethink what it means to have vision, how to invest in marginalized communities, and how to build sustainably. We encourage you to listen and absorb all of the information Susan shares about how we can each write and appreciate a new narrative. 

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About Susan Burton

Susan Burton is a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, founder of A New Way of Life, and outspoken voice to end mass incarceration. Following the tragic accidental death of her five-year-old son, Susan’s world collapsed. Her loss snapped the final tether of resilience burdened by a past of pain and trauma. She descended into an emotional abyss of darkness and despair, but living in South Los Angeles, Susan didn’t have access to the resources she needed to heal. Without support, she turned to drugs and alcohol, which led to nearly 20 years revolving in and out of prison.

Drawing on her personal experiences, she founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project (ANWOL) in 1998, dedicating her life to helping other women break the cycle of incarceration. ANWOL provides resources such as housing, case management, employment, legal services, leadership development and community organizing on behalf of, and with, people who struggle to rebuild their lives after incarceration.

Susan has earned numerous awards and honors for her work. In 2010, she was named a CNN Top Ten Hero and received the prestigious Citizen Activist Award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a recipient of both the Encore Purpose Prize (2012) and the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award (2014).

In 2015, on the 50th Anniversary of Selma and the Voting Rights Act, Susan Burton was named by the Los Angeles Times as one of 18 New Civil Rights Leaders in the nation. Released in 2017, her memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton, received a 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in the category of Biography/Autobiography. Becoming Ms. Burton is also the recipient of the inaugural Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice. She holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from California State University, Northridge.

Read the podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

Nic Campbell: You’re listening to the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast and I’m your host, Nic Campbell. I want to support movements that can interrupt cycles of injustice and inequity, and shift power towards vulnerable and marginalized communities. I’ve spent years working in and with nonprofits and philanthropies, and I know how important infrastructure is to outcomes. On this show, we’ll talk about how to build capacity to transform the way you and your organization work.

Nicole Campbell: Hi everyone, we’re in the final week of Women’s History Month. And we’re talking with Susan Burton; a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and an outspoken voice to end mass incarceration. Susan’s life story is incredibly powerful. And in this episode, she shares why she founded a new way of life, shines a light on the policies and practices that encourage mass incarceration, and offers advice for leaders and organizations for building infrastructure and investing in their communities. Following the tragic accidental death of her five-year-old son, Susan’s world collapsed. Her laws snapped the final tether of resilience burdened by a past of pain and trauma. And she didn’t have access to the resources she needed to heal. Without support, she turned to drugs and alcohol, which led to nearly 20 years revolving in and out of prison.

Nicole Campbell: Drawing on her personal experiences, she founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project in 1998, dedicating her life to helping other women break the cycle of incarceration. A New Way of Life provides resources such as housing, case management, employment, legal services, leadership development, and community organizing on behalf of and with people who struggle to rebuild their lives after incarceration. Susan has earned numerous awards and honors for her work, including being named a CNN Top 10 hero, receiving the prestigious Citizen Activist Award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Encore Purpose Prize, and the James Irvin Foundation Leadership Award. Susan has been named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the 18 new civil rights leaders in the nation. This episode was recorded weeks ago, and I’m still feeling the effects of this incredibly moving conversation. It has helped me rethink what it means to have vision, how to invest in marginalized communities and how to build sustainably. Susan’s advice is so incredibly transparent, honest, and powerful. I encourage you to listen and absorb all of the information Susan shares about how we can each write and appreciate a new narrative. And with that, here is Susan Burton.

Nicole Campbell: Hi Susan, I am so very excited to have you join us today and for our conversation. To get us started, can you tell us about A New Way of Life Reentry Project, your role there, and A New Way of Life immediate priority?

Susan Burton: So, A New Way of Life is a growing organization located…it’s based in South Los Angeles. It is an emerging, what I would call, an emerging model for this nation to create, what I would call, sustainable passages and openings for people who are coming back from incarceration, but it’s also a way to divert people from incarceration to positive lifestyles and influences within the community. So when I think of what a new way of life stands for, it stands for the ability for communities to go from being oppressed, to surviving, to thriving in a way that we, as I can say, black people, have always struggled to, and for, you know, thriving in this country. And some might make it out to a place that they feel like they’re thriving, but so many more are left behind to deal with oppression, suppression, and just surviving the racism of this nation.

Nicole Campbell: I think that is all so needed. And I know we were talking right before we started recording about your work and I wanted to dig into the model, the immersion model, that you talked about, and the work that you’re doing. Can you talk about, first, your role there and your connection to A New Way of Life?

Susan Burton: Yeah, so I am Founder and President of A New Way of Life Reentry Project. And I founded A New Way of Life based on my own experience of being re-incarcerated and re-incarcerated and re-incarcerated. Of being a person that this nation or its justice system did not want to make a positive investment in. They would invest in chaining, caging, incarcerating, and exploiting my labor as a prisoner, but they wouldn’t invest in the possibilities of me getting the opportunity to correct my behavior. And my behavior was in response to a LAPD detective killing my five-year-old son. After his accidental death – the policemen ran him over – and after his death, I began to drink and I drank alcoholically. I drank to drown the grief and that escalated to drug use. It was during the war on drugs and people were being demonized.

Susan Burton: Wow. You know, people would be demonized by this nation’s leaders. Wow. The same leaders were saturating our communities with crack cocaine, and I became a victim and the prey to the systems…to our nation decimating us black folks, brown folks, in our communities with this substance. You know, and I think of that period as chemical warfare on black poor communities, brown poor communities. And I think of the attack on us as a continual way of oppressing us, a continual way of criminalizing and demonizing us. What it also did, Nicole, was it drove women into prisons in huge numbers and it left our communities so crippled. And that’s why I feel like my work at A New Way of Life is so important to rebuilding and stabilizing our communities, the mothers of our communities, the women, the workers, the caretakers, the caregivers in our community.

Susan Burton: So, the work of A New Way of Life to house women, bring them back to our community, give them the ability to heal from all that’s been done to them, including the torture of incarceration, allow them the ability to build leadership skills, to get their kids back, to become, you know, forces within our community. That’s why the work of A New Way of Life is so important. And you know, I see it, I see it and I dream it, and I have a vision for it. You know, and I invest all that I have that women who people see or don’t see, you know, women who are invisible in this nation, women that have the ability to come and make changes in their community; I see them. They’re not invisible to me. They’re very, very important. And so that’s why, you know, I’ve dedicated my life to supporting the rebuilding of our communities through the services at A New Way of Life – the advocacy at A New Way of Life and the leadership development at a New Way of Life.

Nicole Campbell: I just think that is so incredibly powerful, Susan, and, you know, thank you so much for sharing your story. And the way that you described A New Way of Life, it sounds as though it is just such a necessity for society generally, but particularly for those who have been made invisible within society. To say, you know, as you mentioned earlier, to come from being oppressed and demonized, to step into thriving and being able to say, “I am a positive investment.” Right? Like, “You can invest in me.” And that’s exactly what A New Way of Life does. And so I would love to hear more about…and you started to talk through this with when you mentioned your services – advocacy and leadership – through A New Way of Life. Can you talk a little bit more about the kinds of services that A New Way of Life provides; the advocacy that you’re doing and the leadership skills that you are helping others to build? And why you think that that combination – the services, advocacy, and leadership is so important?

Susan Burton: So, the services that we provide consists of supporting women to have housing when they are released from incarceration, a place to heal, and it’s not just housing, it’s also a place to belong. So creating a community where people feel like…that the women that come here feel like they belong and it’s a place to root themselves. And in that house, we provide family reunification services, of course food, clothing, housing, social work services, therapy. And we also do some services around education and job support to get back to work; support for jobs. And we also engage in advocacy through, you know, testified…we allow people the space to understand that their voice and their life experience is important. And we create platforms for them to speak, just like I’m speaking to you today, to inform and tell people what their experiences are, but also what the possibilities are for their lives and how they’d like to work toward those possibilities.

Susan Burton: So, we go to the board of supervisors meeting, we go to Sacramento, they become a part of All of Us or None. And All of Us or None is the voices of formerly incarcerated people advocating and speaking on behalf of themselves. We also have a leadership development called women organizing for justice and opportunity, and they can participate in WOJO, which meets monthly. And we run that every year. WOJO came out of Soros Justice Fellowship. Over 10 years ago, I got a fellowship when Susan Tucker was running the fellowship program and we’ve built on and built on into that leadership development program. And we do it every year. And we create the space for people to understand what role do they have in the movement and letting them know that no role is too small, no role is too big. All of us are working together to build a movement for change and we’re bringing other people, especially women, along with us.

Susan Burton: And then we have legal services at A New Way of Life. We have six attorneys on staff. Two of them work with women who are struggling to get their children back because a part of mass incarceration is, again, a continuation of ripping our babies apart, ripping us apart from our children, taking our babies, literally selling them off, you know, creating needs where they call Child Protective Services and Department of Children and Family Services. It’s a continuation from slavery when they sold our children. That’s how we see it. Because I got incarcerated, doesn’t mean I’m a bad mom. And if you wanted to keep me with my children, it would have been much cheaper to roll out services for me and my children than to separate us and incarcerate me while placing them in the foster care system that fast tracks them into the criminal justice system. So we have four attorneys that do post-conviction relief and two attorney that do family reunification. And then we also added to there some policy work. So we want to stop the fast track adoption system that that incentivizes these places, like Department and Children and Family Services or Child Protective Services that incentivizes them to adopt our children.

Susan Burton: These agencies get paid for the $6,000 in bonus for every child that they adopt out. And that was a part of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1996 or ’94, but we’re working on dismantling that as a practice in this nation, as an incentive in this nation. And, you know, I hope the new administration looks at the harms that they’ve done, that their legislation has done, and their practices has done. And you know, puts forward what I call penance for the bad public policy that they pushed and implemented. And this is not to try to whoop them and beat them, but they have an opportunity now. I think they’ve said that maybe their approach and their thinking about how they created legislation was harmful, and so they can repair the harms now. I hope they do it aggressively. We’ll see.

Nicole Campbell: Mhm. And so it sounds like A New Way of Life is doing a ton of different direct services work, but also focusing on policy change. And I have a question actually around having children being pulled away from the moms who end up being incarcerated. Is that something that’s temporary or is it something that’s permanent? So do you just lose your rights as soon as you’re incarcerated? Is that usually what happens? I’d love to hear more about that piece. And then also about the leadership support that A New Way of Life provides.

 

Susan Burton: So, you have 18 months to get your children back, or they can be adopted out and that is permanent. You lose all parental rights to your children. And the thing of it is, is that there’s no recourse for mothers to…after the adoption happens it’s final. So I have women come home from prison, Nicole, and they go to try to find their children and they find out that their children are gone. And you know, I mean, I saw women who had came over prison and did everything that the judge said to do in order to get reunification services. I mean, in order to get a reunited with their child.

Susan Burton: And at the end of the day, the judge will say, “Reunification denied. Child is put in placement.” And I’m like, “What is this?” And that mother has no recourse to object to that judge’s decision. And I mean, I watched a movie, I think it was ’12 Years a Slave’, and there was a scene in there where the woman was begging the master not to sell their child. And it feels like, fast forward today, women are pleading with the judge to give them their child back, to reinstate their parental rights. And he says, “no”, and they have no recourse. So I see it as a, like Michelle Alexander writes, “the new Jim Crow,” the transference of those practices and policies embedded in our judicial system and our legal systems and threaded with the practices of slavery.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah. It just renders me speechless, but it also in the same breath, I know that there’s so much that we have to say about it because it just feels wrong and it is wrong. And just even from having this conversation, this is a really, you know, heavy topic. And so you’re doing this day in and day out, and so is your team. How are you all able to stay positive? Keep hope, keep fighting on behalf of these women when you’ve seen, you know as you mentioned, like different stories where just, you know, you can do everything right and you still are not reunited with your child. Like, how were you able to keep pushing forward and how do you encourage your team to keep doing that so that they can continue to work with the women in these situations?

Susan Burton: I mean, we don’t just have the struggles. We have wins through the struggles that are very, very encouraging and, you know, wins are important; small and large. We made progress. Nicole, I started A New Way of Life from my savings from a minimum wage job over 20 years ago. So there’s been so much progress from then ’till now, but not keep fighting is to say that I’m going to surrender to what it is. And surrender would be like, you know, like death. Like an emotional death. And I guess probably depression would set in and, you know, what have you, so you keep fighting. And I’m fighting for my life, my community’s life, my grandchildren’s life, for the future that I want to see. So that just keeps you fighting. And again, we have wins…one place I walk into, one of our homes, and these little brothers that are five and three, they run to me every time and say, “Hey, Ms. Burton. Hi, Ms. Burden.” And, you know, they’re the light and the life. And those little boys have a chance, the mother’s going to school to become a healthcare worker, and she’s going to have a chance to learn, to earn a salary that will sustain her and her two boys. So it’s, you know, inter-generational change that I see it. So, I mean, that’s enough to keep me going.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, definitely, just looking at future generations and creating that space so that they can have inter-generational prosperity, right. That they could actually be thriving for generations. Like what does that look like? So I appreciate that and appreciate the work that you’re doing. And you mentioned leadership, and I’d love to hear about what you’re doing in that space and working with people to make sure that they have the leadership skills and how they’re then employing those skills and showing up in different spaces.

 

Susan Burton: Yeah. So locally, we have women organizing for justice and opportunity, but nationally, we have the SAFE Project And SAFE stands for Sisterhood Alliance for Freedom and Equality. And Nicole, over the last 10 years, more than 20 years, I’ve gained a real expertise and skillset on developing, you know, reentry homes and creating leadership development, and organizing strategies that go within those homes. And so what I’ve done is I’ve created a training program for people to replicate our model. And, you know, I have a vision of a safe housing network throughout this nation that other people in their respective communities are welcoming people back into their community, and implementing leadership, and building a place for people to heal. And to walk, and stand, and work with us to change every day.

Susan Burton: And, you know, I might be way off dreaming, but, you know, I have a dream and I have steps toward that dream and a plan. And one of them is to have places for people to go all across this nation; to return from their communities, to safety, to a place of leadership, a place to belong, a place like a springboard to recreate their lives. If we don’t do it…we can’t look at, you know, this is not the work of a government. It’s the work of community, you know. I mean, I hope to build into that support from our government, but these are our community members, our people, our children, our nieces, our nephews, and they belong with us and to us. And so that’s a part of, I feel like, our responsibility during the war on drugs we’ve got. I mean our folks got brainwashed into pushing our people away.

Susan Burton: And demonizing them and finding them unworthy of investment. You know, we got straight brainwashed as a nation. You know, that tough on crime, that crack mama’s stuff, crack babies stuff, that super predator stuff. All of that, you know. And I say that there’s penance for the nation, you know, penance for our leaders, our folks at the top. There’s also penance for us to be a part of the rebuilding and re-humanizing, and we rebuilding of our communities, people…a lot of our community. What I want to say is that we kind of threw away our…I guess…In the class packing system, there was a upper class black folks that threw the lower class black folks away. Did not demand investment and matter of fact, they demanded demonizing, criminalizing and incarcerating a whole generation of people. We need to pay penance to and invest in rebuilding those people, and those children’s people, and recreating, you know, our nations communities.

Nicole Campbell: And when you talk about brainwashing, that concept, it resonates with me. And I think it’s just such an appropriate way to describe what has happened within our communities and I think just generally within society. And what I’m hearing and what I’ve seen about A New Way of Life is that it’s a deliberate model to attack that brainwashing, right? That brainwashing that has caused divestment in, in certain people, in certain communities and have said like, “You are lesser than and so we’re going to ignore, we’re going to invisibilize you.” And instead, A New Way of Life is stepping in and saying, “Actually, we are deliberately going to fight against that narrative and against that messaging.” And talking through again, the different ways in which you all work. And I know you mentioned that you all are working in an emerging model, and I would love to hear about that model in particular, why is it emerging?

Nicole Campbell: And then, just hear more about your infrastructure and the way you think about infrastructure. Because you’re doing a lot of really important, critical work, and you’ve been doing it sustainably for a very long time. You mentioned, you know, starting A New Way of Life based on your savings from a minimum wage job. And now A New Way of Life is a multi-million dollar nonprofit organization, right. It’s been around for decades. So I would love to hear more about your emerging model, how you all are set up to do this work. How do you think about governance? How are you thinking about the structure of your organization to support all of the good work you’re doing?

Susan Burton: So, when I think about combating the narrative that has been set forth is that I don’t nearly have the level of ability to communicate like they communicate and just directly attack that narrative. But what I do have is the ability to not let that narrative resonate with me as true. And what I can do is invest where I can invest to create a different narrative. And the outcomes of itself will negate that narrative when there is an investment made. So maybe that’s the way that I’ve been able to combat that narrative. And then just personally, you know, standing up and showing something different; what can be when there’s an investment made. You know, what I want to say is that, you know, I don’t believe there are throwaway people. And this nation, the way it works, throws away so many.

Susan Burton: And the cost is so high, not only in dollars, but in other ways that…we could just do better as a nation. So we have the nonprofit, you know, infrastructure of a board of directors. And then we have, you know, the officers on the board. We do strategic planning. What I can say is that strategic planning, every time we do one, we exceed it tremendously. Along with the strategic planning, we develop work plans and, you know, everybody exceeds the work plan. I guess when you have such dry ground, you know, when you water it, everything comes up blooming. Even though the ground is dry, the ground is fertile – if someone would just water it. And then we have departments, we have the advocacy department, we have the housing department.

Susan Burton: We have our fiscal management department, we’re about to build a human resources department. We have, you know, different departments across the organization. Organizing the leadership department goes within the art organizing advocacy department, the legal department, and the reunification services are within the legal department. We have our development department and we have a few development people on staff, and we have our communications department, and then our administration. And you know, five years ago, did I think this was what it would be? I did not, but I did know that I deserved a chance and other women deserve a chance. I got a chance out in a white community next to the beach that didn’t throw their people away, that did invest in their people when, you know, there was a mistake made. And I took that model, and I brought it back to South Carolina and then, you know, day by day, the beat goes on.

Susan Burton: And then we have the safe housing leadership program, well I don’t call it a leadership program, I call it a replication program. And now we are in 14 States and we have replicated the model in 14 States. And what I did is I developed a training program with the support from UCLA and my communications department. We’ve trained three different cohorts, over a hundred people, with the model and out of those people, I’ve selected – I think it’s 18 people – 18 people to replicate the program. And you know, I’ve supported them, I’ve raised dollars to help them get started. And we have training modules; every month we get on call and every month we’re together sharing and taking different trainings. And what have you to support them.

Susan Burton: You know, it’s kinda like, A New Way of Life was the support I wish I’d have had when I got released those six times for prison, and it was never there. I created it. And the training program that we have for our replicators is the training that I wish somebody would have gave me when you know, when I started out. You know, I had to learn like any way that I could, how to start, grow, and sustain an organization. And I think that if we’re gonna change this, we just had to get proactive and change it.

Nicole Campbell: And I, you know, I think as you describe how A New Way of Life is set up internally, and how that structure then supports your work, the theme that just keeps coming to mind for me is deliberateness, right? You’re just deliberately building, deliberately saying, “This is the change we want to see, and this is what we’re going after.” And you’re creating an infrastructure to support it. So I hope everyone that’s listening can see that the programmatic vision is always supported with that really strong infrastructure as well, because you can’t scale the way that you have without being able to say, “We have the infrastructure to know that each and every time we show up in a different state, we can ensure it’s going to be consistent. The way we’re working is consistent, and we’re going to engage the way that we have done in previous states.”

Nicole Campbell: So, I just think, again, it just shows, and it’s a testament to how deliberate A New Way of Life is being in both its building, as well as the work. And, you know, your responses, Susan, this entire conversation has been so transparent, and so honest and powerful. And I want to ask you a question that I ask all of our guests to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about to close this out. What book do you think we should read next? Or what artist do you think we should be paying attention to?

Susan Burton: So, I hope all of the listeners today have read ‘Becoming Ms. Burton’. ‘Becoming Ms. Burton’ is my memoir from prison to recovery, to leading the fight for incarcerated women. But I just won’t promote me. What has been such an eye opener for this nation is Michelle Alexander’s book, ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration’…what is it? ‘Mass incarceration In a Time of’…oh, well ‘The New Jim Crow’ and Monique Morris, so I just, can’t say one, there’s so many great books out there. But Monique Morris has a book called ‘Pushout’, and it’s the story of how this happened so early in black girls’ lives, young black girls’ lives, that their potential begins to be smothered and distorted just because of who they are and what color they are.

Susan Burton: I think that book really describes what happens early on and how we need to intervene. And each one of us – that’s the other thing, is that every day, every one of us can be a part of the change that we want to see. If we would act courageously on our instinct to make a better world, to give somebody an opportunity to invest somewhere and not be scared, not be frightened of the disappointment or the work that has to go into it. It’s like, we can’t afford not to.

Nicole Campbell: Mhm. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.

Susan Burton: Exactly.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, I completely agree, and thank you so much for sharing these books. We will put them in the show notes so that people can start to read them and put them on their bookshelves as well. So thank you for that. And, you know, again, Susan, you have shared such knowledge, your own personal story, and just incredible insights that I think that leaders will be able to use going forward. Because we talked about…we did a lot of storytelling for people whose stories have not been heard as much as they should have. And I appreciate that you brought all of that to bear during this conversation. And I think that leaders will be able to hear that and take your messages away, and inform how they then build their own organizations and encourage them to build bravely. So again, thank you so much for your time and for joining us today!

Susan Burton: You are so welcome, Nicole.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell: Thank you for listening to this episode of Nonprofit Build Up. To access the show notes, additional resources, and information on how you can work with us, please visit our website at buildupadvisory.com. We invite you to listen again next week as we share another episode about scaling impact by building infrastructure and capacity in the nonprofit sector. Keep building bravely.