It took Susan Burton 20 years of cycling in and out of drug abuse and prison for her to find a way out of the self-destructive behavior ignited by the death of her 5-year-old son. During that treacherous journey, what she needed was “a safe place away from the horrors of a poor environment.” But it was always elusive.
“I tried over and over,” says Burton about turning her life around. “I knew there was more in me than I was actually living but trying to find that more was so difficult.” While her life was never easy, the devastating loss of her young son tipped it over. “My life was always full of trauma. I struggled with different traumas and harm that was being done to me,” explains Burton. “I always had some problems with my life, but I managed to navigate, so to speak. But after the death of my son, when I lost him, the pain was just too much. I couldn’t hold on any longer.”
What does Burton want those still struggling to know? “That the more is real” and to look for that helping hand offering to pull you “up and out.”
After she finally got her “helping hand,” she was determined to be that “hand of God” for others. “I wanted to alleviate some pain and suffering in the world,” says Burton. Understanding what was missing during her own 20-year struggle, she opened up her home to women being released from prison. With a “safe environment and a few tools” Burton wanted to make it possible for them “to create something new and different for themselves.” This was “the opportunity” ever elusive to her during her struggles.
Over time, her work grew and grew into the Los Angeles based nonprofit — A New Way of Life Reentry Project — where women not only get a safe place to live but through the many partnerships New Way has created, the women can get food, clothing, legal aid, educational opportunities, training programs, mental health treatment, addiction programs and more. “Everything you need to start over again,” says Burton, who from her own first hand experience knows what a difference that makes.
A safe space allows these women “to see their resiliency turn into the ability to fight for their lives, to fight to be the best they can be,” says Burton. “I see them get a hand up and a real determination to stand in a world that many times hits you in the back of the knee and buckles you to the floor.” For those still searching for hope, Burton offers this: “Know that whatever is happening in the instant, won’t last forever. It will pass. I know now that things that appear aren’t permanent.”
"A safe space allows these women 'to see their resiliency turn into the ability to fight for their lives, to fight to be the best they can be'. "
At the moment, Burton is focusing on a training program to expand A New Way of Life in other cities where the need is great. “I want to actually help to mentor, to teach people how to replicate what I’ve done here,” says Burton. “I want to create a network of safe houses on a national and international level. I just got a request from Uganda.”
At her first session last December, 12 people came from all over the country to learn how she does it. “It almost looked like the 12 disciples at the table when I looked up and I counted,” she says with a laugh about the first trainees, who came from all over the nation to learn the secrets to her success. They experienced a one day in-house training session at the nonprofit and then a one day experience out in the field, at the houses where the women live. “It was outstanding,” says Burton. “We have people in Chicago, Virginia, Louisiana about to replicate.”
During the multifaceted program, future leaders learn, among other things, how to create a ‘safe’ house, how to treat those newly released from prison, how to outreach, what the founding of what a home should be, communications, bookkeeping, development, ways to get financial support, contract writing, etc. How did Burton learn all that on her own? “Bit by bit,” she says. “Bit by bit. I don’t want people to go through everything I had to go through, so maybe I can help them through it.”
From her own experiences, through the women she’s sheltered, and her self-described “prison tour” which took her to about 30 states where she spoke and distributed 11,000 copies of her book, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, Burton has come to this conclusion: “We can do better as a country, a people.” She urges us to look at the overwhelming number of people locked up in prison.
“Some people are locked up who need mental health services. We shouldn’t be locking them up. Some people have addictions. We shouldn’t be locking them up. We should be helping them. Some people are poor and are just locked up for crimes of poverty. We shouldn’t be locking them up. We should be helping them,” implores Burton.
“Here in California, we spend $83,000 a year to lock somebody up. Why would we do that to a person with a mental health or drug problem? A person that doesn’t pose a real danger or threat? Why wouldn’t we give that person the proper level of services they need? It’s backwards to me. I’ve been to Portugal where they don’t criminalize drug use. [Under the 2001 decriminalization law, drug dealers are still sent to prison. But anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug — including heroin — gets mandatory medical treatment. No judge, no courtroom, no jail]. I’ve been to Norway and Sweden and their prison system is so different than ours: it’s rehabilitation not punishment. We can do better.”
And even when they are released, former prisoners often have “nowhere to go,” says Burton, who herself found herself in that very place many times. Today, many of those women, thanks to Burton, come to A New Way of Life. “Sometimes we pick them up from the jail or sometimes we pick them up from the bus station. We’re the last house on the block,” acknowledges Burton. For those with nowhere to go, they “end up getting caught up, being homeless on the street and sometimes getting into risky relationships.”
A mother and grandmother herself, Burton has created a sense of family for the over 1,000 women who have walked through A New Way of Life’s doors. For many, it’s the first time in their lives that they feel safe and secure. “A place with a sense of belonging,” is what can make a difference in turning their lives around, says Burton. “We have a family there.” Some even call her Mom. “I’m not their mom,” Burton says with a laugh. “But that’s the sense of safety and security they have with their relationship at the agency and it’s ok.”
Burton is sure of all this because she lived it. She’s arrived at this very place for a reason. “Helping others gives you very much the sense of well-being and usefulness,” says Burton. For those still seeking “the more” in their own lives, she urges us to find the “helping hand” and then turn it around and “be useful” to others. “We all want to have purpose and meaning in our lives. More than us.”