On Sunday, Dec. 3, L.A. activist and influential leader of the criminal justice reform movement, Susan Burton celebrated the 25th anniversary of her non-profit organization, A New Way of Life (ANWOL). ANWOL provides housing – and other services – for women who are transitioning from incarceration back into the community.
Ms. Burton is no stranger to overcoming adversity. Her mother and father were a part of the migration from the South.
“They left Texas trying to escape racism and the lynchings, the horrors of the South, and landed in a housing project that is in my mind, in retrospect, was a trap that trapped people in the projects of Aliso Village (housing projects in East Los Angeles); that’s where I was born,” she stated.
Ms. Burton endured a lot throughout her childhood. She recalls there being “a lot of violence” and harm that was done to her. She talks about her pains and tribulations in her book, “Becoming Ms. Burton.”
“I endured and weathered a lot of harm up until the time that my son who was five-years-old was accidentally killed by an LAPD detective,” she said.
After his death, she turned to alcohol and then drugs to cope with the pain, which led her to go in and out of prison for nearly 20 years. During those trying years, she could not find work or housing and did not have access to the resources she needed in order to survive and beat her addiction.
“As a Black woman who experienced the effects of the drug war, myself and other women were driven into incarceration in high numbers,” she explained. “The cocaine epidemic ravished our community and as a result of that, I was released from prison homeless with no one to help me.”
She soon realized that the conditions of her community could not offer her the level of help she needed. With the desire to receive help and the fortitude to change her life around, she went to the CLARE Foundation in Santa Monica, a drug treatment facility, to get aid, where she says that the resources were “plentiful.” When she left Santa Monica, she wanted to create what she had experienced while in treatment herself, and emphasized that she specifically wanted to help women who were coming home from prison. This is when ANWOL was birthed.
ANWOL was founded in 1998 and has helped over 1,600 women with their services, including housing. The non-profit offers a range of other services such as family reunification for people who have lost their children as a result of incarceration, provides post-conviction release (they have two legal departments), workforce and leadership development, and more.
“We believe that the experiences and voices of formerly incarcerated people are important and so we work with them to cultivate and support the development of those voices,” Ms. Burton assured.
The anniversary gala took place in downtown Los Angeles and was hosted by Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy. Lalah Hathaway gave a stellar performance to an audience filled with current and former residents, board of directors and advisory board members of ANWOL, and many more. United States Representative Maxine Waters was also honored.
“Part of honoring her is in remembrance of her standing up against the CIA and naming them as the culprit that’s flooded our streets, our community, with crack cocaine,” Ms. Burton explained. “She held an international press conference that talked about the dark alliance between the CIA and the Contra that pulled money out of our neighborhood to fund a war.”
Ms. Burton stressed how hundreds of thousands of people are released from incarceration every year and billions of dollars are used to incarcerate them. However, there is no money being spent on reentry services. She is committed to helping women rebuild their lives, and be the support system they need to flourish in society.
For more information on ANWOL, visit: https://anewwayoflife.org/