When Susan Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project in 1998, she wanted to assist women who were newly released from prison. After serving six terms in prison herself, she had experienced firsthand the despair and hopelessness of having nowhere to turn.
Launching her agency in a three-room bungalow in Watts, she didn’t have a lot of resources, but she did have an abundance of determination and two decades later, the fruits of her labors have paid off.
A New Way of Life (ANWOL) currently operates seven homes, where it has housed more than 1,000 women and children, reunited 300+ women with their children and extended free legal services to over 2,500 formerly incarcerated individuals. In addition, the group provides case management, advocacy and leadership development to hundreds of women.
“I started A New Way of Life alone, but I’m not alone anymore,” said Burton in her Founder’s Message. “There are so many who stand side-by-side with me in so many ways and who help build powerful pathways to change.”
In recognition of its progress, the organization marked its 20th anniversary on Dec. 2, in a gala affair held at the L.A. Grand Hotel. The theme was “Remembering the Woman” and a capacity crowd of supporters filled the ballroom to celebrate with Burton and her team.
Many in the audience were current and former clients of ANWOL, who remarked on their transformation after encountering Burton and her agency. April Adkins, who served 28 years in prison, was appointed ANWOL’s housing coordinator in September. In her view, “ANWOL is a safe place to live. It’s hope for those of us who came home and didn’t know which way we were going to go. It gives us things that people forgot that we needed when coming back into society.”
Another former resident, Tiffany Johnson, now serves as ANWOL’s co-director and reflected, “ANWOL is a place that provides endless opportunities for women and that is wrapped around with so much love and support, that a women can’t do anything but succeed.”
The gala featured a salute to four champions of social justice. Following an invocation by Crystal D. Crawford of the California Wellness Foundation and remarks by L.A. County Supv. Mark Ridley-Thomas, emcee Val Zavala introduced Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman to present the Flozelle Woodmore Award to Ingrid Archie, a former ANWOL resident.
A product of a violent home and the foster care system, Archie’s life eventually landed in prison and shortly after her release, lost her children to foster care. She came to ANWOL in 2015, whichresulted in her regaining custody of her children and working full-time as an advocate for ANWOL. She educates women in L.A. County jails, conducts leadership training for formerly incarcerated women and serves on the executive steering committee of Californians for Safety and Justice.
Attorney Peter Sheehan received the Community Champion Award in honor of his long career of fighting for the constitutional and civil rights of others. He worked for the ACLU in 1971, where he represented Black Panthers targeted by law enforcement. As the founder of the Social Justice Law Project, Sheehan successfully argued cases such as Gresher v. Anderson (2005) and Doe v. Saenz (2006) that infringed upon rights of formerly incarcerated individuals.
Margaret Prescod of KPFK radio earned the Movement Builder Award for using her platform to highlight social injustices. She hosts the “Sojourner Truth” public affairs program and a founding member of the Every Mother is a Working Mother Network. Her effort to publicize the serial murders of Black women in South L.A. in the 1980s was dramatized in the HBO film, “Tales of the Grim Sleeper.” Prescod is also the author of “Black Women Bringing It All Back Home.”
The Industry Impact Award went to Ellen Adler, publisher of The New Press. Adler, who will release Burton’s memoir, “Becoming Ms. Burton,” in 2019, has also published several acclaimed works including “Race to Incarcerate” by Marc Mauer, “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and “Chokehold” by Paul Butler.
As for the future, ANWOL has established the SAFE (Sisterhood Alliance for Freedom and Equality) Network. Burton said the initiative will train others to “replicate the A New Way of Life model on a national and international scale.”