As an African-American woman from South Central Los Angeles, Burton was incarcerated six times over 20 years for drug-related offenses. Her young son had died accidentally, and the system seemed to be working against her at every turn.
Unable to find work, housing, or drug treatment, Burton finally did achieve freedom and sobriety in 1997 and decided to dedicate her life to help other women walking in her shoes. Her experience with the institutions that were set up to reintegrate parolees back into society was not good: she felt that bureaucracy, pettiness and politics were undermining these organizations and their ability to serve their communities with effective compassion. As she says in an interview: “When you get locked up, you get locked out.”
Finally, Burton was able to take matters into her own hands and actually create something that worked — and the beautiful irony of her story is that in supporting others to reintegrate back into society, she wound up supporting and sustaining her own recovery in the process. Her vision was simple: she would create a place that she had never seen; a place where women coming out of prison could live and recover and re-enter society by helping and supporting one another — a safe, welcoming place. She would create this herself, and she did — by saving every penny she could from the job that she was able to get after getting out of jail that one last time.
That initial $12,000 served as a down payment on the house that was to become the cornerstone of her non-profit, A New Way of Life Re-entry Project (anewwayoflife.org). Of course, at first, in 1998, it was just her and the house, and her willingness to reach out to women who were about to get released from prison. She would actually go and pick them up at the bus station, understanding better than anyone how vulnerable these women were in their first hours after being released. She learned how to run her halfway house one problem at a time. When she ran out of her own money helping people pay for bus fare, she realized that to get donations, she would have to incorporate as a non-profit — something that was completely foreign to her. As she jokes: “That’s how I got to be a 501 3(c): the motivation was bus tokens.”
Gradually, she also began to share the roles and responsibilities of running her organization, understanding that as much as she wanted to help the women who were relying on her, there were also people out there who wanted Susan to rely on them. Over two dozen partner organizations, from the Annenberg Foundation to Whole Foods Markets, now pitch in to support her work. Her metrics may seem small, but the fact is that she has a program that works. Of the over 500 women who have passed through her program, over 70 percent have successfully transitioned to new lives outside of prison. Additionally, she has helped over 700 people get their criminal records dismissed, and trained over 350 workers to service the community. Her desire and her goal are to see similar transitional living programs developed in other states and cities to replicate and scale her success.
In the 16 years that A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project has been up and running, Susan has been able to expand the program to a total of six houses in the South Central Los Angeles area, and has garnered significant attention, support and awards. The honors range from Harvard University, to the NAACP, to CNN’s Top Ten Heroes, to Encore.org’s Purpose Prize, to this year’s James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award.
I expect that few of us are quite as challenged as Susan Burton to turn our lives around. For boomers looking to find meaning in their “third act,” Burton’s determination is a great inspiration and a great lesson in career reinvention. She didn’t find her answer “out there,” in the existing social safety net. She didn’t find her answer by trying to fit in to existing institutions. She knew what would work for her, and believed that it would work for others, so she just went ahead and followed her vision, her inner knowing, and made a total commitment to making that a reality.