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JustUS Voices - Mothers Talk

Mothers Talk ~ Breaking Free

Living Library Gives Formerly Incarcerated Women Their Voice

Giving birth in shackles. Mother-daughter confidences whispered through a glass partition. Goodbye kisses to a toddler who, at reunification, is a 21 year-old man. Frayed safety nets. Disbanded family units. Twisted circle of child protective services and parenting without options.

For many women, this Mother’s Day will be yet another period of obstacles and absence. But for some, their trials and triumphs will mark a chorus of voices lifted in transformative storytelling.

JustUS Voices | Storytelling for Change℠ will officially launch on the eve of Mother’s Day, showcasing formerly incarcerated women who have been touched by the criminal justice system. The unveiling of the multimedia story project will also feature Susan Burton, executive director and founder of A New Way of Life (ANWOL) Reentry Project, and the debut of her book, Becoming Ms. Burton From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women.


In this era of digital media, the Living Library is an innovative engagement through low-tech, high-touch in person encounters via the intimate medium of conversation. The JustUS Voices Living Library will host formerly incarcerated women, beginning with a panel discussion and followed by a rotating series of small group conversations.

Over the past 25 years, the rate of incarcerated women has increased 700 percent. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons are mothers of children under the age of 18. They are disproportionately Black and Latina.

“Storytelling is a powerful tool to give the world a window into the human condition,” says Gwen McKinney who designed the project in partnership with Susan Burton. “We are staunch advocates for change, but we understand that change only happens when people who are not directly affected realize the imperative for them as well. This starts on a basic human level that storytelling can achieve.”


The living library will explore questions, often unasked, that define the perverse and twisted path of formerly incarcerated women. How do they navigate a criminal justice system structured for men? What are the coping mechanisms in returning home after isolation in a cage? What securities and supports, challenges and crisis have defined reentry? And what are the collateral consequences on children and families? These realities, shared through the women’s lived experiences, can help inform national policy and the growing movement to end mass incarceration. The special needs of women are largely missing from the current public discourse.

The Living Library will animate the stories of formerly incarcerated women who, like human books, can be checked out by the library audience.

  • A one-time lifer who completed her bachelor’s and master’s degree in the first five years of coming home, and now helps other formerly incarcerated students pursue their dreams through a scholarship and mentoring program.
  • A sister and aunt who sought her own salvation from drug misuse, treatment, sobriety to now guide others toward rehabilitation.
  • A self-described “disrupter” who calls for ‘eradicating the box’ at the same time she brings urban gardens to Los Angeles food deserts.
  • A daughter of undocumented parents who emerged after three years in solitary confinement to build a new movement of the prison to college pipeline among “revolutionary scholars.”
  • A grandmother who endured childhood trauma but found her creative spark in prison, and is now writing plays and leading a women’s self-help group.

JustUS Voices will embrace advocacy through the power of storytelling, interviews, testimonials and commentaries, blogs, video vignettes and social media. The project, which launches its website in early May, will also invite new storytellers – formerly incarcerated women who never knew they had a voice – to share through an online “Tell Your Story” function on the website.


A New Way of Life

Founded in 1998 by CNN Top Ten Hero Susan Burton, A New Way of Life provides housing and support to formerly incarcerated women for successful community re-entry, family reunification and individual healing. ANWOL also works to restore the civil rights of formerly incarcerated people and empowering, organizing and mobilizing advocates for social change, civic engagement and personal transformation.

McKinney & Associates

McKinney & Associates is the first Black woman-owned firm in the nation’s capital dedicated to social justice communications. For more than 25 years, the firm has promoted, marketed and advocated on behalf of progressive public policy including criminal justice reform, voting rights, health equity and racial justice by advancing authentic leaders and initiatives that embody those values.

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