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JustUS Voices - Storytelling for Change

Few think of women as prisoners and even fewer imagine mothers or grandmothers behind bars. But the ranks of incarcerated women are expanding. Only Thailand jails more women than the United States. Sixty percent of imprisoned women have children under 18. Between 1980 and 2014, the women‘s prison population has increased more than 700 percent.

Susan Burton has lived the trauma behind those numbers. Founder of Los Angeles-based A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project (ANWOL), Burton cycled in and out of prison six times before finally receiving rehabilitation treatment for substance misuse. Thus, began her new path and an open door to other formerly incarcerated women. Over the past 18 years, ANWOL has provided residential and wrap-around reentry support uniquely supplemented with leadership development and civic engagement that also speaks to the special challenges of gender and justice. The next phase of the work is to build a bridge between the women and the larger society through the power of storytelling.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and the Weingart Foundation have awarded grants totaling $850,000 to support ANWOL’s launch of a storytelling initiative that transforms formerly incarcerated women from victims into public citizens. JustUS Voices | Storytelling for Change℠ intends to give voice and agency to women whose experiences paint the human face of mass incarceration.

Burton has joined with African American and woman-owned communications firm McKinney & Associates to launch the multimedia anthology that will feature authentic storytelling by women who have been touched by and triumphed over the tragedies of mass incarceration. The women’s experiences will be captured through an array of vehicles including presentation training, guided storytelling, videography, social media, live events and “Living Libraries.”

JustUS Voices will initially focus on Southern California and then expand statewide. California claims the nation’s largest prison population and is home to the largest women’s prison in the world. The project ultimately aims to reach advocates and women throughout the country.

“Telling your story is transformative,” says Burton, “For both the storyteller and their audience, a new bridge of understanding is created. The grants from the Kellogg Foundation and Weingart Foundation are timely and appreciated. This will create an opportunity for women, often missing from the conversation about mass incarceration, to be heard.”
The Kellogg Foundation grant of $600,000 is allocated over three years. The Weingart Foundation grant of $250,000 is for a one-year period. Both grants were awarded this month.

Through personal narratives and reflections, JustUS Voices will take aim at stigma and isolation faced by individual women at the same time it exposes the impact of mass incarceration on multiple generations of families and entire communities. They are submerged in a deep racial divide that disproportionately affect Black women. They make up 3 percent of California’s population but constitute approximately 27 percent of prisoners in the state’s criminal justice system. Latina women, make up 18.6 percent of California’s population but constitute 33 percent of women incarcerated in state prisons.

ANWOL and McKinney are planning a public launch for JustUS Voices in May in Los Angeles.
Gwen McKinney, the firm’s president, expressed gratitude for both Foundations’ support and welcomed the opportunity to continue a longstanding partnership with ANWOL. “Susan Burton is a force of nature,” says McKinney. “We are honored to collaborate with her to amplify the narratives of formerly incarcerated women and help them claim their voices. Each story is a building block in the tower of change.”