JustUS Voices | Storytelling for Change℠
Susan Burton: A Rising Tide, A Welcome Home
Susan Burton was every little girl who ever sought to feel loved and valued. To feel safe. To thrive, and give back.
Before the uneven sway of the criminal justice system closed off treatment options and pushed her into incarceration, she was just a little girl with promise living in the projects of East L.A.
She wanted the things that girls everywhere want: a bit of popularity, tea parties with friends, the accolades that come with good grades. She wanted to soar beyond her circumstances.
Instead, she was mired in hardship, pulled deeper into the quicksand of poverty and its heaviness. The horror of sexual abuse resulted not only in shame but in pregnancy at age 15, and with it the sudden advent of adult responsibilities.
She had a daughter, and pieced together a life for them as best she could. She treaded water, stayed afloat, stayed alive. She fell in love and had a second child, a boy. Glimpses of her girlhood promise came like waves then—salty and turbulent, but lifting her up, too.
Until the big one in 1981, a riptide out of nowhere, that pulled her under. Her little boy, KK—her sunshine and joy—was dead at five years old. Hit by an LAPD officer driving an unmarked car.
Drowning, Susan thrashed about for something to pull her out of that grief-fueled tempest. She grabbed onto a vial of the omnipresent crack cocaine and drifted to a lower hell, arrested and incarcerated on drug offenses.
Once, twice, and eventually six times. With each prison release, she boarded the bus with the state-issued two hundred dollars—“gate money.” Each time, she disembarked into that same maelstrom, mere yards from Skid Row and its smorgasbord of drugs and alcohol and pimps, where the prospects for legitimate work were meager at best.
After the sixth time it would have been easy for her to succumb once more, to just give up and get high, get arrested again.
Something welled up inside Susan. That frayed ribbon of her girlhood promise somehow strengthened, like a lifeline pulling her toward the shore. She was swimming this time, pushing away the no-house, no-job hopelessness. Then an angel’s gift in the form of money from her brother got her a place at a rehab center.
Rehab is a fairly basic alternative after a drug arrest. Surely after the second or third—and most certainly by the sixth arrest—at least one judge could have remanded her to a treatment facility. At least one parole officer could have offered her a group home option, a halfway house, even a free list of AA and NA meetings.
No one ever raised the possibility of drug treatment instead of incarceration. A compassionate path to reentry…a path not blocked with boulders the size of monsters, or fraught with sink holes deep enough to swallow the human spirit. Never an option; until after the sixth time.
Susan’s stay in rehab started her on a new journey and for the first time people helped her believe she mattered. The change profoundly signaled her new way of life.
She secured employment as a home health aide, saved her earnings and bought her own home. Then she went back to that Skid Row cesspool and waited for the same outbound prison bus that she herself had ridden six times. She watched the just-released women disembark, and found replicas of herself. In their faces—a mix of hope and despair that said, I want to do better this time, but how?
She began inviting the women back to her home to stay as long as they needed, contributing only what they could. She helped them chart a course that would untether them from the criminal justice system. Their needs were vast, from treatments to help in the recovery of their bodies, minds, and spirits. The demands ranged from sobriety to securing a Social Security card, to the deceptively simple acquisition of $3.00 for bus fare.
That was 1998. Susan had doled out so many offerings of bus fare that her personal resources were dwindling. She incorporated into a nonprofit program, appropriately named A New Way of Life Reentry Project.
Seventeen years and five houses later, nearly 900 women have come through her doors.
Eight out of every 10 of those women have cut the cord to incarceration. Lives, families, and entire communities have been transformed.
Susan still meets that outbound prison bus at Skid Row. She still sees herself in those women. Though the details of their stories differ, they are the same at the core, where a little girl’s need to feel loved and valued, to feel safe, to thrive and contribute in kind still blooms.
Those are grown-woman needs too, denied to Susan Burton and countless like her who have cycled through a brutal criminal justice system that has been blind to those needs.
But thanks to Susan’s sensible, compassionate approach, A New Way of Life awaits them. As they step off the bus, she extends her hand to them, mostly younger versions of herself, and says, “Welcome home.”
Susan Burton: A Rising Tide, A Welcome Home is the first story in a multimedia anthology from formerly incarcerated people and others who have been touched by, and triumphed over, the tragedies of the criminal justice system. Email us to learn more about JustUS Voices | Storytelling for Change.
A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project
When Susan Burton’s 5-year-old son died in an accident, the fragile life she had pieced together amid poverty and hardship disintegrated. Reeling from the loss, she tumbled into a downward spiral of drug addiction.
Fifteen years and six drug-related prison sentences later, Burton gained sobriety and founded a safe place for women in need. Since 1998, A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project (ANWOL) in Los Angeles has helped more than 600 formerly incarcerated women rebuild their lives.
More important, she has created a bridge to redemption, economic opportunity and political enfranchisement. A safe, sober-living home environment, ANWOL empowers formerly incarcerated women with leadership and skills development. Its ever-widening circle of services and allies is today a national model for breaking the cycle of recidivism and restoring the human dignity of each individual.
McKinney has served as communications counsel and strategist to Burton since 2010, when she was selected from thousands of nominees as one of CNN’s Top Heroes—an honor that recognizes “everyday people changing the world.” Our intensive strategic communications push garnered public attention and brought Burton and ANWOL a much-deserved national spotlight as a voice of re-entry and criminal justice reform.
Team McKinney continues to partner with Burton in her tireless work to transform the criminal justice system, providing strategic communications that advances the transformative justice movement.
We recently joined with ANWOL and The California Endowment to offer message training and leadership development to organizations working to implement Proposition 47, California’s newly adopted law that reduces nonviolent felony offenses to misdemeanors. The initiative also redirects the savings from reducing incarceration into drug treatment and mental health programs. McKinney delivered strategic communications messaging, and resources to raise awareness, spur action and generate wider community engagement.
McKinney also supports Burton’s public appearances on the national stage, engaging media, opinion leaders and policymakers.
Walking with Harriet
Four out of five Black women are overweight or obese. Gwen McKinney used to be one of them.
Federal health data shows that obesity among Black women and girls is at epidemic levels, and linked to a host of chronic and deadly conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Gwen, embracing the data as a personal challenge, dropped 54 pounds and channeled that commitment into motivating and coaching women as a Weight Watchers leader.
Not by accident, a seemingly random email caught her attention. The message was about a new group that was challenging Black women to walk 100 minutes on March 10, 2013—the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death. The nonprofit organization, GirlTrek, promotes healthy living for Black women and girls by encouraging them to incorporate walking, biking and hiking into their lifestyles.
GirlTrek had a strong narrative emanating from Tubman’s legacy as a self-emancipated woman, and effective messengers in its two founders. But with no paid staff members and less than two weeks before the event, the organization needed more hands on deck.
Seeing both the potential in GirlTrek’s messaging and a pressing need to address the obesity crisis among Black women and girls, Gwen and the McKinney team jumped into the fray. What followed was a commitment of professional communications support via a pro bono campaign to launch the walking challenge.
With the clock ticking, a multipronged approach was essential—so we merged high-tech and high-touch outreach to publicize GirlTrek’s message. The group’s collateral materials combined contemporary personal narratives with references to Tubman’s life; we capitalized on the connection to identify media targets that spoke to GirlTrek’s audience and aspirations. Our social media team revved up interest with a series of posts on the McKinney blog, and produced a weekly “Minute with Gwen” vlog.
The fruits of our labor included placements in The Washington Post and USA Today, the nation’s largest-circulation print newspaper, and on a nationally syndicated NPR magazine program and the D.C. affiliate WAMU. McKinney tweeted and posted upcoming media appearances and linked to interviews, which were then reposted and retweeted by the GirlTrek network.
On March 10, Team McKinney joined thousands of women as they walked from the U.S. Capitol Grounds to the Lincoln Memorial and past the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, live tweeting the event as it unfolded. And today, members of our staff still participate in GirlTrek events, including a trip to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.