Today, I got to attend a talk by Susan Burton, the founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project. ANWOL provides housing, legal help, and other support for formerly incarcerated women leaving prison. Ms. Burton started ANWOL based on her own experience as a former drug addict and convicted felon. She start in 1998 by buying a house and inviting women who were just leaving prison to come live with her. Since that time, ANWOL has provided housing and services for over 700 women. Ms. Burton has become a powerful voice for formerly incarcerated people.
Ms. Burton was joined by Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children who had also been formerly incarcerated. Their stories emphasize the power of advocacy by people who have been directly impacted. Professionals like myself have an important place as technical and resource experts. Yet we also must join with those who know firsthand the grueling hardships that we work to change.
Some people may hear that Ms. Burton had been in prison for possession of crack cocaine, and scoff. They might say that she shouldn’t have used crack, and that it was her fault. Maybe. But Ms. Burton started using crack as a way to self-medicate from the immense grief she experienced when she saw her five-year-old son run over and killed by a police vehicle. The police officer never even got out of his car. Ms. Burton never received an apology or any acknowledgement from the police department. If that were you, reeling from the loss of your son, and someone offered you something that would make you feel better, what would you do? You don’t need to condone her actions. She broke the law. But I hope that we can empathize with her. I hope that we can all applaud how Ms. Burton and Mr. Nunn have advocated for the humanity of formerly incarcerated individuals. I hope that we can see the humanity in everyone who enters prison.
Much thanks to The Way Christian Center for hosting the event, and for Karem Lizbeth Herrera and Jennifer Kung for sharing in this experience.