It took six visits to prison before Susan Burton found the support she needed to break the incarceration cycle. Determined to help other women like herself, she founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project in South Los Angeles in the late 1990s.
On Monday, May 20, Burton will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from California State University, Northridge in recognition of all she has done to transform the lives of incarcerated women and at-risk youth, and for her efforts to share what she has learned with the world, including CSUN students.
“Susan Burton has overcome tremendous difficulties to achieve extraordinary accomplishments in the last two decades as a nationally renowned activist and community organizer,” said CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison. “She has created housing for women and their children, lobbied to change public policies, written a book, and counseled formerly incarcerated women and at-risk youth, including our students here at CSUN.
“While her work has taken her across the country and around the world, Ms. Burton has established a meaningful relationship with CSUN,” Harrison continued. “She has collaborated and served as a resource for our faculty and students on such issues as criminal justice reform. She has repeatedly served as a guest speaker and helped with projects such as CSUN Revolutionary Scholars, a campus retention project that seeks to support formerly incarcerated and other systems-impacted students on campus. For all that she has done, for CSUN and all those who have been touched by her efforts, we are proud to honor her.”
Burton will receive her honorary doctorate at 8 a.m. on May 20 on the law in from the Delmar T. Oviatt Library during the commencement ceremony for the College of Humanities and the College of Health and Human Development.
Burton said she was honored to receive the degree.
“When I was 13, my education was interrupted. After a growth spurt, I had gone to school with my skirt an inch too short, and I was suspended from school for two weeks,” Burton said. “When I left school, we were multiplying and dividing fractions; when I got back, they were doing algebra. School had been my only safe place, and it felt like it had failed me. To receive this degree is like a reparation of the educational opportunities I lost. For me, this is another victory in my healing process. Thank you, CSUN, for this incredible honor.”
Burton was born in the public housing projects of East Los Angeles and grew up in South Los Angeles. She was sexually abused as a child and, at age 14, was gang raped, resulting in the birth of her daughter. But it was the death, years later, of her 5-year-old son, run over by an off-duty Los Angeles police officer, that plunged her into deep depression and substance abuse that led her to prison.
She was incarcerated, bouncing in and out of prison six times. Each time she was released, she had no identification, her worldly possessions were in a box and there was no support system to ensure she did not return to prison. After her sixth, she left her home in South Los Angeles and headed to the predominantly white, and more affluent, community of Santa Monica to find the counseling and resources that would help her break the cycle of incarceration.
Determined to bring that type of support to the communities where many incarcerated women are released, Burton bought a house in Watts and created A New Way of Life in 1998 to help women transition from incarceration. Two years later, she formally incorporated the organization as a nonprofit. The project helps women transition back into society, find work and recover from drug addiction. The nonprofit now includes seven transitional houses in Los Angeles and Long Beach, and it provides a pro bono legal clinic.
In December 2018, Burton launched the SAFE (Sisterhood Alliance for Freedom and Equality) Housing Network, a replication model that will allow A New Way of Life to share its methods with other up-and-coming reentry housing programs throughout the country.
A past Soros Justice Fellow, Women’s Policy Institute Fellow and Community Fellow under the California Wellness Foundation’s Violence Prevention Initiative, Burton has served on California’s Little Hoover Commission and the Gender Responsive Strategies Task Force. In recognition of her leadership, she was appointed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas as a member of the Los Angeles County Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections. In this role, she is authorized to inspect Los Angeles County correctional facilities and advocate for the health and well-being of people housed there.
Burton has earned many additional accolades for her work, including being named a CNN Top Ten Hero in 2010 and receiving the prestigious Citizens Activist Award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the recipient of the Encore Purpose Prize and the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award. Her memoir, “Becoming Ms. Burton,” received a 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in the category of biography/autobiography, and the inaugural Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice.
Over the years, Burton has collaborated and served as a resource for CSUN faculty and students working on the issue of criminal justice reform. She was featured in the documentary “When Will the Punishment End?” created by CSUN gender and women’s studies and Chicana/o studies professor Marta Lopez-Garza.