A NEW WAY OF LIFE
Following the death of her five year old son in 1981, Susan Burton was consumed with grief. With no access to professional support, she self-medicated and became addicted to cocaine and crack. She spent 15 years in and out of the prison system. When she got out, she wanted a change. In her South Los Angeles neighborhood, however, she had no options for treatment. Her community had very few resources for its residents. On her own, Susan sought help at a private rehabilitation facility in Santa Monica that not only helped Susan rebuild her life but also gave her the inspiration to do more for her community.
Susan founded A New Way of Life in 1998 to provide women and others in need of the opportunities that she was given through her own rehabilitation treatment. The agency began with just one house and later grew into a full-fledged nonprofit organization, providing individuals in need with reentry housing, household items and other necessities through its distribution center, employment rights advice, legal support and community organizing programs.
In 2010, realizing that she needed help to make A New Way of Life thrive, Susan wanted to learn nonprofit best practices. At the recommendation of a colleague, also an ESC client, she approached ESC for support. Susan began receiving Leadership Coaching from ESC consultants Ben Breslauer and Bob Ralls to help her hone her vision. Since then, Susan has become an outstanding leader in the community and has won numerous awards for her work. And now she has turned her incredible experience into a bestselling memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton, that is bringing greater attention to A New Way of Life and the issues surrounding re-entry and reintegration for the formerly incarcerated, especially women.
Susan recently took time out from her book tour to revisit A New Way of Life’s work with ESC and to share how the organization has thrived since then.
ESC: What first inspired you to build this model of A New Way of Life and what are you most proud of in the organization?
Susan Burton: I started A New Way of Life based on the treatment that I received in Santa Monica. I realized there were privileges and resources available there that I received that are not available in South LA. I figured if women had a safe place to go, they would be able to rebuild their lives. What I didn’t realize at the time is that there were so many barriers that I faced that I didn’t see until I was building A New Way of Life and helping others. I am most proud of the people-centered, social model of reentry that A New Way of Life uses. Many times in the recovery system, the onus is put on the individual. We use education to teach that it’s really the social conditions around them and the environment they are part of and the blame is not on the individual.
ESC: What first brought you to ESC for consulting and training in 2010?
Susan Burton: When I first started A New Way of Life, I didn’t have a management course or background from a university but my ESC consultants had expertise that could help me understand the systems I was working within. Ben and Bob helped me better understand the application of the organization’s mission and how to build a healthy and sustainable organization. They made me feel very comfortable. They both came from a sophisticated world and could introduce me to that sophistication without me feeling out of place. They taught me a lot about different funding streams and diversifying our funding sources that could allow the organization to achieve our goals and reach more individuals in need of our programs and resources.
ESC: How has A New Way of Life grown since you’ve worked with ESC?
Susan Burton: In the last few years we’ve really worked on developing the programs that we have and making them sharper. Since 2010 our budget has tripled and we grew our legal department to six full time attorneys. With the support of our ESC consultants, we also reorganized our $2 million distribution center to better monitor the program and how it operated in terms of best serving the community and making sure individuals were receiving what they needed.
ESC: What do you see as ESC’s long-term impact on A New Way of Life and how your consultants have influenced the organization’s success?
Susan Burton: The processes and understanding that I got with my coaches created strong long-term stability for the organization. I can understand and recognize the need for ongoing training and organizational development and to always engage in training with new members. This earlier work and an earlier strategic plan really allowed and assisted the organization in making current goals and objectives, to see where we were then and where we are now. Now we are working on a type of replication model that others can use to build and apply their own models like A New Way of Life [in other communities].
ESC: What is an aspect of A New Way of Life’s mission that you feel is most important?
Susan Burton: We recognize the value of individuals and supporting the development of them. We really miss out as a community in excluding people with a criminal history and we should be thoughtful about that. It is not only unfair but we miss the gift that they embody. A New Way of Life creates a model that allows engagement of the broader community and understanding that rallies people around it and engages them through meaningful interaction.
Since completing her work with ESC, Susan has continued to invest deeply in A New Way of Life’s mission and community. She is exploring how different cities and organizations across the nation can use and replicate A New Way of Life’s model to provide similar resources. There has been an abundant outpouring of support from diverse organizations that are just as driven as Susan to carry out this work.
Learn more about Susan’s journey in her new book Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women.
Learn more about ESC’s leadership coaching.