A New Way of Life
“This is How Hard We’ll Go Out for You, If You Go Out for Yourself”
There are No Throwaway People
Susan Burton founded the women’s reentry nonprofit A New Way of Life in Los Angeles twenty years ago after personal experiences led her to recognize the existence of “two Californias.” In many predominantly white, wealthy communities like Santa Monica, social support for women battling trauma, abuse, or substance use was, in her words, “resourced vibrantly.” In others, like her home of South L.A., people needing help were treated as disposable or fed to the prison-industrial complex.
Burton dreamed of what it would be like to bridge the two Californias. Her mission was a deceptively simple one: to offer resources, opportunities, love, and concern for women who were exiting the prison system. In short, she would send the message: There are no throwaway people.
A New Way of Life serves an oft-forgotten population, even within the prison reentry community. Though activists have recently brought more attention to the catastrophe of mass incarceration, much of the focus has remained on formerly incarcerated men. The experiences of incarcerated women continue to be largely overlooked, an imbalance A New Way of Life aims to rectify.
First and foremost, formerly incarcerated women need a safe space to land after leaving prison. Burton began by opening her own home but knew she needed more space. She methodically expanded her capacity, purchasing a home here and another there whenever she could raise the funding. In these homes, women found care and support –they found community. Today, A New Way of Life operates ten homes throughout the city, helping countless women build their lives anew after incarceration by offering safe, supportive places where they know they are valued.
Of course, stable housing is an incomplete solution to the web of historical, structural, and interpersonal discrimination faced by formerly incarcerated women. A New Way of Life has therefore adopted a holistic approach to reentry, including assisting with legal documentation, educational and employment opportunities, child care or child support arrangements, family reunification, substance abuse or mental health support, and any other bureaucratic or material need an individual might have. The organization’s model is flexible, responsive, and “grounded in dignity,” according to Burton, and staff seek to “wrap [their] services around people” and seize “every opportunity to value each individual,” adds Bernard Wilson, director of workforce development and education.
This philosophy of wrap-around support acknowledges the difficulty of re-entry. Some women have spent years, sometimes decades, incarcerated. They face challenges using modern technology, navigating employment qualifications, and accessing reliable transportation and stable housing. They may not have driver’s licenses or bank accounts. They are thrust into contact with government systems and agencies that actively impede their progress.
By saying, in Burton’s words, “This is how hard we’ll go out for you if you go out for yourself,” A New Way of Life inspires residents to be responsible to themselves while putting them in a position where that effort can be rewarded. It is no wonder, then, that the common refrain among A New Way of Life residents and past residents involves autonomy, self-sufficiency, and independence. A New Way of Life’s model empowers women to make their own choices, set their own timelines, and trust their own judgment.
A New Way of Life has also become a prominent public advocate for criminal justice reform, putting the voices of formerly incarcerated women at the center of the narrative. Through programs like Testif-i and Women Organizing for Justice and Opportunity, the organization empowers women to educate their communities, tell their stories, and own their collective power. They teach women how to engage with the legal system and advocate with elected officials. A New Way of Life believes that their stories, their voices, can shift the narrative around mass incarceration.
Still, A New Way of Life knows there is more yet to do. They are currently seeking to share their vision nationwide by investing in training and capacity-building for other organizations. With this in mind, the organization has partnered with eighteen other organizations to form the SAFE Housing Network, built on A New Way of Life’s model, which offers ongoing mentorship and assistance with communications, grants, and budgeting to organizations across the country. With these resources, A New Way of Life hopes that other states, too, can bridge the gap for formerly incarcerated women.