Susan Burton, Founder/Executive Director of A New Way of Life at the 14th Annual Fundraising Gala, "Diamonds & Pearls: Beauty Through Adversity".
“I was formerly incarcerated and when we walk out of a prison door, they say pull yourself up by your boot straps. Well damn, we don’t have no boots, so how do you pull up something that ain’t there,” says CNN Hero Susan Burton at the 14th annual fundraising gala for her nonprofit A New Way of Life.
Those words would serve as motivational fuel for Burton, who started the non-profit that would change the lives of over 600 formerly incarcerated women. Burton’s own experience with incarceration started with tragedy. She lost her 5-year old son, when he was hit and killed accidently by a car. Grieving from the loss, she became addicted to drugs and alcohol and went to prison. When she was released from prison she soon realized that she had no support from her community of South L.A. After being given what Burton calls “boots” from two helpful women, she was able to “walk” on a new path of sobriety and freedom. She now works to give other formerly incarcerated women the “boots” they need to start their life over.
In support of A New Way of Life’s efforts, the 14th annual fundraising gala titled, “Diamonds & Pearls: Beauty Through Adversity” was held at the Omni Hotel in Downtown LA Saturday evening. Celebrities came in support of New Way of Life such as actors and actresses, Wilmer Valderrama, Joe Torry, Lennie James, Steve Harris, Janina Gavankar, Tony Denison, Jason Isaacs and singer Michelle Delamor.
Actor, Steve Harris attended the gala for the first time after becoming inspired by the works of A New Way of Life and all of the women involved.
“I think that it’s a great cause. These women get out of whatever situation they’re in, serve their time and they come out and prove that they can better themselves and influence other people to better themselves. I’m behind that a billion percent,” he said.
Actor, Jason Isaacs was the host for the evening and says that ever since meeting Burton, his thoughts on incarceration have forever changed.
“So many people I know aren’t aware that if you come out of prison with a drug conviction in many states, California in particular, you’re banned from the federal system for the rest of your life. You won’t get food stamps ever. You won’t get welfare. You won’t be allowed to sleep in public housing. It’s designed to stop you from getting back on your feet and it’s the reason why most people end up going back to prison because it’s impossible to break the cycle,” Isaacs said.
Stacey Johnson was one of those women who was able to “break the cycle.” Johnson wrote Burton a letter after receiving advice from a counselor while in prison and was accepted into the program. She says after being released from prison in August 2012, she went straight to A New Way of Life and became a resident.
“My only advice would be if you are ready to change your life, a place like ‘A New Way of Life’ is a place to start. You can’t lose going there. They have all the resources, support groups and even help with clothing and education, ” she said.
Johnson was awarded at the gala for this year’s “Resident Award“ as Burton emotionally congratulated her for her strength and tenacity. Johnson says that she had “no idea what she was walking into”, but since becoming a resident she is now in school studying to be a Dental Assistant.
You could also see Johnson in a documentary film titled “Susan” made by critically acclaimed directors, Emma Hewitt and Tessa Blake. A preview of the film was played during the gala, showing interviews with some of the women of A New Way of Life on their struggles and how they are overcoming adversity. Both Hewitt and Blake said making the film opened their eyes to the criminal justice system.
“We felt very strongly about the issue of mass incarceration in this country and the hurdles people face when they come out have not been captured. The story has not been told. We wanted people to know how hard it is to stay out of prison once you’ve been in. The odds are overwhelming, that if you go to prison this year, you’ll be back next year. ”
The entire film can be found on their YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/wigs.
The gala continued to praise those women who have bettered themselves, and presented more awards to persons who have made a contribution to A New Way of Life. The Community Partner award was given to Ferris and Mildred Harper who are active in the community through the NAACP, feeding the homeless for 20 years, their local church and educational programs. After learning about A New Way of Life over a decade ago, they became inspired by the work of Burton and they contributed by giving them a check every first of the month.
Wilmer Valderrama presented the next award after adding how important it was to donate to such a good cause.
“It’s moments like these, donating for right causes, that not only makes us feel human, but apart of something bigger,” he said.
Valderrama then continued as he acknowledged that not only is it hard for anyone who is incarcerated, but also minorities.
“As a minority, sometimes it’s hard to get a second chance,” he said.
Following his speech, he presented the Community Champion Award to UCLA School of Law for their Critical Race Studies Program who has been in partnership with A New Way of Life for five years. They hold a reentry legal clinic on the second Saturday each month to help people “expunge” their records, which can help with employment rights.
The Women’s Foundation of California’s Race, Gender and Human Rights Donor Circle became a grant partner with A New Way of Life and helped by donating money and contributing strategic plans. They were given the Synergy Teamwork Award for their contributions. Actor, Tony Denison presented the Movement Builder Award to Dorsey Nunn who is the Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Nunn provided a moving speech while receiving his award.
“I ask you how much would pay for your right as a woman? I wonder how much you would pay for your rights as a black person because freedom in America ain’t free,” he said.
The audience was captivated by the speech, as Jason Isaacs joked he didn’t want to speak after such a great speech.
The gala ended with a raffle and a silent auction. Burton gave her final speech of the night acknowledging A New Way of Life’s growth, but also what she continues to do within the non-profit.
“The women here in the back row, we’re going to push them to the front,” she said.
That’s exactly what A New Way of Life continues to do. According to Burton, women who have been incarcerated are dropped off on Downtown Skid Row with no money, ID or social security card. By becoming residents, these women get the opportunity to get to the front of opportunities to better their lives and better the community. Currently, the success rate is at seventy-eight percent (78%) and Burton hopes to continue making positive impacts in the lives of many more women to come.