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  • NYS Writers Institute

Masking and gloving up for Social Justice

Susan Burton, photo by Kathleen Toner
Susan Burton, photo by Kathleen Toner

We checked in with Susan Burton, a leading crusader against mass incarceration who visited UAlbany as the keynote speaker of the School of Criminal Justice’s symposium, "Incarcerating Girls and Women: Past and Present," on Friday, April 6, 2018. (Link to our page.)

The event was part of the School of Criminal Justice's long-running project, "Justice and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century." The NYS Writers Institute cosponsored the event.

Burton is the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life, an organization celebrated for its Reentry Project, which provides housing, case management, pro bono legal services, advocacy and leadership development for women rebuilding their lives after prison.

Burton herself served six prison terms in 17 years after turning to drugs following the death of her five-year-old son who was killed by a van driving on their street. Her organization addresses issues of poverty, addiction and mental illness that often make women vulnerable to mass incarceration in America.

Her challenges, struggles and achievements are recounted in her bestselling autobiography, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women (2017).

We checked in with her at her home in California.

Q: Where are you currently sheltering?

A: I’m in Compton, California, sheltering in place in my home, but the urgency of the moment doesn’t allow me to just close out the world. There are activities I engage in on a daily basis to provide safety to recently incarcerated women. I mask up and glove up and go out into the world to continue to support freedom work.

Q: Any fresh news from your life?

A: We are in the process of building the SAFE (Sisterhood Alliance for Freedom and Equality) Housing Network and replicating A New Way of Life’s model nationally. We've had nearly 100 people train in how to implement our housing model in their own communities.

Q: Is there anything you'd like us to read?

A: My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem, which is about healing trauma. If people understood who they were in the world, they wouldn’t have to harm other people.

Q: Is there anything that you do to keep physically active?

A: Working from home more has afforded me the ability to spend more time gardening.

Q: Any words of wisdom for us?

A: Be thoughtful and kind during this period, kind to others and kind to yourself. Don't buy into fear.

Q: Is there anything we should be doing to comfort ourselves?

A: I don’t know that this is the time for comfort.

Q: Is there any skill you'd like us to try to perfect?

A: I would like to see more people actively practicing empathy.

Links of interest:

More about the UAlbany School of Criminal Justice:

Burton was interviewed on June 16th by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting about the particular challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents:

Burton speaks about her life and work on the Writers Institute's YouTube channel:

Burton was interviewed on June 16th by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting about the particular challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents:


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