The Founder and Executive Director discusses her new memoir “Becoming Ms. Burton” and her work helping incarcerated women.
Founder and Executive Director Susan Burton
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Susan Burton knows how hard life can be after her five-year-old son was accidentally killed in 1981 by a police officer. She ended up in prison six different times for drug-related offenses. She got clean in 1997 and started a group home for formerly incarcerated women called “A New Way of Life” which helps women leaving prison rebuild their lives.
Tonight, a conversation with Susan Burton. We’re glad you’ve joined us.
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Tavis: Susan Burton is an advocate for criminal justice reform and helps formerly incarcerated women get back on their feet through her organization, “A New Way of Life”. Her powerful story is detailed in a new memoir. It’s called “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women”. It is my honor to welcome Susan Burton back to this program.
Can I just start by saying, having met you a few years ago and had you on this program before, I am so honored and just pleased and delighted to see that people are getting the work that you’ve been doing for some time?
Sometimes you labor in the vineyard and people never — not that it matters — because you’re not doing it for the adoration. You’re not doing it for the adulation or the praise, but it is nice when people finally catch up to what you’ve been doing and how well you’ve been doing it. How are you handling all this Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, John Legend, Nicholas Kristof love [laugh]?
Susan Burton: It’s wonderful. I don’t do the work for recognition. I do it because it needs to be done, and somebody needs to do it. So I picked up the banner to help women escape the criminal justice system. Myself, I traveled in and out of prison for almost two decades and there was no help for me until October 4 of 1997. You know, I found help in Santa Monica.
Tavis: That date is etched in your brain, obviously.
Burton: October 4 is etched in my brain, yes. I found that treatment in Santa Monica was much different than in South L.A. for controlled substance, for addiction. I found that in Santa Monica and I brought it back to South L.A.
Tavis: Treatment is different how?
Burton: People in Santa Monica, when I was there in 1997, they weren’t going to prison for being in possession of a controlled substance. They were getting a court card or being diverted to a treatment program.
I can remember a young man in a 12-step meeting complaining about the color green. He had had an accident under the influence of alcohol and drugs and his sentence was to paint the jail. My sentence was to live in the jail, much different.
So when I found the support, the services, the way in which we were treated with dignity and respect, I was able to begin my healing process, pick up my bed and walk, and I came back to South L.A. to spread that. Since then, we’ve helped over 1,000 women transition back into the community and reunited over 300 children with their moms. You know, I’m happy about that.
Tavis: You should be.
Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, but is what you saw in Santa Monica versus what you saw in South Central, was that difference based on race? Was it based on class or something I’m missing?
Burton: I think it’s a mixture of race and class. You know, poor people aren’t extended the services that wealthy people are. Poor people can’t buy the services that wealthy people can. You know, I got a lucky break to be able to enter into that community and be supported and experience what I experienced there. The luck just didn’t stop with me. I had to extend that to other people, to other women.
Tavis: So because — help me understand this piece. Because you’re operating in a judicial system, in a criminal justice system that, whether it says it does or doesn’t, does in fact see race, it does.
Burton: It does.
Tavis: Because you’re operating in that system, when you say you brought what you saw in Santa Monica back to South Central, you may have brought some good ideas back, but you’re still dealing with Black and Brown sisters.
Tavis: So how did you get the respect for them because they’re still Black and Brown that the good white folk were getting in Santa Monica?
Burton: Right. Well, I’m an advocate. I’m an activist and, through the years, you know, I’ve carved out a certain level of respect for Ms. Burton, and that’s in the judicial system throughout our legislative offices and…
Tavis: You were just in Sacramento, I hear.
Burton: I just came back from Sacramento.
Tavis: Doing some lobbying.
Burton: Doing some lobbying, talking about jury service. I still can’t serve on a jury and how does a person from my community…
Tavis: And you actually want to [laugh].
Burton: I want to! I want to [laugh]!
Tavis: I ain’t mad at you, yeah [laugh].
Burton: Hey, I want to serve on a jury and I want my community to be able to fully participate in civic activities. I did my time. I rehabilitated myself and 1,000 other women. We’re fit for jury service.
Tavis: And what’d you hear in Sacramento when you made your plea?
Burton: A few legislators said that, when I testified, they got a whole different picture and a whole different thought about what we’re doing here in America, how we’re continuing to punish people, and they passed it. So it got passed through one committee. I got a couple of more committees to do and I’ll be back and open doors.
Tavis: But you made it out of committee, though?
Burton: It made it out of committee.
Tavis: High-five on that. All right. That’s how the process starts.
Tavis: One committee at a time. Since I got a full show with you, let me just take my time. You referenced this, but I want people to get the full measure, and they’re going to get it when they read the book. I want them to get more of the full measure of what you were going through during that 20-year period.
So tell me how you got into the spot you were in, why you stayed in there, why you couldn’t get out. I was fascinated and just blown away. Quite frankly, it was arresting to read this passage in your book where there was one prison official who said to you, “We’re gonna hold your spot. We know you’re coming back.”
Burton: Yeah, you’re coming back.
Tavis: They would tell you, “Susan, we’re gonna hold a spot for you, honey, ’cause we know you’re coming back.” I mean, when you have people expecting you to be recidivist…
Burton: The whole system’s set up for you to return. Tavis, my son, he was five. His name was K.K. We called him K.K. He was killed by a police officer. He ran him over. My son was playing in the street. It was an accident, but my world just crumbled. I began to drink and that escalated to drug use and I was incarcerated for the drug use.
You know, long before my son was killed, though, I had endured so many experiences that were just really hard and traumatic, you know, all sorts of abuse, but my son’s death just kind of knocked me over. I was incarcerated for that drug use. No one ever said you’re not a bad person. You’re a sick person. You have trauma.
I remember going in front of the judge and laying it all out for him and asking for help. That judge sent me to prison for two years, and over and over and over again. So when I reached Santa Monica, that was just a lucky break. Had I not gotten that break, I don’t know where I’d be or what could have happened.
You know, since then, I’ve committed and dedicated my life to helping women in the pain, the suffering, the trauma, the abuse of incarceration. Yes, I left the prison and I said to the guard, “I’m gonna get a job and I’m gonna get it together.” He replied to me, “Only job you’re gonna get is in prison. There’s no jobs out there for you. I’ll keep your bed because you’ll be back.”
Tavis: How’d that make you feel?
Burton: It hurt. It hurt to hear him say that, but it hurt even more to understand the challenge that laid in front of me trying to make a successful reentry with no support, no resources, no I.D., no place to live. You know, it hurt, but I’m light years away from that day. I’m not back and a lot of other women aren’t back also because of “A New Way of Life”.
Tavis: You do such great work, but because you’re human, because we’re all human, we’re not human and divine, has it been difficult staying on the straight and narrow for you?
Burton: So I have a cause, you know. I have a commitment to that cause. It’s not difficult staying on the straight and narrow. I have a passion and a connection that’s centered so deep inside of me that I wake up and do this work with so much joy and so much satisfaction. So it’s not.
Some of my colleagues tell me, “Girl, take a break. Girl, slow down.” I love what I do. I take a break occasionally, but there’s so much joy in seeing a person come into realizing their worth, their value, their potential and begin to give that out just as I’ve seeded it into the world. So I love it, I love it.
In the story, the prologue, I talk about Ingrid. Ingrid turned to me one day and said, “Ms. Burton, I’m getting my life back.” She got all her four children back. She’s in her house. She’s working a job and it’s beyond a minimum wage job. She’s earning an income as a single mom.
And if we don’t support that coming to be, we lose America’s treasures in the people which just need some support, just need a hand up, not a hand-out, but a hand up. And that’s what I do. I love it.
Tavis: Once a mother, always a mother.
Tavis: So I can only imagine that, even all these years later, you still think about K.K.
Burton: I think about K.K.
Tavis: What do you think?
Burton: I wonder what he’d be right now. So K.K. would be 40 years old right now and I wonder what he would be. To combat that question, you know, sometime I can just feel him giggling and smiling down on me and rallying me on in the heavens. But there are times that I wonder, you know, what he would be doing now, how his life would have been.
And I wonder if he would be a male statistic in the criminal justice system or would he have been able to get into a university and go on to do things. So I wonder which side he would have landed on. I know, coming from a community like South L.A., he would have had to fight hard not to become one of those statistics. But anything is possible where there’s life. You know, he’s gone now.
Tavis: He is gone now and I can’t imagine that there is any pain greater than the pain of a parent losing a child because it ain’t supposed to be that way. So I can’t imagine, Susan, there’s any pain greater than that and I hope you’ll take the point I’m trying to make here and the question I want to ask. I would not wish that pain on anybody.
You just gave a list of things that you wondered about K.K. I wonder if that hadn’t tragically happened to K.K. whether or not you’d be doing the work that you’re doing now? Because you wouldn’t have walked the journey that you’ve walked and all of these women and their babies who you’ve helped to save and to rescue. We just never know the journey that God has laid out for us. You ever think about that?
Burton: I do think about that. You know, there’s this passage in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it says, “I will not regret the past nor close the door on it and that I will see how my experience can benefit others.”
What I know is that I couldn’t take back the years that I traveled in and out of the criminal justice system, but I could stop another woman and support her to not go back. Don’t have the power to bring my son back, but I could support another woman to get her child back, and that’s what I do. So, you know, that’s sort of the relief and satisfaction.
You know, there’s times when I have eight or ten little children running around those homes and I know that we’ve been able to get those children back with their mothers. So that’s the sort of satisfaction that’s, mended with the loss of my one child, has multiplied into 300 children. There’s enough love and support for all those 300 brewing up out of me.
Tavis: I don’t want to color this question deliberately, but since you went there — because I want to get there anyway — just tell me something about love, what you’ve learned about love, what love means to you, how you practice love, how you live love. Just talk to me about love, the power of love.
Burton: The power of love, I see it as the most powerful emotion in the universe. And it has the ability when it’s flowing strong to do so many things, so many good things. It’s just one of those — it’s the emotion. Love, and on the other side, forgiveness. You know, out of forgiveness comes this great space for love.
I had to go back and I had to forgive all of those characters in that book in order to get the power to love and move on. So for me, love is just abundant. It doesn’t run out. The more you give it, the more you get to give. You know, I love my life, I love other’s lives and I love it.
Tavis: Let’s talk about forgiveness because we live in a world, certainly in our society, where everybody throws the word love around. So we all talk about love, but nobody ever wants to talk about forgiveness. I raise that because it seems to me — I was just in a conversation with some friends about this the other day.
We so scarcely want to tackle the subject of forgiveness that when we see it, it just arrests us because we don’t seem to get a glimpse of it often enough. So that when we see an example like Nelson Mandela, it just blows us away.
Not that we’re not capable of that same kind of forgiveness in our own lives, but we just practice that emotion. That character trait, doesn’t reside in us in the way that it should. So that when we see it again, it just blows us away. It floors us because we’re like “Wow! Can you believe the way he forgave? Can you believe the way she forgave?” So what have you learned about forgiveness?
Burton: I mean, for me to forgive, I had to go deep. Because it’s something that’s not taught in our society, but a burden in forgiving is lifted from me and out of me. So I’m not so much forgiving for the other person…
Tavis: As you are for yourself.
Burton: As I am for myself. I don’t need to walk around holding a heavy burden because of what someone’s done. I need to forgive, I need to let go. None of us are perfect human beings. We all make mistakes, but I want to live. I want to love and, if the burden of unforgiveness, how vengeance that we carry for retribution, you know, I don’t need to go back and make you pay for anything.
I just need to live my life to the fullest. So I had to forgive the policeman that killed my son. It was an accident, even though it like cut me wide open and I bled everywhere. I had to heal and, in forgiving, is healing for me and I hope for the other person.
Tavis: I got a friend named Wendy who always says that you have to forgive to live.
Tavis: That’s her motto. She wrote a book about it. You have to forgive to live.
Burton: And when I began my process of forgiveness, there’s a whole type of light in abundance that flowed into me and my past just flowed with guidance and abundance.
Tavis: Given that you’ve been doing this work for so long now and given that you’ve had to forgive a lot of people, have you or do you run into some of the same people in the work that you do now that you saw when either you were in prison or going through those difficult — do you ever run into any of those folks?
Burton: I run into those folks.
Tavis: And what happens when you see them and they see you?
Burton: They’re blown away. You know, there’s a song. “If my friends could see me now…”
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yeah.
Burton: “That old gang of mine…” They’re blown away and they’re awe-struck from those days to who I’ve become today, Ms. Burton.
Tavis: That’s got to feel good.
Burton: Yeah. It feels good.
Tavis: Speaking of feeling good, I was teasing Susan when she said that because, on the front of the book, you have Michelle Alexander’s name who blurbed this, did the foreword for it. On the back of the book, there’s a wonderful piece by Bryan Stevenson.
I told her when you’re stuck between Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson, it don’t get no better than that. I mean, there are no two people in this country who I respect more than Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson. They both love you and they’ve both written about you in this text.
But Michelle Alexander referred to you as the 21st century Harriet Tubman. And I saw Nick Kristof who was just on this program weeks ago who used that same phrase in his column in the New York Times that you are the 21st century Harriet Tubman.
That’s high cotton. That’s a lot of love and a huge accolade, but I raise it not to embarrass you, but to ask you whether or not your work feels Harriet Tubmanish? Do you feel like you’re on a journey to rescue people and to save lives?
Burton: I know.
Tavis: And to take folk to freedom?
Burton: I know that what I do rescues people, allows them to have an analysis of what’s happening in their lives and breaks them free of the criminal justice system. And you know, when we talk about slavery, you know, we have to go back to the 13th Amendment that says you can be a slave if you’re incarcerated.
So does it feel like Harriet Tubman? I think so. I didn’t imagine that when I started out. I just thought if I could help a handful of women come home, it would be okay. But then I started looking at the larger picture and the systemic oppression that we can pay $60,000 a year to cage somebody up and then spit them back out into the community with nothing?
Yeah, yeah. I’m gonna lead them to freedom. I have a safety net and a place to bring them to help them get back on their feet and break free of incarceration and slavery. So Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, and the cherry on top is John Legend [laugh].
Tavis: You know what? I got 18 comebacks on that [laugh], but I know Chrissy Teigen is watching. I know there are a few sisters that would love for John Legend to be the cherry on top. I’m gonna leave that alone [laugh]. John is a good brother, and you are a good sister, and I love you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.
Burton: And you’re a good man. Welcome to the end mass incarceration party.
Tavis: We’re all here, we’re all here. I suspect that — I ain’t gonna ask you to comment on this in the 20 seconds I have left, but I suspect it won’t be long, given that we live in Hollywood, before somebody buys the rights and before it becomes a movie. So get the book now before the movie comes out about a life and legend ongoing and well-lived.
The book is called “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women”. You’re just doing great work and I know that the more people hear about the work you’re doing, the more they’re going to support it because the work you do don’t come cheap. It takes money to do this.
Burton: It takes money to do this, yes.
Tavis: I know people are going to be supporting you more and more in the coming months and years, so God bless you.
Burton: Bless you too. Thank you.
Tavis: Good to have you back on this program.
Burton: It’s good to be back. Thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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