Tag: This Way Forward

THIS WAY FORWARD: Helping Women Rebuild Lives and Family after Prison

Susan Burton at “Becoming Ms. Burton” book event (Photo courtesy of Susan Burton)
by Dena Crowder

“We’re creating throwaway people,” says Susan Burton.  She should know.  She used to be one.

“Six times I had been imprisoned and each time I had hope that it would be the last time, but deep down I knew I wasn’t prepared for life outside,” she writes in her award-winning book, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women. “The system is set up to prove that “you’re useless.  If you’re useless, you have no value.  You’re a throwaway person.”

Now the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life, which helps formerly incarcerated women successfully re-enter society, and an internationally respected voice and human rights advocate, Susan gives women who find themselves in the same position she was in twenty years ago “a hand up and a means to stand on their own feet.”

“I’d been arrested over and over again for possession of a controlled substance. You’d think someone in the system might have gotten the idea that I needed drug treatment, that I needed therapy. But I was never offered help and I I didn’t know to ask for it because I didn’t know what to ask for,” Susan remembers.

Like many of the women who come to her for help, Susan had a history of trauma, abuse and addiction, and no idea how to break the cycle.  Her mission is deeply rooted in personal experience. “Women are the fastest growing segment of the (American) prison system,” she explains. “Yet, they’re not talked about, resources aren’t put towards them, nor (are there efforts at) stopping the recidivism. ”

Female incarceration was once extremely rare. In fact, in 1970, almost 75% of the nation’s counties held no women in jail. Currently, the rate of imprisonment for women outpaces that of men.  Put another way, the US has 5% of the world’s female population, but houses one-third of the world’s female prisoners. 

As more and more women are “being criminalized and taken away from their families and children,”  Susan encourages us to ask: what’s the cost to communities and the country?  Two years ago, former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave her opinion: “We know that when we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family in terms of the far-reaching effect on her children, her community, and her entire family network.”

In the past, a common assumption was that incarcerated people were distinct from everyone else, a realm apart. With upwards of a million women in prison, it’s become increasingly apparent that mass incarceration is inseparable from mainstream society.  We are a nation of prisons and prisoners.  And we are all diminished for it. “So many people with so much to give have been taken away from us.  We need to be working towards supporting all of that wealth and revealing the gifts (that can enhance) our communities instead of keeping them locked away,” Susan asserts.

(Photo courtesy Susan Burton)

A New Way of Life provides a vehicle for harnessing the wealth that often lies untapped and undirected.  Women, many of whom have been sentenced for non-violent drug-related crimes, are given the emotional support to heal and the practical tools to find employment, regain custody of their children, and incorporate healthier habits.

While she’s primarily dedicated to “raising the visibility of women in the context of mass incarceration,” Susan is also on a mission to help all women reclaim their authentic value. Which is why she is hopeful about the positive change that may come as a result of this year’s #MeToo movement. She believes it represents something larger. “Women are saying no more and never again. We are collectively standing up against the containment of women and women’s power.”

I first met Susan nearly twenty years ago after her sixth and final release from prison. She remembers that period vividly: “You offered me a full scholarship to your Essential Woman class.  Six months later, I was able to pay the full tuition of the class. Through that course, I found my own value.”  When we see others as useless “throwaways,” she continues, “it’s because we’ve lost touch with our own value.  And that’s really the core of the prison epidemic in this country. Devaluing ourselves.  Devaluing others.”

In the years since she began A New Way of Life, Susan has helped more than 700 hundred women forge a new path, and has reunited 150 mothers with their children. Her incredible story of success proves that regardless of past mistakes, we’re all human beings with innate value and the capacity for contribution.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • You can purchase Susan Burton’s book here
  • To volunteer in your area of expertise for A New Way of Life, please contact http://www.anewwayoflife.org/volunteer/*They’re always looking for lawyers to assist their legal clinic.*
  • To donate, please visit http://www.anewwayoflife.org/donate-3/.
  • Know of a person or organization doing outstanding work that benefits people of color and want us to consider featuring them?  Click here to tell us more.   I’ll be spotlighting individuals and groups who are “doing good” in a monthly editorial here on GBN.

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Dena Crowder is a strategist specializing in power.  She helps creators and influencers increase their capacity and cultivate “pure power” so that they leave a positive impact.
Her approach combines spiritual training with pragmatic action. To visit Dena Crowder’s website, click here.
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THIS WAY FORWARD: Community-Based Solutions for the African-American Childbirth Crisis

(Photo via thechildbirthprofession.com)
by Dena Crowder

Kyira “Kira” Dixon Johnson and her husband Charles seemed to have it all: a healthy baby boy, flourishing entrepreneurial careers, and vibrant health. Which is why no one could have predicted that 24 hours after welcoming their second son into the world, Kyira would be dead.

The Johnsons represent an alarming reality that’s only recently gained attention in the national media: African-American women are dying in childbirth at 3-4 times the rate of their white counterparts. When I first read the statistics, I was stunned. “This isn’t the 19th century!” Yet facts prove otherwise.

For a recent Essence article, Meaghan Winter wrote:

“In some rural counties and dense cities alike, the racial disparity in maternal deaths is jaw-dropping: Chickasaw County, Mississippi, for instance, has a maternal death rate for women of color that’s higher than Rwanda’s. In New York City, Black women are 12 times more likely than White women to die of pregnancy-related causes—and the disparity has more than doubled in recent years.”

While experts agree that the causes are multi-faceted, and include factors such as diet, poor pre- and post-natal care, existing high-risk conditions (like hypertension and diabetes) and lack of access to properly trained medical staff, by far the most troubling thing I heard was this comment from Darline Turner, an Austin-based physician’s assistant and certified doula:

“This goes across socio-economic status. Even a high achieving Ph.D. – who is a six to seven figure earner – still has worse birth outcomes than a white woman without a high school education who is smoking,” she said during a phone interview.

“How is this possible?” I wondered.

Darline explained that the “issue no one wants to talk about” is the experience of chronic mental, physical and emotional stress experienced by black women living in modern America, and its negative impact on birth outcomes. (For more thoughts on this topic from Darline Turner, click here.)

Disturbed by the seeming nonchalance at what should be declared a national health emergency, she began the Healing Hands Doula project, a grassroots effort aimed at supporting healthy pregnancies and births for women of color in Texas.

Her belief that “we’ve got to return to community” is borne out by scientific studies from a variety of fields. “We know that loneliness is a major factor in disease.” According to her, a mom who isn’t connected to a strong and vital community offering robust emotional and medical support is more susceptible to complications.

The good news is, with proper care, the statistics can be reversed. This fact is demonstrated by Jennie Joseph of Common Sense Childbirth, a prenatal clinic, birthing center, and school of midwifery in Florida where she applies her holistic maternity care model. The results are astoundingly positive and are changing the status quo. By making a difference, Joseph is not only increasing the well being of the families she serves, but also her own. To learn more about her and her mission, visit her website here: http://www.commonsensechildbirth.org. (Additional resources can be found via Sister SongCenter for Reproductive RightsBlackMamasMatter and The Afiya Center.)

The kind of purpose-driven work that birth professionals like Turner and Joseph are doing on behalf of women of color falls into the category of purposeful contribution. Over the past few years, research has shown that when you answer the “call” to do good for others, you actually strengthen your immune system.

What about those who lack a sense of purpose? They develop genetic patterns equivalent to people under constant stress. (This correlation between chronic stress and purpose is based on studies done at UCLA, The University of North Carolina and in the work of Dr. Mario Martinez.) The only cure for what ails the purposeless is to give meaningfully. Continue reading “THIS WAY FORWARD: Community-Based Solutions for the African-American Childbirth Crisis”