Like many nonfiction books that I pick up, Becoming Ms. Burton, was featured on NPR’s Fresh Air earlier this summer. I had recently read Just Mercy and come off a spring semester of using “mass incarceration” as a model “wicked problem” that needed systems thinking to solve in my Composition 1 class. [Students then picked their own “problem” to investigate and understand better for their research project.]
It was interesting then to hear Susan Burton’s story of how she hit rock bottom after the death of her son (he was accidentally killed when he ran into the street and was hit by a police car) and used her own experiences cycling in and out of jail to develop a program to help women successfully make the transition from prison life to the outside world—a program called A New Way of Life.
While Terry Gross’s interview hit the highlights of Susan Burton’s story, Burton digs deeper in the book into her tumultuous life growing up and her repeated experiences with the criminal justice system—all drug offenses. Though Burton takes full responsibility for many of her bad decisions, she also repeatedly emphasizes what she couldn’t see at the time—that the racially and economically skewed criminal justice system in Los Angeles did not work in her favor. Instead of therapy for the rampant sexual abuse she suffered as a child or for the death of her son, therapy that might have helped her deal with her problems and stay clean, she got prison time.
It was a chance conversation that helped Susan to see that there were other options. She pushed to be sentenced to a treatment center in Santa Monica and when her efforts succeeded, she not only found herself surrounded by middle and upper-class white women but found herself in a radically different program—one that actually attempted to rehabilitate its participants. That was when Burton started look at the larger systems at work and this lead to her developing a non-profit center to help recently released women succeed in the outside world and stay out of prison.
In truth, there’s a lot of great systems thinking in this book as Burton argues and provides ample evidence for how the way the system is currently set up in poorer areas only makes the problems worse. This is a fast read that will make you think and hopefully make you angry. It also is an excellent argument for the need for social programs to work with/involve the people they are trying to help. So much insight is lost when they don’t.
Just like when I finished Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson and made a donation to the Equal Justice Initiative, I ended up making a donation to Burton’s organization. And you can too . . .