The Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard Kennedy School has named criminal justice system activist Susan Burton this year’s recipient of the Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award for her work empowering formerly incarcerated women to reenter society, maintain their sobriety, and reunite with their children. The award and $125,000 prize, bestowed biannually to a leader who has “struggled to correct social injustice,” will be presented to Burton at a ceremony in Cambridge on Tuesday, Oct. 12.
A former inmate and drug abuser who served six prison terms over the course of two decades, Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project (ANWOL) in 1998. Today the organization operates five homes in the Los Angeles area. Of the 500 women who have sought shelter in these homes in the past 12 years, 75 percent of them have remained drug- and alcohol-free for at least 18 months, 400 have been discharged from parole, and 150 have been reunited with their children. In addition, more than 700 have had their records expunged thanks to ANWOL’s legal advocacy services.
“I am honored to be chosen for such a prestigious award,” said Burton. “I know the importance of receiving help to heal from the experience of incarceration, and I am delighted to be able to assist those who need it the most. I also must acknowledge that there have been so many along the way who have helped me to help others—I didn’t do this alone.”
Casey Otis-Cote, associate director of CPL’s Gleitsman Program in Leadership for Social Change, observed: “As someone who was once caught up in the ‘prison industrial complex,’ Susan learned firsthand that willpower and determination alone are not sufficient to escape the cycle of entrapment that often accompanies incarceration—drug treatment, therapy, advocacy, and legal advocacy must be part of the solution. ANWOL is unique in the Los Angeles area for this range of structural supports that it makes available to women leaving prison.
“And thanks to her involvement in wider circles of education and policy making,” Otis-Cote continued, “Susan is changing the way that former prisoners are perceived and treated—and in the process creating a cadre of engaged citizens who understand the forces that led to their predicament and have the tools to transform their lives. She is the consummate grassroots change agent.”
See event information on Harvard Kennedy School website.