Grieving Mother Turns Life Around, Wins Harvard Kennedy School Activist Award

Mother defeats drug addiction to become an activist

When Susan Burton’s five-year-old son was hit and killed by a car in 1981, she turned to cocaine.

Over the next 20 years, she was convicted for drug offenses six times before she checked herself into a rehabilitation program and promised herself she would not relapse again.

Burton—now a criminal justice system activist who founded a South Los Angeles-based nonprofit, A New Way of Life Reentry Project—was awarded the 2010 Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award for her efforts to fight social injustice by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School yesterday.

“I am a dreamer, but never in my dreams had I thought I would be here at Harvard one day,” Burton said. She will receive $125,000 as part of the award, which is given every other year to community leaders nominated by their peers.

Founded in 1998, A New Way of Life has helped hundreds of female ex-convicts by providing them with housing, moral support, and legal advocacy.


Burton said she believed there were few resources available to help women in her situation pull their life together in Los Angeles.

After learning that the incarceration rates in her community had been increasing in the 1990s, she said she decided “something had to be done.”

Casey Otis-Cote, associate director of the center’s Gleitsman Program in Leadership for Social Change, said Burton was selected for her impact on her community and personal journey.

“There was something about Susan’s story that just fascinated the judges,” she said.

Gretchen L. Heidemann, A New Way of Life board member who nominated Burton, said Burton takes the time every day to speak with women who live in the organization’s housing.

“It reminds them that if Susan could do it, they can too,” she said, adding that she has worked with Burton for the past six years.

Past Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award winners include Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp.

Burton was also recognized earlier this year for her work as one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2010.


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