Tag Archives: women

Stopping the Merry-Go-Round of Women’s Incarceration

Selena Lopez with her son Nathan

How one organization helps women rebuild their lives after prison

Selena Lopez was 19 when tragedy struck. A week after her mother died, her father was deported to Guatemala. Distraught and confused, the young mother turned to the streets, where she began using drugs and committing robberies to feed her young son, herself and her addiction.

“I was running amok and ended up circulating in and out of incarceration,” Lopez said. As a result, she lost her son, Nathan, to the foster care system.

A year later, she found help at an outpatient drug rehab center in downtown Los Angeles. But Lopez struggled with housing. And without a stable home, she couldn’t get her son back.

Lopez’s struggle isn’t unique. In 2017, 225,060 women were serving time in jail or state or federal prisons. And more than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child younger than 18, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s a 750 percent increase since 1980, when 26,378 women were incarcerated.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, attributes the increase to “more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.”

Lopez’s narrative changed for the better when a rehabilitation drug counselor told her about the Reentry Project at A New Way of Life. ANWOL, founded by Susan Burton, provides housing, legal assistance and other resources that formerly incarcerated women need to successfully reenter the community, reunify with family and heal themselves.

For those efforts, the Ford Motor Company Fund recently awarded ANWOL $25,000, the grand prize for its Ford Gives Back Freedom Award. And before that, in 2013, the Ford Fund honored Burton with the Ford Freedom Unsung award, which recognizes the achievements and extraordinary work of ordinary people in the African American community.

“For decades, Susan Burton has opened pathways to success for women that are facing challenges to reentering their community,” said Pamela Alexander, director of community development for the Ford Fund. “Without her efforts and her commitment, many would not have had access to support systems they needed to rebuild their lives.”

A lost son, then a lost life

Growing up in Aliso Village, a housing project in LA, Susan Burton didn’t dream of helping women get clean or reunite with their children. She just wanted a happy family of her own.

In 1981, Burton was a content 30-year-old stay-at-home mom living with her 15-year-old daughter, Antoinette; 5-year-old son, Marque; and her mother. She clearly recalls picking her son up from school, going home and then preparing dinner while Marque played outside. She recalls him proudly coming into the house with a flower for his mom.

So far, the nonprofit has helped about 1,200 women rebuild their lives.

“It was covered in ants,” Burton said.

Then the unthinkable happened when Marque went back outside to play. He was hit by a Los Angeles police detective’s car and killed.

“My whole world went out of control,” Burton said. “The rage, anger and guilt I had was overwhelming, because a mother is supposed to protect their children. The day I lost my son, Antoinette lost her mother, because I was no good for a long time.”

Burton tried drinking away her grief. When that didn’t work, she turned to cocaine. She eventually was arrested for drug possession and spent the next 15 years in what she calls “a virtual turnstile of incarceration.”

Despite asking the courts for help with her addiction, Burton said she was repeatedly sent to prison. Her last release was in July 1996. But rather than return prison, Burton, in October 1997, learned that the city of Santa Monica, unlike LA, approached drug use as a social problem and provided resources to help.

“I saw a whole new world that white folks had access to in lieu of incarceration,” she said. “I took advantage of it and found a treatment center.

“Then I said I’m going to build in South LA what I received in Santa Monica.”

Sharing food, lifting spirits

Susan Burton

Susan Burton

After getting a job and saving every dime she could, Burton bought a small house, built five pairs of bunk beds—with help from friends from her 12-step fellowship—and started ANWOL.

“I would go to the bus station and wait for people I knew who were getting out of prison and would invite them to the house,” Burton said. “We all lived together, laughed together, went to 12-step meetings together, paid bills together and created a community of women helping women. It was beautiful. We were all there lifting each other up—sharing food, sharing hope and sharing our commitment.”

Some of the women lost custody of their children because they didn’t have homes for them, which pained Burton.

“I could not turn back the years of pain and suffering that had been thrust upon me after the loss of my son,” she said. “And I knew I couldn’t bring my son back, but maybe I could help another woman not suffer so long after incarceration. Maybe I could help another woman get her kid back.”

In 2002, Burton was able to buy a house for formerly incarcerated women and their children. Now she operates 10 homes.

New attitude, new altitude

ANWOL has helped more than 300 children reunite with their moms. Selena Lopez’s son, Nathan, was one of those children.

“My journey and process were a little longer than others because I was focused on not only maintaining my sobriety but also trying to regain custody of my son,” said Lopez, who lived in an ANWOL home with six women for three years.

She attended monthly and weekly meetings in the house, and the program provided transportation to meetings outside the house.

“A New Way of Life’s programs helped with the reasons behind the trauma, too,” she said.

Yet the most valuable part of Lopez’s recovery was the support she received directly from Burton, whom she calls a second mother.

“Coming from where I grew up, you didn’t really hear success stories about women who were incarcerated and overcame drug abuse. You only heard the negative,” Lopez said. “When I heard Miss Susan’s story and the other women’s stories, it was amazing to me that there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

ANWOL also taught Lopez her rights and how to advocate for herself while going through the complicated child protective services system. Besides staying clean and having a stable home, Lopez had to visit her son twice weekly. But the home he was placed in was five hours away, and she didn’t have transportation.

Still, the nonprofit taught her resilience, and Lopez found a way. She donated plasma and used the money to buy 3 a.m. train tickets so she could arrive in time for her 8 a.m. visits.

“It was challenging to have him gone for nearly 2½ years, but he will have been home now for three years because of the whole program,” said Lopez, who is now 25.

A ‘shared responsibility’

Burton, who today is 69, believes communities are underresourced in helping victims of trauma.

“We as a community have a shared responsibility in looking out for and caring for each other,” she said. “I’m trying to fulfill my responsibility to people who are released from prisons and jails so they have something to come home to and have a way to rebuild their lives and become productive members of our community.”

ANWOL now has 35 full-time employees, five consultants and hundreds of volunteers—including Lopez. Burton is also training other nonprofits to use the ANWOL model.

She advocates for women in other ways as well. Burton is author of “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women” and co-founder of the civil rights movements All of Us or None and the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Families Movement. Named one of 18 new civil rights leaders in the U.S. by the Los Angeles Times, Burton received a NAACP Image Award in 2018 for her book and an honorary doctor of humane letters from California State University, Northridge in 2019.

She also advocates against “child snatching”—the act of removing children from the custody of their mothers—and serves on the Sybil Brand Commission, which allows her to inspect county jails and ensure that the incarcerated women are getting the medical care they need.

“Everything about ANWOL is phenomenal,” Lopez said. “I remember that first conversation I had with Miss Susan when I arrived at A New Way of Life. She asked my dreams. But I didn’t have any dreams, any passion, because I was not expected to do anything with my life.”

Now, she said, she’s now a happily married homeowner with a second child due just before Christmas. Before the pandemic resulted in her being laid off from her job as a program assistant at Los Angeles Southwest College, Lopez helped students enroll in classes and find resources, such as childcare, to be successful at school. Now she is a full-time student with a near-4.0 grade point average and plans to transfer to UCLA in the spring.

“Everything that I ever dreamed of happened. It keeps me motivated,” Lopez said.

She’s also determined to stick with ANWOL, particularly its Women Organizing for Justice and Opportunity cohort program, because she wants to stay involved with children and family services and in changing legislation around it.

Lopez said, “I’m always there to learn more.”

This story was originally published on fordfund.org. Other features I’ve written for the Ford Motor Company Fund include:

Women in Nonprofits: Why More aren’t in Positions of Power

Traveling to far-flung places and helping people with their basic needs was Julie Chase-Morefield‘s dream in high school. Her mother grew up impoverished and shared stories of standing in line to get federal food commodities. Now Chase-Morefield is president and CEO of the Lorain-based Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio.

Diana Natalicio‘s high school set low expectations for students simply because they were from low-income families. Girls were taught home economics or secretarial skills, while boys learned woodworking and machine shop skills. As the first female president of the University of Texas at El Paso, Natalicio provided new opportunities for both low-income and Latino students.

Anita Bradley dropped out of college and struggled with drugs after both her father and uncle died in a boating accident. Bradley endured one crisis after another, including a miscarriage, until she finally sought treatment. Years later, Bradley founded the Northern Ohio Recovery Association in Cleveland.

Yet, driven and successful women like Natalicio, Bradley and Chase-Morefield are habitually demeaned on the job.

While studies show that 45% of nonprofit CEOs are women, the illusion of gender parity dissipates with closer examination, said Patricia Deyton, a senior adviser for the Council of Women World Leaders, an adjunct professor at the Simmons University School of Business and the Harvard Extension School in Boston and former CEO of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay.

“When you look at the nonprofits with power—the ones with voice and the nationwide nonprofits—that’s where you see disparity in leadership,” Deyton said.

Women nonprofit CEOs earn 34% less than their male counterparts, said Deyton, who is also a senior associate at the Center for Gender in Organizations, a research group at Simmons University. And, she said, women hold just 18% of CEO roles at nonprofits with budgets over $50 million.

Such disparities make it difficult for women to lead, Chase-Morefield said.

“Women are collaborators who just want to make things happen without worrying about who gets the credit,” she said. “But that’s not the way the rest of the world is.”

As a result, Chase-Morefield thought she couldn’t have flaws.

“I felt I had to be much more serious and much more prepared than men because I was being judged on a much higher standard,” she said. “My predecessor had been male, and there was a little bit of a ‘good ol’ boys’ thing with the men in the community. It was frustrating. They wouldn’t take me seriously.

“People would even say, ‘You went into nonprofits because you couldn’t make it in the business world.'”

Women’s work? No, women’s values

Nearly 75% of nonprofit employees are women—not because they can’t make it in business but because the sector reflects women’s values to a greater degree, Deyton said.

Indeed, most staff and board members at Humble Design in Pontiac, Mich., are women—though not intentionally. Founder and co-CEO Treger Strasberg said the work resonates with more women.

Strasberg understands Chase-Morefield’s frustration.

“I’ve seen directly how being a woman has impacted my business,” she said. “Small meetings tend to be run by women-driven organizations. But when we get to the large organizations seeking large dollars, serious money, it’s a male-centric room.”

Strasberg has been studying homelessness for 11 years and even talked about affordable housing at the White House with Ben Carson, the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “But I’ve been to meetings where there were 16 people, and I was the only woman,” she said. “And they turn to my husband, who is not an expert, for answers.”

Likewise, Diana Sieger finds she’s not always taken seriously or included in networking opportunities even after being appointed president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation more than 30 years ago.

“I don’t play golf,” she said, “But I survive.”

Sieger credits the respect she gets in boardrooms to her outspoken nature.

“I would be the only woman sitting around the table, and I wanted so desperately to be taken seriously,” she said. “But I was never shy about advisedly expressing my opinion, and that worked in my favor.

“I remember sitting in a meeting, and the men were denigrating Hillary Clinton in pretty unsavory terms. I said, ‘I want you to go home and say that to your wife, your daughter and your granddaughter and see how they react.’

“From that time forward, I didn’t hear those kinds of comments.”

The takeaway, Sieger said, was not to allow herself to be minimized, to address it then and there and to learn how to sit down with a business leader and hold her own.

“I take the attitude that you may not like me, but you’re going to respect me,” she said.

Nonetheless, Sieger acknowledged that being a white woman in leadership is a truly different experience from being a minority female leader.

“Women say men treat us as if we’re invisible,” she said, “but African American women and Latinx women are truly invisible people.”

Case in point: Helene Gayle, M.D., noticed throughout her career that she could be the only leader in the room and still be discounted by male colleagues.

“Luckily, I came into my roles in the times when being the first woman was not the uphill battle that it was 20 or 30 years ago.

“Still, I have had male counterparts that were my direct reports, and reports of my direct reports, who got more attention in meetings than I did,” said Gayle, president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, former president and CEO of CARE and a physician who worked with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on HIV/AIDS and other health issues.

As a minority leader, NORA’s Anita Bradley finds she must do more than her male counterparts to get the outcomes for the people she’s serving.

“I have brought in more than 20 million federal dollars,” Bradley said, “but it’s not easy.”

It’s what you know—and who, too

The ability to acquire essential funding, Bradley said, comes down having access to a larger social network. That’s something that men and white people in general tend to have because they are invited to serve on more boards of directors.

“Clearly, being on boards provides connections, knowledge and experience,” Deyton said.

Likewise, Cassie Nielsen, president of Talent for VMG Partners, recently told Yahoo! Finance it “makes economic sense” for women to serve on boards as they make 70-80% of consumer purchasing decisions.

“Yet, because women are underrepresented on boards of directors, those boards lack a diversity of decision-makers, which allows unconscious bias to play out,” Deyton said.

Sieger of the Grand Rapids Foundation said boards of trustees also help build a good network of female leaders and other support and are easier to get on than boards of directors.

It took a while to get her foot in the door, but Eva Garza Dewaelsche, president and CEO of SER Metro-Detroit Jobs for Progress Inc., said sitting on several boards has allowed her to penetrate a normally all-male group of leaders. Dewaelsche sits on the advisory board of Comerica Bank, is a member of the New Detroit board of directors and is a Detroit police commissioner.

Unfortunately, she said, she has received more help from men than women.

“I would like to be able to say that women have opened doors to opportunity for me, Dewaelsche said. “But that hasn’t been the case for most of my life because they are not in leadership roles or were not when I started 25 years ago.

“Women have to place themselves in situations where they can have that opportunity—where they can be leaders. I take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way to learn how to be a leader.”

Whatever the reasons for the inequality, women’s work should not be diminished, Deyton said. “Women at work in this country’s more than 900,000 charitable organizations are making huge contributions to the fabric of our society.”

This story was originally published at FordFund.org/our-stories. Read more about these incredible women:

Compassion Becomes a Career for Women in Nonprofits
http://FordFund.org/our-stories.Bringing Dignity to the Struggles of Others
From Roots in ’60s and ’70s Grow 3 Advocates for Social Change 

Female entrepreneurs find solutions to real-world problems

The Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services initiative helps women with social impact companies develop successful, profit-making businesses that solve real-world problems through
• coaching,
• mentoring,
• capital support, and
• programming.

Around the world, women social entrepreneurs are leading the charge to help eradicate poverty, provide safe water, and provide access to opportunities. Women today are making a major impact by meeting needs and solving problems in these and other areas.

The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council reports that half of women-owned businesses concentrate on health care, social assistance, and professional/scientific/technical services. Compared with men, women are 9% more likely to launch businesses in education and 10% more likely to launch health care companies.

Women’s startups fall in line with consumers demanding that companies support local communities and protect the environment. Banks also are developing new social impact-investing products that aid companies in meeting consumer desires.

Remarkably, women receive less than 2% of venture capital funding. This is due, in part, because investors don’t believe women can make money, said Melissa Bradley, managing director and founder of 1863 Ventures, a nonprofit that works with entrepreneurs. Moreover, banks and other investors often don’t believe social-impact businesses can turn a profit, she said.

Envisioning new dimensions

To address these mindsets, Ford Motor Company Fund is taking a unique approach that helps women social entrepreneurs turn their dreams into reality. Ford Fund established a national network of pitch competitions that combine financial assistance with mentorship, workshops, and other vital support.

“When you’re talking about social entrepreneurship, you’re not just talking about investing in women and businesses, which is very important, you’re also investing in communities, which is a win-win,” said Pamela Alexander, Ford Fund director of Community Development.

In 2017 and 2018, Ford Fund united with Michigan Women Forward to launch Empower Change MI, formerly EmpowerHer. Empower Change MI awarded more than $50,000 in cash, investments, and in-kind professional services to three women-owned social enterprise companies. In 2018, Ford Fund, with 1863 Ventures, kicked off HERImpact DC, giving more than $50,000 in cash and support in Washington, D.C.

Helping underrepresented social entrepreneurs is a shared vision, said Bradley of 1863 Ventures.

“Our belief and Ford’s belief that money is just the beginning and adding the additional support was appealing,” Bradley said. “We have actually been the people they are trying to help.”

The second HERImpact Entrepreneurship Summit is June 27, 2019. The pitch competition is scheduled for September. By the end of 2019, Ford Fund will have held three pitch competitions and awarded more than $150,000 in cash and supplemental support to women-owned social enterprises in Michigan and Washington, D.C.

However, Empower Change MI and HERImpact DC are just the start of a larger Ford Fund strategy to strengthen communities and make people’s lives better.

Read this client’s full story.

Generating growth opportunities for women-owned businesses

I’m an introvert by nature and occasionally cringe when a client asks me to cover a live event. Yet, never has there been a time when I didn’t come out more informed and grateful for the experience. After all, it’s the innate knowledge junkie that drove me into a career as a writer.

The scenario wasn’t much different when the Ford Motor Company Fund asked me to attend EmpowerHER, a challenge program created to help develop the next generation of women leaders, where I discovered 12 women-run companies seeking to solve social problems. Each company competed for more than $25,000 in cash and business-service support and three of the impressive startups won:


  • Every Two Minutes is developing technology that could help prevent sexual assault;
  • Motor City STEAM is working to bridge the gap between STEM education and the arts; and
  • SignOn is creating jobs for the deaf community while helping homebound students learn.

No one can put a cap on the drive and innovation of women on a mission.