By Meera Sastry

Photos Courtesy of Venice Family Clinic

In the second installment of their Health + Justice series held in August, the Venice Family Clinic hosted Susan Burton, an activist for the formerly incarcerated and founder of the nonprofit organization A New Way of Life, in conversation with Venice Family Clinic CEO Elizabeth Forer and television journalist Gayle King.

The event centered around the “Trauma of Incarceration,” a timely topic as the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally harmed incarcerated populations while discussions of criminal justice reform have persisted throughout the summer after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in early June.

The talk was anchored by Burton’s personal experiences — after a traumatic youth, she was incarcerated for drug use. After her release, she was eventually able to seek help through the Venice Family Clinic’s mental health services, but her struggle to find any support elsewhere led her to create A New Way of Life and work to provide aid to other formerly incarcerated women in need.

“I saw that with support and kindness and love and resources, there could be a whole different trajectory for people,” Burton said. “I sat there one day, and I realized that I couldn’t turn back all of the years of pain and suffering that I had went through, but that I could stop another woman [from experiencing that].”

So far, Burton has helped around 1,000 women — and 300 of their children — settle into life after incarceration. A New Way of Life provides these women with places to live and the resources to get back on their feet, and is distinctive for its caring and individualized approach, as she described.

“I wanted a place that was motivational, that was bright and cheery, that women could come to and feel safe and comfortable and hopeful,” Burton said. Her vision for A New Way of Life was influenced and made possible by the care she received at the Venice Family Clinic.

“I didn’t realize the impact that the type of environment has on your mental health,” she said. “At Venice Family Clinic, I got all of my medical and mental health needs met. I was given a counselor, and I was able to sit down with that therapist every week and talk through not only the pain and trauma of the past, but also the hope for the future. And I began to get on a healing journey.”

The clinic ensures that its services provide “trauma-informed care” in a way that allows their patients and those they support to define their own pasts and take their journeys at their own pace.

“Trauma has adverse effects on health,” Forer said. “It leads to long-term changes in the structure and function of children’s brains and bodies, and can impact educational attainment. It leads to risk of violence in people or incarceration. If we can work with them early and they can be in touch with what their trauma is, even just knowing that helps them to move differently or get the help they need from us and others.”

As Burton added, however, the Venice Family Clinic, which has locations all over the Westside, is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to accessible and community-based support for situations and conditions like the ones she underwent.

“[Traumatic experiences] were the norm,” she said. “It was life. I didn’t think there was anything else until I sat down in Venice Family Clinic. I didn’t until I got into the community of Santa Monica. And I saw how different life could be and I was like, ‘Wow, this is like two worlds.’”

This speaks to a larger issue that runs as deep as the very culture of America — a tendency towards individualism, rather than mutual support and interdependence. At the Venice Family Clinic, Forer says, she and her team seek to correct that, at least for their slice of the world.

“There’s this sense of rugged individualism [in America],” she tells The Argonaut. “But, in many ways, those rugged individuals didn’t make it where they were without a lot of help from a group. What I like about the clinic is that people here have functioned as a team since we first started. There was not a lot of ‘I;’ there was a lot of ‘we:’ we work together, we’re here to help. Who do we know that could help if we can’t?”

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the devastating effects of the virus and lack of support for incarcerated people, who often struggle with subpar living conditions, inadequate access to health care and are being infected by the coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the national rate, according to an analysis by UCLA School of Law’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project and Johns Hopkins University. The murder of George Floyd and the uprisings protesting his death and other forms of police violence, most recently the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has put even more scrutiny on the policing and criminal justice systems.

These fractures in our society have only compounded on the very American inadequacy to provide adequate community care; as Burton points out, the systems in this country rely too heavily on punitive measures and are dangerously lacking in empathy.

“We are just so quick to punish people, and not get to the root causes of harm that folks are experiencing,” she said in an interview with The Argonaut. “We’re at this place where we’re forced to look at it now, and we could actually really be more thoughtful and compassionate and just do for everybody what we would want to be done for ourselves.”

Despite all of this, however, Burton retains hope.

“I’m always hopeful, and that’s what keeps me going, the hope for something better while working towards that something better,” she says. “It’s shameful that it came to a crisis to get our attention, but it seems more right now [than before] that things are gonna change.”

Both Burton and Forer suggest voting and volunteering as direct actions that people can take to help their neighbors in need.

As Burton says, “People already know what they can do. They just need to pull into their best, most empathetic, wisest self, and be courageous enough to follow it, even when it goes against the mainstream.”

For the week of Oct. 11 to 17, locals can get involved with the Venice Family Clinic’s mission to aid low-income, uninsured and homeless individuals through health care by participating in the clinic’s “Week of Action,” a service-driven celebration of the clinic’s half-century on the Westside.

All week long, individuals can sign up on the Venice Family Clinic’s website for “Action Pack” pledges to create care packages for homeless patients or give toys, books or school supplies to pediatric patients. (Visit venicefamilyclinic.org/action-pack to learn more about how you can engage, donate and volunteer. Questions? Contact VFCaction@mednet.ucla.edu or call (310) 392-9255.)

To get you revved up to volunteer, the Venice Family Clinic is hosting ‘Health, Justice, Action: The Kickoff Party’ on Sunday, Oct. 11, featuring celebrity guests such as Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal and performances by Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson and country artist Blake Shelton. The star-studded 50th-anniversary celebration kicks off at
6 p.m.

Visit https://venicefamilyclinic.org/justice2 to watch the full discussion with Burton, Forer and Gayle King.

Visit anewwayoflife.org or a venicefamilyclinic.org to learn more or volunteer with Burton’s organization.

Visit https://venicefamilyclinic.org/50years to RSVP to the ‘Health, Justice, Action: The Kickoff Party’ on Oct. 11 and learn how to participate in the clinic’s ‘Week of Action.’

Argonaut Managing Editor Christina Campodonico contributed to this story.

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