March is Women’s History Month, and although most people are certainly aware of amazing women leaders such as First Lady Michelle Obama and media mogul Oprah Winfrey, there are also women right in our local communities that have made it their lives’ work to improve the lives of others, especially other women.

They’re teachers, pastors, politicians and just ordinary women doing extraordinary work. Their work is changing lives.

The POWer of ‘Sweet’ Community Service

“Sweet” Alice Harris is no spring chicken. But at 80, she is still the power behind POW—Parents of Watts, a community organization dedicated to uplifting those who have fallen on hard times, or got off to a rough start. One of the main reasons she is so qualified to run POW is that she’s been there; done that.

Harris had already been in jail at the tender age of 12, she became a mother at 14 and by 16, she was homeless. Fortunately, a loving family saw the good in her and helped her turn her life around. By the time she left Detroit and moved to Watts in 1958 to care for her ailing mother, Harris had a skill set that enabled her to make a living and care for her children. She was adept at inspiring and encouraging others, and many of those same people became loyal to her. So when the destructive riots of 1965 hit her community, she already had a bunch of volunteers ready and willing to work out of her house to help rebuild the community.

Over time, Harris brought people from other organized groups together and formed the Black and Brown Committee, which eventually became POW in 1979. Today, the grass roots organization offers some 15 programs in eight houses purchased by Harris herself. POW’s programs provide things such as family counseling, emergency food and shelter, employment training, tutoring, literacy courses, parenting classes, college and career preparation, and housing aid for those that need it.

In addition, all children in the area get free immunization shots.

Harris admits, that although POW is open to anyone, the bulk of those that come to the organization are made up of young women and kids. The basis on which Harris and her crew work is not groundbreaking. However, they are tried and true methods that are steeped in compassion and an honest desire to improve the lives of others, especially the next generation. For example, sometimes students are motivated by a promise of a reward, such as a toy or special event. The point of everything Harris incorporates is to keep kids clean, in school and on the path for a successful existence. Indeed, the nickname “Sweet” came from the fact that she makes decisions with a compassionate heart.

POW depends on private donations and volunteers to operate. Harris has one simple question to ask people when they approach her about POW: “Do you want to be part of the building crew or the wrecking crew?”

Harris tells Our Weekly that she has dedicated herself and much of her resources to helping others for one main reason—someone once did it for her.

“I had a rough start; that’s the reason I am doing what I am doing,” she says. “Someone helped me and I am returning the favor. I wanted to learn. I wanted to make a better life. It’s all about creating an environment that will make people want to learn and get into a better life.”

For information on POW, call (323) 566-7556.

A New Way of Life

Like Harris, Susan Burton was once on the other side of the law. A former California prison inmate, she knows what it is to come out of prison into a world that is basically unwelcoming and unyielding in options for a former inmate to make a living.

Burton’s son died when he was just five. The dramatic event was key in driving the young mother to drug addiction and eventual incarceration. When the judge sentenced Burton, he didn’t see a young woman struggling with depression and a lack of skills, he saw a criminal. And so her cycle began. She was in and out of prison six times over a course of about 20 years.

The last time she was released in 1997, she remembers a prison guard saying to her something like, “See you back in a little while.” Those words stung and may have been the catalyst that sent her on a very different path.

Burton’s A New Way of Life provides women parolees the tools that they need to rebuild their lives when they are released from prison. That can include housing, legal aid, job training and other means of support.

Candidates for the organization’s services come through word of mouth mostly. “They write me letters asking for help,” Burton explains. “I get about 50 letters a month. There’s a rumble about what I do in the system. I have been doing it since 1998, so people know about it.”

The women Burton helps range in ages from 20 to 62. Candidates have to be someone who is capable of taking care of themselves. “Our services are individualized,” Burton explains.

She says that women are overcharged when it comes to drug-related offenses. “She’s charged with cocaine possession. Then she’s in a situation where if she doesn’t give up her dealer, she’s going to do time. The first charge should be referred to treatment,” Burton declares.

A New Way of Life will work to get an incoming woman a driver’s license and make sure that she has a social security card. “We bring them into one of our houses. A lot of times they know each other because they came from the same place. We give them hygiene items, food and make them feel like they are part of our family. The fact that she came is testament that she is already in the process of becoming a productive part of society.”

Burton says inmates are attracted to A New Way of Life because they get the impression “we really understand that people make mistakes and sometimes need help getting back on their feet. We recognize the potential in the women that we serve… they understand that we understand their needs. We recognize their potential.”

The concept of A New Way of Live comes from Burton’s own experiences. When she got out of prison the last time, at 46, she got a friend to help her find a job as a live-in caregiver for an elderly woman. This time, she wanted to stay off drugs, so she enrolled in a treatment facility. Burton was determined to not repeat the cycle. She worked hard and saved $12,000 and bought a small house in South Los Angeles.

It was tough though. Because she was a felon, a lot of the programs that would help her pull herself up were unavailable. One day she decided she could help herself by helping others. “I can help other women like myself, and nobody can stop me,” she declared.

Within a year after her release from prison, Burton began going to the bus depot and asking women that she recognized to stay at her place. It all began with four women in a room, in bunk beds. For a while, she and the other women managed on her savings and meager salary. But when the person she was caring for was moved to a senior care facility, she was out of work.

Someone advised her to turn her concept of helping other inmates into a nonprofit and A New Way of Life was formed. She applied for a grant and today, nearly 15 years later, Burton’s shelter includes five transitional residences that have served more than 600 people. A New Way of Life runs with a $1 million budget that comes from grants, fundraisers and private donations.

The women stay anywhere from nine months to two years. In addition to assisting women in rebuilding their lives, the organization also distributes about $2 million a year in donated goods, such as diapers and canned goods to the community. A New Way of Life also offers free legal advice once a month, as well as services to help a former inmate find viable employment.

Burton is attempting to take her southern California model of A New Way of Life to the national stage. She is working with All of Us or None and the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement, both of which she helped found. The need is great, she says.

For more info on A New Way of Life, visit anewwayoflife.org

Mary Magdelene Project

Stephany Powell PH.D, came into her role as project director of the Mary Magdelene Project (MMP) from the other side of the law. She did grow up in South Central L.A., but she became a police officer and served in that role for more than 20 years, including a stint as head of the vice unit in Van Nuys. Upon retirement from the police department, it was recommended that she take over the role as executive director of the already well-established Mary Magdelene Project (MMP), which works to get women off the streets.

Powell was familiar with MMP since as a cop, she had actually referred women she had arrested to the program. She said that going into MMP was a perfect fit for her since she was familiar with both sides of the coin when it came to women needing to get out of the cycles of prostitution, drug abuse and domestic violence.

“There actually wasn’t a huge difference between them and me,” Powell says. “Somewhere along the line, they made a wrong turn.”

Powell didn’t miss a beat, going from cop to community activist. She set up meetings with police departments, community leaders and even some of the women she was intent on helping. The biggest obstacle was getting the women off the streets and into MMP’s programs.

“They’re afraid of their pimps and the violence,” Powell explains. “They are often threatened, beaten, tortured, especially if they are caught with someone like me.”

Powell and the MMP have numerous programs to help women. “We let them know that we are here and ready to help them. We give them a packet that contains information, a condom, a granola bar… a tube of lipstick with our phone number on it… a lot of times the crimes against these women cross over… a working girl may also be a victim of domestic violence.”

Powell says the journey to her current position has been a long one. She came from a home that kept her very sheltered. “At the same time, my parents taught me how to be independent. And that’s the common denominator among these young women—a lack of self-esteem… if you don’t have family support and solid self-esteem, you are more vulnerable or susceptible to taking the wrong path. Self-esteem is very important.”

Powell says the average age that comes to the MMP program is between 14 and 25 years. “They have never had the chance to grow up,” she explains. “They probably didn’t go to school after a certain age, they didn’t learn a trade… we try to lead them back into a life with therapy, we try to find them a job and we provide training.”

MMP also helps with what Powell calls a “loss of identity.” A teenage girl that has gotten into prostitution has no identity except for the derogatory role she has been given by a pimp or her “customers.”

“We also try to give them sense of family, something they might not have had, and that’s what the pimp gave them, as dysfunctional as it might be,” she explains.

For more information on MMP, go to MMP.org

Back to the Future

Harris, Burton and Powell have several common goals to serve their communities now, but they also share a deep concern for the next generation of girls and boys who are inundated on a daily basis with images that portray women especially in an unfavorable light. Restaurants are using bikini-clad women to sell hamburgers, music videos from major recording artists display female artists themselves in sexually provocative positions to “get a man” and young girls continue to be enticed and even kidnapped to become part of the sex trade.

“I call it miss-representation,” declares Powell. “Crimes against women are going up. We need to start by educating our boys; start at middle school. Teach them how to respect women. If we’re not having conversations with our boys, someone else is. Girls are getting raped at younger ages… the conversation has to start with boys to make them aware of what healthy relationships are all about. And then we must teach our young girls that they are not measured by their bodies. We need to send better messages to our young ones.”

Burton echoes Powell, “One of the things that we need to teach our community is how critical the messaging is that our young people see everyday. What is behind the image? Who is behind the image? We need to teach our young girls to value themselves, every part of themselves, from their toes to their hair. Think about the messages and what images they are sending our kids. We need to teach our young girls to value themselves.”

Adds Harris, “These young ladies need the community… we need to stress how important it is for them to get an education. It’s not going to be easy, but you have to get an education to have a better life.”