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Relationships, Connections and a Legacy to Live For

Carol F. Burton is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

Carol F. BurtonCarol F. Burton is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

When I was a young child my mother would say two things to me over and over, "Your dark skin is beautiful and yes, you can do anything that you set your mind to do." Her comments were in response to my questions about why I was so much darker than her and my older siblings and my insistence that one day I would sing at the White House just like Mahalia Jackson. My mother never completed high school, my father had a third grade education, and they both understood the essence of human development and resilience. The love and reassurance that my parents and siblings surrounded me with during those early years of my life has encouraged me to see possibilities everywhere, to create and realize visions, inspire others to lead and to connect with people across disciplines, geographic locations and self-interest.

After completing my Masters in Social Work at Grand Valley State University, I was ready to change the world and landed in Flint, Michigan. In 1989, I was hired as the Project Director for a demonstration pilot project. At the end of the interview, I was told that, "I am hiring you because people say that you can get things done and we need to get the project off the ground and running smoothly." My instructions were clear and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to serve as Director and later as Co-Principal Investigator with Project S.E.E.K. (Services to Enable and Empower Kids) in Genesse County, Michigan. This twelve year longitudinal study and pilot for children of incarcerated parents changed my life. My role there was to supervise the implementation of the service component and revise the delivery based on feedback from the youth, caregivers and incarcerated parents along with developing countywide collaborations that would support the families, children and the parent returning from prison. It became clear that I had a strong ability to form relationships and build collaborations.

The lessons learned from Project S.E.E.K. study made it possible and necessary for me to connect at a national level. In 1995, I joined the board of Family and Corrections Network, a national organization bringing the voices of incarcerated individuals, families, and institutional and service providers together. Many years later, I read "The Prayer of Jabez" by Bruce Wilkinson and started to say the prayer faithfully awaiting an answer. In 2002, I left Michigan and joined the Osborne Association in New York. I had arrived in the Big Apple understanding that anything was possible. The work was thrilling and the opportunities for innovation and connecting people were unlimited. My experience there confirmed my ability as a coach and mentor; to inspire people to lead.

In 2008, I made the decision to accept the position of ED at Centerforce and, like many non-profit leaders, I did not know what 2009 would bring. The financial challenges of that time forced many of us to create leaner, more efficient organizations and to develop strategic alliances. Centerforce is a unique organization filled with possibility. We develop programs and interventions that provide transformative experiences and desired outcomes for the criminal justice population. We share our outcomes and encourage others to consider emerging practices and model program through our National Summit.

One such model program is M.O.M.S (Maximizing Opportunities for Mothers to Succeed). We work with the Alameda County Sheriff Office, Behavioral Health Care Services, and Oakland Housing Authority. Centerforce provides case management and supportive services for pregnant and parenting MOMS leaving the County Jail. This unique partnership with Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) provides a 12-unit apartment complex with 3-4 bedrooms for mothers who are reuniting with their children. Centerforce has been successful in engaging numerous partners who provide services to our families living at the complex. This partnership continues to be successful because OHA believes in families and giving people second chances.

A few years ago I joined the Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Partnership (ACCIPP), a group similar to other groups formed across the country who are concerned about the well-being of children 0-18 years of age who have parents involved in the criminal justice system. As Co-Chair and Coordinator of this amazing group, I have been able to utilize my skills as relationship builder, connector, and visionary to create a countywide effort that addresses time of arrest protocols, contact visits, training for police, corrections, probation and social services.

When my mother died our family started a series of initiatives and organizations designed to keep her legacy alive, called Jewel'd Legacy. She instilled in us that our talents must be used to give back by helping others understand their greatness and develop a path for others to follow. I no longer sing publically but my mother always knew that one day I would make it to the White House. On behalf of my parents and all of the people that I have encountered along the way, I am proud to be a White House Champion of Change.

Carol F. Burton is the Executive Director of Centerforce in Northern and Central California.