From Adversity to Advocacy: A Story of Resilience and Systemic Change in NH

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Courtesy photo

Ophelia Burnett, Healing Justice Organizer at American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

Presently, Ophelia Burnett, third from left in above photo, leads the “No Exception Campaign,” seeking to amend the New Hampshire constitution to eradicate all forms of slavery through bill CARC 13.

Raised by a mother of Jamaican descent, New Hampshire resident Ophelia Burnett recalls a sheltered upbringing marked by strict boundaries and limitations. At the age of 19, fueled by a desire for freedom, she made choices that would reshape her future. On a night out with a group of friends, she described as the “cool kids,” an incident resulted in her arrest.

“I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I was young, naive, and a woman of color. They wanted to make an example out of us.”

— Ophelia Burnett

Breaking Barriers Post-Release

After serving 4 years, Ophelia envisioned a career as a criminal lawyer post-release. She went on to study, pursuing an undergraduate degree in Law at the Nashua Community College. Once it was time to find a job, reality proved harsh. Rejections from law offices, despite promising interviews, exposed the prejudices tied to her prior conviction. 

“I thought after doing my time I would be forgiven. I’d be able to have a new start in life. But boy, was I wrong,” Ophelia candidly remarked. “They loved me in the interviews, and told me I fit all the qualifications, but once they did a background check, the narrative changed.”

— Ophelia Burnett

Thanks to the support of her family, particularly her mother, Ophelia had been able to secure an apartment lease. With rent and bills to pay, she was forced to navigate alternative career paths so she could make ends meet, so she returned to work as a model.

The 2023 National Survey of People with Records, released by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, revealed that one in two people with old convictions experienced difficulties in finding a job, maintaining employment, or making a living. The same study reports that people with a felony conviction earn an average of $23,000 per year. Coupled with precarious housing opportunities and the rising cost of living, reintegration is especially difficult for people with a criminal record.

Lasting Damage to Mental Health

After four years of stability and making significant re-entry strides, Ophelia’s new life took a tragic turn when an electrical fire consumed her home and everything she owned. Left homeless, with limited experience and a prior conviction, finding a new place to live became an insurmountable challenge. This sudden adversity, as well as the lingering effects of incarceration, took a toll on Ophelia’s mental health. 

“I started to drink a lot to suppress my feelings. I felt like every door kept being closed on me. No one wanted to or could help because of my conviction but how could I grow and evolve if no one was giving me a chance?”

— Ophelia Burnett

Ophelia’s frustration and lack of understanding led to internal turmoil, manifesting in strained relationships with loved ones and self-harm. Unfortunately, her experience is common;  specialists believe that incarceration worsens the symptoms of mental health and is linked to experiencing mood disorders post-release. Further research suggests that being incarcerated has lasting effects on mental health, as the trauma people experience while in prison can lead to Post-Incarceration Syndrome, which shares characteristics with PTSD.

All it Takes is Being Given A Chance

An unexpected opportunity emerged when Ophelia was invited to share her story at a public event near the New Hampshire State House. Despite being “petrified of public speaking”, she accepted. 

“After listening to the other women’s stories, I was motivated and empowered for the first time in over a decade. Though I could barely get any words out because I was tearing up during my entire speech, I told my story for the first time! After speaking to so many therapists, and taking medication, this was the first time I felt a sense of healing; and at that very moment, I told myself that is what I wanted to do.”

— Ophelia Burnett

Ophelia’s testimony caught the attention of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), prompting a transformative job offer as a Healing Justice Organizer. Her experience in the correctional system is ultimately what made her the right fit for the role. 

“A week or so went by and I got an email from AFSC. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. For the last couple of months, I have been getting turned away from jobs because of my past and my record. Now here was a job looking to possibly hire me because of my past. I wondered, God, is this you?”

— Ophelia Burnett

Advocating for Change in the Systems that Failed Her

In her role with AFSC, Ophelia became a driving force in legislative advocacy and the initiation of a pilot re-entry program for women in New Hampshire. She also helps organize and mobilize formerly incarcerated people to take action to improve their communities and to create opportunities for them to thrive despite their records. Reflecting on her journey, Ophelia recognizes the challenges affecting formerly incarcerated individuals. 

“My passion lies in social justice and advocating for the rights of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. Since starting this work, I have made a positive impact on the lives of those who have faced the challenges of being directly impacted by the carceral system. I knew that it would not be easy – the stigma surrounding individuals with criminal records is deeply rooted in our society, making it difficult for them to find employment, housing, and even acceptance.”

— Ophelia Burnett

For her work empowering women and girls, Ophelia recently received the “Today Award” from the New Hampshire chapter of YWCA. She closely supported a bill (HB 421) that requires all state and county facilities to provide adequate access to free menstrual hygiene products. Thanks to the collaboration with policy and lawmakers, organizations, and the Department of Corrections (DOC), this bill was passed last August, helping to protect incarcerated women.

Ophelia remains focused on her social justice mission: “I don’t do this work for me. I do this for the ones who are still behind bars and feel they are silenced and have no voice and marginalized individuals.”

Abolishing Modern-Day Slavery in Prisons

Presently, Ophelia leads the “No Exception Campaign,” seeking to amend the New Hampshire constitution to eradicate all forms of slavery through bill CARC 13. This is due to language in the US Constitution’s 13th Amendment that abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime. Bill CARC 13 seeks to amend the New Hampshire constitution by adding an article with anti-slavery language that states slavery and involuntary servitude shall be prohibited in the state of New Hampshire.

Simultaneously, efforts are underway to establish a re-entry program focused on healing, reducing recidivism, and providing more opportunities for those seeking a fresh start. Recognizing the importance of raising awareness and challenging misconceptions that perpetuate the cycle of incarceration, Ophelia is keen to continue advocating for the incarcerated and released populations.

“My work does not end here. There is still much to be done to ensure that every individual, regardless of their past, has a fair chance at rebuilding their lives. We must continue to advocate for comprehensive support systems that address the underlying issues and marginalization leading to criminal behavior. And most importantly, we must extend compassion and understanding to those who are striving to reintegrate into society.”

— Ophelia Burnett

As a final statement into her journey, Ophelia reflected on the transformative power of giving someone a chance for rehabilitation and personal growth. She became the success story she needed when she was first released from prison at 24 years old.

“They gave me a chance to show the world I am not the mistake I had made when I was an adolescent. I am living and walking proof of what a success story looks like. I’ve connected with elected officials, changed policies, and advocated for both formerly and currently incarcerated people. I took the same rocks and barriers that were thrown at me and used them as stepping blocks to get to where I am today.”

— Ophelia Burnett

Click here to see the reentry resources available in New Hampshire.

About Ophelia Burnett

A New Hampshire resident for 30 years, Ophelia brings her life experiences and passion into her role as a Healing Justice Organizer. Ophelia sees this work as an opportunity to prepare herself for a career in law and community organizing. She has grown from being a singer and model into a fierce community leader and lives up to her name in healing justice. She has a deep desire to help people find their own path of joy and purpose, having decided to start her own reentry program for individuals starting over after incarceration, struggling to navigate community resources to be successful. So, during her free time, she loves reading and sustains a regular practice of meditation to keep herself grounded in peace and positivity.

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