Attorney Whitney Davis Houston, Inspiring Attorney & Activist
LASM x TDR:Tell about what type of law you practice?
Whitney: I have practiced all types of law. I do Entertainment Law, all aspects of it … artist oriented, producer oriented, the individual side as opposed to the corporate side.
LASM x TDR:You are on the Board of Directors for A New Way of Life. Tell us about that organization.
Whitney: A New Way of Life is an organization founded by Susan Burton. I call her the fairy goddess. She’s an extraordinary woman who was in and out of prisons for 20 years…
LASM x TDR: Like six sentences, right?
Whitney: …Six sentences. She was in prison for 20 years. She had a drug problem prior to her incarceration and it was exacerbated by the fact that her son was killed by the police in a car accident on accident. She kind of fell into the disease even more deeply; every time she would come out there was nothing for her. She’d come out, there were no jobs, there was no place to live. There was nobody there to help her. There was nothing. And so she had nothing, so she’d go back and it went over and over again. Finally she went to the westside of Los Angeles where she got to experience a rehab program and she said, “Wow, we don’t have this anywhere in our neighborhoods. We don’t have anything where you’re loved up. Everything is about judgment and about how you’re a bad person. And we don’t have anything where we love our folks up when they come out.” So she created an organization where it literally what she do was, is drive up to the jails and say, “Hey, do you need a place to live?” And she’d bring them into her homes and she would love on them and give them the opportunity to get on their feet, she would offer them a drug treatment programs and services. And ultimately, she moved on to offering them jobs… I really love being in service to her… because of her organization, we now have six homes. We just merged with another organization called the Harbor Halfway Homes, which are in Long Beach. We just took two of their homes over, so we have them six homes and we help women. And not only do we help women, but we also are involved in legislation and changing legislation. Susan’s organization was instrumental in Prop 47 and what happened with Prop 47.
Now we’re working on Ban the Box where we’re trying to get rid of boxes that allows people to ask you about your incarceration before your employment and application – that’s just like saying, “Okay, so you don’t want this job.” And you can’t lie on the application, so just giving folks the opportunity to get in the door. They still have to disclose their situation, but giving folks the opportunity to sell themselves before they’re just a piece of paper, it makes such a difference. So that’s kind of where a lot of our focuses are right now.
Whitney: We’re also involved in making sure that children are reunited with their parents, with their moms, which is so critical because children, I mean, it’s bad enough when children don’t have their fathers, but when they don’t have their mothers, it is extraordinary. It’s such a gap and such a hole so… It’s critical that we put women and their children back together again. That’s the big one. The biggest things that matter to women when they’re coming out…
LASM x TDR: What is your philosophy that makes you think the way that you do?
Whitney: I have always believed that we’re all the same and it sounds really trite, but I feel like nobody’s having an any individual experience. I feel like we’re all having a common experience and how we treat each other is how I find people to be spectacular. My experience of people is that there are wonderful because that’s my experience of them. Maybe that’s how I operate in the universe, but I just feel like if you treat people with respect and dignity, you get it back. If you assume the best about folks, you’ll find that they won’t disappoint. You tend to live up or down to the expectations that you set for them. So I just assume everybody’s decent and I listen, I’m the chick that had $5,000 in cash return to me in an unmarked envelope and I know that it would get returned. Everybody’s like, how do you know that? I said, because people are decent. I said, well, what would you do? I said, if you found an envelope with $5,000 what would you do to it? And 95% of the people are like, I would try to find the owner. Of course you would. Nobody takes $5,000 of cash for no reason. And so if you operate from that place, I find that most people live in that same space and all the people I surround myself with generally are like that.
LASM x TDR:When you were in law school, did you always know that you wanted to work in a field such as this that was primarily giving back and utilizing your career?
Whitney: When I came out of law school, I definitely wanted to be a public defender (everybody thinks that means you want to get people off). That’s not what it means. It means you want to make sure that the system is doing what the system is supposed to be doing. But of course they had a hiring freeze when I got out of law school. So I went to go work for an insurance company that I had clerked for. And then of course, because I am from L.A., I was like, well, I can’t afford to take the pay cut now. So I did that for a long time, but I always wanted to have other avenues and a very, very close family member was incarcerated, and I got to have the experience of being the family member of a former, of an incarcerated person. So that pushed me into going in that direction and really kind of made me realize that this is matters. It matters. And every one person who does something makes a difference. Every one person who shows up, every one person who votes at every election, not just for president. Both for legislation that changes this stuff so that we can make it matter.
LASM x TDR: Was there still something impeding you once you knew that you had to do something about it? And if there was, how did you break through and really do what you’re supposed to do?
Whitney:I think I’ve always been; I’ve always had a sense that of what was right and what needed to be done. I’ve always been able to be like; this is what I want to do. That’s the voice that I don’t listen to that I should probably have listened to more often. I listen to it now. But in terms of my career and in terms of being of service, I’ve think I’ve always been like that.
LASM x TDR: So you couldn’t deny it? It’s like a light switch went on and you cannot turn it off.
Whitney: It’s always been a part of who I was. Just a sense that I’m so blessed. I had two parents. They’ve been married for 50 years. They like still do it. I mean, they’re great, amazing. I have a brother who’s been married for 20 years… So I feel like, I could give back and have, give that sense in how I operate in the universe.
LASM x TDR: How can we volunteer or support?
Whitney: Absolutely. Go to anewwayoflife.org or anwol.org. You can also go to All Of Us Or None (which is a grass roots organization). They are actually fighting for legislative change. They are fighting for community difference and All Of Us Or None. But the place to go is anewwayoflife.org. You can literally get anything, how to donate, how to help, how to assist. We can always use your money. We could definitely use your time. You know what? And if you’re not sure how you could help, just say, “Hey, how can I help?” Somebody will come up with something for you. Trust me.