Link to Obituary
An international community of friends, colleagues and people she helped are mourning the death of Naya Arbiter, who co-founded the Amity Foundation and dedicated her life to those struggling with addiction and trauma.
She died March 3 after a brief illness. She was 69.
Arbiter was born Sept. 20, 1952, in New York City. Her childhood included time in Mexico and Bolivia, where her stepfather worked in mining. She won the Miss Bolivia contest in Cochabamba at 13, said her husband, Rod Mullen, but was disqualified from more pageants because she was American.
Her family moved to Tucson in the late 1960s. Arbiter, then a teenager, began experimenting with drugs and became addicted to heroin. She was arrested in Mexico and spent seven months in jail in Nogales, Sonora, which, Mullen said, helped shape her compassion and insight when it came to addiction and inmates.
She was later arrested in Pima County by the FBI and faced, at 17, sentencing as an adult for drug trafficking.
At that time, Mullen said, a “courageous and empathic” probation officer risked her career by taking Arbiter to Synanon, a California-based program that was the first therapeutic community in the country.
That ended Arbiter’s drug use and, her husband said, launched 50 years of researching and perfecting ways to create therapeutic communities. She worked at Synanon for a decade before starting the Amity Foundation in Tucson with her husband in 1981.
“She became, in my view, the world’s most impactful advancer of that approach,” said George De Leon, a New York psychologist and researcher Arbiter sought out as she developed her ideas about helping people recover from not only addiction, but many other life-limiting experiences such as poverty, child abuse, racism, homelessness and violence.
The emphasis is not just on moving beyond dependence on drugs or alcohol, De Leon said, but helping people change their lifestyles and find out who they are, over time — and without those limitations.
Arbiter frequently reached out to De Leon, among many others, and read voraciously on these topics. She wrote 14 volumes of curriculum, and she did all of this without a college education. Instead, she often said, she learned from hearing the stories of others.
Her compassion extended beyond people. She was outspoken about the environment and climate change, and was a lifelong vegetarian who carried cat food in her purse in case she encountered a stray.
“She was extraordinarily wise, kind, honest,” said her lifelong friend and colleague, Pamela Jay. “She had an amazing, intuitive capacity to make a difference for others whether it be a plant, an animal, a pet or a human being.”
Arbiter and Mullen began working with inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego in 1990, and that program continued until funding issues closed it in 2019.
Inmates who participated were then given the chance to transition from prison to a residential Amity campus in nearby Vista, California. Mullen said recidivism dropped about 47% for those who participated in both the inmate program and then the therapeutic community after release.
Their prison work, which also included programs in New Mexico and Texas, reached as far away as Argentina and Japan.
An independent filmmaker in Tokyo, Kaori Sakagami, became friends with Arbiter in 1995 through Alice Miller, a renowned psychologist from Switzerland, one of the first to explore how child abuse affects a person’s body and mind.
“I was preparing to make a documentary on Alice Miller for a Japanese public TV channel and was looking for some activities that use her methodology — looking into childhood abuse and breaking the cycle of abuse,” Sakagami wrote in an email to the Arizona Daily Star.
“We filmed a weeklong retreat at the Circle Tree Ranch in Tucson which Naya organized and led. It was a mind-blowing and life-change experience for me.”
Sakagami went on to release two films about Arbiter and Mullen’s prison work. The first is called “Lifers: Reaching for Life Beyond the Walls,” which she produced in 2004. The second, from 2019, was “Prison Circle,” about the creation of a 60-bed therapeutic community for Japanese prisoners.
Jess Losoya’s introduction to Arbiter was when he first watched “Lifers” in a California prison cell in 2009.
He’d been addicted to crystal methamphetamine, committed related crimes and, he said, “didn’t have a lot going for me in my life.” Losoya said three years later, when he was paroled, he asked to go to an Amity facility in Los Angeles.
In time, he met Arbiter and began assisting with the work there. He was hired in 2013 and moved to Tucson and Amity’s Circle Tree Ranch on East Tanque Verde Road, where he’s now vice president of services and training.
Arbiter and Mullen became like family, he said. “She really connected, she really cared,” he said. “She wanted to know your story.”
Dozens of people reached out to the Arizona Daily Star to share stories of how Arbiter helped them.
Tucsonan Mark Schuettinger, 66, first met Arbiter when he was 25. He’d been using heroin for 11 years when he arrived at Amity.
“Thanks to her hard work and help, I ended my life of self-destruction and degradation,” he said. “I have spent the last 40 years working with her and her husband, Rod Mullen. She became my dearest friend.”
Arbiter served on numerous national and international committees and advisory boards and, in 2013, was the second American — and first woman — to receive the prestigious Acknowledgement Award of the European Federation of Therapeutic Communities, given to those recognized for the greatest contribution to the development of this approach.
Arbiter is survived by her husband of 45 years, Rod Mullen, son, Angelo Mullen, stepdaughters Cristina Mullen and Moneka Krouse and their children.
Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or firstname.lastname@example.org