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The Waters of Anti-Blackness and What We Do About Them: Alice Ayres' Narrative

Alice Ayres, MBA
Published:  05/16/2024


The Positive Power of Relationships

For me, this story started in the summer of 2020 when George Floyd was murdered. The AHP staff and Board of Directors joined many other organizations in moving to respond. We issued AHP’s DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging) policy, launched a task force, and assembled members who wanted to engage in the work of making our Association more inclusive, a place where all healthcare fundraisers could belong. We were fortunate to have a renowned DEI consultant assist with reviewing policies, speaker agreements, calls for proposals, and other documents and procedures to remove bias and make them more inviting and accessible to all.

During that work, I was introduced to Birgit Smith-Burton –a woman who has worked tirelessly to support and elevate Black fundraisers, to create space for the multitude of diverse voices within the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) community, and a woman with whom I felt a connection immediately. Birgit was generous with her time, her counsel, and with her own story. She agreed to keynote AHP’s 2020 virtual conference in a fireside chat with me, where she explained the ways that organizations intentionally and unintentionally exclude people. She advised reaching out to understand where other people are coming from and what their stories and lived experiences are. In doing this, we learn how to become inclusive and to create an environment that makes true belonging possible. What I didn’t realize then was that one of AHP’s processes–that of how we compensate speakers–kept us from asking relevant questions to ensure that everyone interested in having a voice at AHP was able to do so.

In the winter of 2021, as AHP geared up for our first post-pandemic, in-person International Conference, I reached out to a friend and a DEIB champion within the membership, Fran Petonic, to ask if she would chair the 2022 Chicago event. She agreed and, because of Birgit’s keynote, she asked that we invite Birgit to serve as co-chair of the conference. I felt very fortunate when Birgit agreed. AHP arranged for a trip to Chicago to see the hotel and to give all of us a chance to get to know each other better.

Fran and Birgit returned from Chicago and began developing a committee whose focus was on delivering a great event, full of educational content and interaction that would allow everyone to feel safe and invited in. Everything seemed to be going well until I awoke, while on vacation in the summer of 2022, to a series of emails that were quite alarming. As I unraveled what happened, I realized that we had caused harm to Nneka Allen who was a friend of Birgit’s and who had co-edited Collecting Courage and co-written the book with Birgit and others. 

Fran had submitted a speaking proposal on “Nneka’s behalf” without her knowledge or her approval. Fran had failed to ask Nneka if she and her co-editors would be interested in speaking at the conference. When the AHP staff sent Nneka a message to congratulate her for being chosen, she was rightly confused and later furious. She felt, understandably, that Fran and AHP had wronged and misrepresented her and her co-editors.

I will always remember waiting on Zoom to apologize to Nneka, unsure what to say that would help. Knowing Fran as I did, I knew she would never intentionally cause harm, but I also understood that it was the impact, not the intentions that mattered. After several conversations between Birgit, Fran, and myself, Birgit asked Nneka to take a call with me to allow me to apologize. But as I sat there, waiting for Nneka to join me on Zoom, I honestly had no idea how to make things right. 

Then Nneka joined the call. Her warmth was immediate, her curiosity and openness striking. I started by taking responsibility for the harm we caused. And then Nneka gave me a gift she told me her story and placed the harm we caused into the context of her story and the story of so many other Black women. She explained that one very important reality for many Black women is the expectation of free labor. This is rooted in the history of slavery. Black women are disproportionately asked to give away their time and work for free or well below market rate. 

In our conversation, Nneka asked several tough questions but the one that stuck with me after the conversation is the one I ask myself often: “How can everyone be powerful?” With this question, Nneka turned the conversation to the issue of compensation. Historically, AHP has compensated keynotes at our conferences at their speaking rate. Meanwhile, session speakers who apply to speak receive two other types of benefits. First, they have the opportunity to present their ideas in front of their colleagues, either as a way of advancing their skills or as a way of building business within the healthcare philanthropy sector. Additionally, they attend the conference at a speaker discount, which is of value to those who would have wanted to attend the conference whether they were speaking or not.

With this conference, however, Fran and Birgit were reaching out to diverse voices outside the sector and inviting them to submit proposals to speak. However, when they were selected to speak, AHP staff was following speaker policy, offering the discounted registration rate as compensation. This form of compensation was not of equal value as the work, time, and expense that these speakers would have invested in AHP, an organization that they had no or little relationship to. This inequity created a disincentive for people outside the sector to share their stories with AHP. Had AHP asked the kind of questions that Birgit advised in her keynote, we might have understood this and found different ways to compensate them for their investment. I learned while we were writing this piece, our failure to understand and apply the message Birgit shared in her keynote two years prior, that we ought to ask the speakers what fair compensation would look like for them, was the source of Birgit’s hesitancy to invite Nneka and her co-authors to consider speaking, setting the rest of the story in motion.

As I shared in my introduction to this mini-series of articles, the work we do ends up being all about relationships. If Birgit and I had as close a relationship and partnership then as we do now, she might have shared her concern that our policy was going to exclude people from consideration and limit the diversity of our speakers. If Fran and I, as white women, had understood the history and lived experiences of Black women and other marginalized groups better, we might not have needed Birgit to tell us—we might have known that this policy needed to be further interrogated to ensure inclusion rather than exclusion. 

But it is also the story of the positive power of relationships in connecting and healing. Because of the strength of the new relationships Birgit and Fran and I were building, Birgit was willing to reach out to Nneka, with whom she has an extremely close relationship, to broker my apology call. And because of that call, and the subsequent relationship that Nneka and I have built, AHP members heard the stories of some of the authors of Collecting Courage in a plenary session at International. That relationship also helped to open my eyes to ways AHP still needs to change to give everyone a place to share their voice.

In the summer of 2022, AHP embarked on our course to become more inclusive and to create a culture that allows everyone to feel that they truly belong.  When we started, we talked about how this would be an ongoing journey, with twists and turns along our path, that we would need to continually walk. Journeys are about learning about ourselves and others we meet along the way. For AHP and me, this was one of those key learning moments and a reminder that we need an ongoing commitment to openness and growth as we engender a culture of equity and belonging within our association.

Later, in another of our conversations, Nneka asked me what I would commit to going forward. I realized that my role is to create space within AHP for the stories we often do not hear on fundraising stages and to do so in a way that is accessible to the largest number of people. It is for that reason that I am delighted to announce that AHP will be publishing via LinkedIn (our greatest readership outlet), pieces from fundraisers of color, LGBTQ+ fundraisers, and fundraisers who are differently abled and from all other diverse backgrounds. 

We start with this mini-series, co-written by the four of us, which we hope will share the power of reaching across seemingly huge divides to ask questions and learn about the needs of other people. And, when harm is done, the power of taking responsibility for harm, repairing what is broken, and, in doing so, building relationships and finding ways to heal. It is my hope that by broadening the topics and voices heard about from the AHP stage—sharing the power of the microphone—
AHP will create an environment where we can all truly belong.

< BACK Birgit Smith Burton's Narrative



NEWS  /05/16/24
Introducing a powerful, four-part mini-series written by Nneka Allen, Fran Petonic, Birgit Smith Burton, and Alice Ayres.
NEWS  /05/16/24
The third article in The Waters of Anti-Blackness mini-series is told from Birgit Smith Burton's perspective.
NEWS  /05/16/24
The second article in The Waters of Anti-Blackness mini-series is told from Fran Petonic's perspective.
NEWS  /05/16/24
The first article in The Waters of Anti-Blackness mini-series is told from Nneka Allen's perspective.

Meet The Author

Alice Ayres, MBA
President and Chief Executive Officer
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

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