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The Waters of Anti-Blackness and What We Do About Them: Birgit Smith Burton's Narrative

Birgit Smith Burton
Published:  05/16/2024

A New Beginning Was Emerging.

I was honored to be invited to serve as co-chair of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy's Annual International Conference in 2022. Before accepting the invitation, I wanted to ensure my service was meaningful and not tokenized. I needed assurance that the extension of the invitation to me, a Black woman, wasn't simply a superficial attempt to check a diversity box. 

My first exposure to AHP and the International Conference came a few years earlier when I was the keynote speaker. The keynote was an enjoyable interview with Alice Ayres, during which I learned more about AHP and Alice's vision for the association. Likewise, Alice learned more about the importance of diversity and how racism shows up in the fundraising profession. A few years later, when I spoke with Alice about the 2022 conference and the role of the conference co-chair, she explained that one of her goals was to increase diverse participation for attendance and session presenters. I was 100 percent on board with that and noted that I would be happy to serve if the other co-chair was well-versed and familiar with the conference and would round out my lack of knowledge and experience in that area. 

Alice then introduced me to Fran Petonic, and after spending a few days with both of them in Chicago, I left feeling good that Fran and I would work well together as co-chairs and excited for the work ahead. Fran and I got along well, and I was confident she understood what we hoped to accomplish in bringing more diverse presenters and attendees to the conference. In the planning meetings, Fran encouraged committee members to think outside the box as she shared the names of people who would bring diverse representation and voices to the conference program. Fran's recommendations were all people I knew, and all were amazing, credible, and talented professionals of color. I was impressed that Fran knew some of them personally. 

During one of our planning meetings, I learned that AHP only paid keynote speakers, while session presenters were not. That was an issue for me because, for too long, the conference circuit has relied on unpaid or under-compensated speakers, particularly those from marginalized or underrepresented groups. This practice perpetuates a cycle of exploitation by reinforcing existing power dynamics and hierarchies where diverse voices are expected to contribute their expertise for free, undermining efforts to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion within the conference community.
This non-compensation was, and remains, a problem in our sector and a significant problem for me as the conference co-chair. Though Fran did bring up the issue of compensation several times, the conversation did not go any further, so I was relieved when she was willing to ask the potential presenters to consider participating because I didn't want to be the one to ask any person of color to speak for free.

About a month later, I was in Southern California, where I was preparing to present at a seminar. It was a beautiful early summer day, and as I waited in the hotel for my room to be ready, I looked for an area to set up my laptop to join the AHP conference planning call. One of the hotel staff ushered me to a picturesque location with flowers and trees that had a botanical garden-ish vibe. I sat on a comfortable indoor-outdoor couch with a cabana positioned overhead; the atmosphere was heightened by a sweet, fruity, and floral fragrance and the melodic sounds of chirping birds. The setting felt like paradise. I was in a great mood and felt good about how well the program planning for the conference was progressing. Everything was shaping up nicely. 

As the chirping got louder, it became more difficult to hear much of the discussion, so I relied on the meeting document charting all the presenters and their session titles and descriptions. The first thing that jumped out at me was Nneka Allen's name as a presenter, and my name listed as a co-presenter based on our book Collecting Courage. I was excited and pleased, though I did not recall Nneka mentioning that she submitted a speaking proposal. I figured she would follow up with me later. I did not ask any questions. I wish I had. 

A few weeks later, I listened in shock when Nneka reached out to ask about the AHP International conference and informed me that she received an invitation to present based on a session proposal submitted. My body immediately reacted as I listened to Nneka. I remember the feeling in my stomach when I realized she had not submitted the proposal. Nneka's reaction changed to anger once it was clear I had not submitted one on her behalf. She pointed out the erroneous information in the submission and rightly felt violated. I was upset that this had happened on my watch. I told Nneka that I would get to the bottom of it. When Fran returned from vacation, she quickly acknowledged submitting the session proposal without Nneka's knowledge. I knew Nneka would be direct in confronting the situation, expect an apology, and seek an appropriate resolution for Fran's infraction and behavior steeped in white supremacy culture. I braced myself for what was about to happen. 

I don't remember how things transpired from that point; however, I do remember conversations and intense email exchanges with Fran. She was very disappointed in herself and wanted to resign as the conference co-chair. For me, her stepping down was not an option. She had to see this through by confronting the gravity of her actions and the breach of trust it caused. Her responsibility was to absorb and process the impact of her decisions and actions. It wasn't my responsibility to do the "clean up" work of repairing what was lost, broken, or stolen, not as the co-chair and most certainly not as a Black woman. While Nneka was on the receiving end of Fran's offense, I was not worried about Nneka. Because of our close relationship, one thing I knew was that this Black woman would have no problem defending her dignity. And she would do so unapologetically! 

I knew Alice was working through the apology, healing, and repair on behalf of AHP. What wasn't clear to me was the outcome or how this would impact or potentially stall Alice's vision and plans for a more diverse and inclusive conference. The good news is that as unfortunate as Fran's actions were, the approach used to address and remedy the situation invited and allowed the opportunity for everyone to learn and grow—especially Fran. She acknowledged her mistakes and put effort into learning about the harm that her actions had caused.
For me, there are two key takeaway lessons from the experience as it unfolded. First, the agony of sidestepping conflict surpasses the unease of directly confronting whatever the issue. I struggled and felt uncomfortable approaching potential presenters of color to ask them for their free labor to participate in the conference. I should have been more forthcoming and vocal with everyone about where I stood regarding compensation for session presenters. Second, acting quickly and asking questions is essential when something doesn't add up. Though Nneka and I enjoy a close relationship, she would have asked me before putting my name forward to co-present a session with her. Upon learning of the selection of a speaker proposal that I was unaware of and that listed Nneka as a presenter and me as a co-presenter, I would have discovered the truth about the proposal submission much earlier.

At the conference, we all had the opportunity to sit together at the dinner and toast the beginning of a genuine connection—one that comes with understanding and acknowledging the experience, the mistakes, and the many twists and turns that brought us all together. This experience offered personal growth and many lessons for AHP and the philanthropic sector. 

A new beginning was emerging.

Today, Fran and I remain friends, Alice and I have become close friends and partners, and Nneka is my forever sister. 

< BACK Fran Petonic's Narrative          Alice Ayres' Narrative NEXT >



NEWS  /05/16/24
The fourth article in The Waters of Anti-Blackness mini-series is told from Alice Ayres' perspective.
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 first article in The Waters of Anti-Blackness mini-series is told from Nneka Allen's perspective.
NEWS  /05/16/24
The second article in The Waters of Anti-Blackness mini-series is told from Fran Petonic's perspective.

Meet The Author

Birgit Smith Burton
Founder and Chief Executive Officer
African American Development Officers Network

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