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The Waters of Anti-Blackness and What We Do About Them: Fran Petonic's Narrative

Fran Petonic
Published:  05/16/2024


Keep Going. The Work is Worth It.

"Whiteness does not equal fragility. That's a dodge created by white fragility itself - a way for white Americans to avoid the responsibility of soothing themselves, metabolizing their own ancient historical and secondary trauma, accepting and moving through clean pain, and growing up.” ~ Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands

Today, I am sharing my anti-Black racism journey. As I look back on the events leading up to the 2022 AHP International Conference, I am humbled and grateful for the grace that was offered to me as I acknowledged and worked through my embedded racist behaviors. My hope is twofold. First, that in sharing my journey, others open to similar examinations will know there is a path that can lead from the acknowledgment of harm, to repair and restitution. And second, show that investing in reparative work can lead to connection with truly amazing people who exude wisdom and warmth.
In 2022, the same year I was asked to chair the AHP International Conference, I read Collecting Courage: Joy, Pain, Freedom, Love, Anti-Black Racism in the Charitable Sector. This collection of personal stories of anti-Black racism experienced in our profession inspired me to do more through intentional action. The fifteen co-authors were from either Canada or the United States, and despite their vast career accomplishments and expertise, their stories describe the harm and impact of being undervalued, undermined, and excluded from career opportunities. I was shocked by their stories and both the nuances and similarities of the lived experiences of the authors. 

For me, this conference represented an opportunity to use my privilege as a white woman to address some of the issues I read about. I knew I wanted to co-chair the conference with a Black leader because I knew from the book that they would have lived experiences I didn’t have. I hoped to gather a committee that was racially diverse and included both experienced and early-career professionals.

I was excited when Alice Ayres, president and chief executive officer of AHP, agreed to ask Birgit Smith Burton to co-chair with me. Birgit is a co-author of Collecting Courage, a renowned corporate and foundation fundraiser, and founded the African American Development Officers Network, over 25 years ago.

When Birgit and I first met to break bread in Chicago, we got to know each other personally. We bonded talking about our former spouses and our beloved, adult children. I quickly grew to love working with this brilliant, warm, and funny woman. We frankly discussed what we could do to welcome more fundraisers of color to the conference. We needed affinity spaces. We wanted headline speakers who were Black, Latine and Asian. Ultimately, we desired to create an atmosphere where conference participants would experience a palpable difference in the environment. And what I wanted most of all was a cohort of the authors of Collecting Courage as speakers. I felt it was important to bring the content of this book into other fundraisers' consciousness. 

There was an obstacle though, and that was that AHP had a policy of only paying keynote speakers. That meant that all other speakers/ presenters were not compensated for their time, travel, or expertise. I knew that many of the speakers who I wanted to bring forward had powerful messages to share but were not in well-funded organizations, which is especially the case for racially oppressed fundraisers. I felt like I had no business asking Black people for free labor. 

In the conference committee meetings, Birgit and I regularly advocated for compensation for speakers of color. We were told that the conference budget would not allow for this practice. I was starting to see my vision of having racially diverse speakers slipping away and I became fearful that I would fail to deliver the conference I envisioned and promised. What I did next is shocking to me now. And I think it was shocking to me then, but I had hit a brick wall. With failure looming, I felt a separation and disconnection from the potential consequences of what I was about to do. 

As a senior vice president of a national healthcare system, I was self-congratulatory and pleased about using my positional power to address racism in the profession. But, as the deadline to secure our presenters was closing in, and I had no solution for paying speakers of color, I felt I was tottering on a pinnacle, alone. I feared and didn’t want to look bad. So, I took action. With audacity and without their consent or knowledge, I submitted a speaker proposal for the co-editors of Collecting Courage-Nneka Allen, Camila Pereira and Nicole Salmon.  

If they hadn’t been writing about difficult truths that I didn’t know how to address, and if they had been white, I likely would have committed to reaching out and building rapport with them. If they were white, I would have felt more concerned that there would be fallout from my dishonesty. Instead, with these Black women, I justified my actions and consoled myself because, at least, I had asked Birgit to suggest which of the authors might be interested in speaking. I convinced myself that was enough and they, whom I had never met and only followed on LinkedIn, wouldn’t be angry about how the proposal came to be. I even had the hubris to think they would be, or should be, honored to speak.

Unconsciously, I was acting on deeply embedded cultural ways of knowing that when white people in power do not get consent from a person of color, there are rarely societal consequences. I was more afraid of being perceived as unworthy for missing a speaker submission deadline, and falling off the pinnacle, than I was concerned about their personhood and treating them with dignity.   

My extreme disrespect of these Black women came to light when the presentation proposal was selected by our committee. And still, I said nothing. The truth is, I wasn’t that worried. I had already succumbed to the sense of urgency and perfectionism that white supremacy culture promotes. The same culture that “frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results” (Jones and Okun, 2001). I anticipated that if I submitted a timely, well-written, though fabricated, proposal there would be no serious consequences. I had positional power, and I automatically thought I was capable of making decisions for and in the best interest of the authors.

The gravity of the situation only started to sink in when later I learned of Nneka Allen’s reaction upon receiving the notice that her and her sister co-editors’ proposal had been selected for the conference. Understandably, she was furious. She rejected the blithe “welcome to the conference” notification and promptly contacted the AHP staff to get to the bottom of who submitted the proposal because neither she nor Camila and Nicole had done so. When the inquiry was received, I was out of the office on a trip. The staff dutifully sent an email to me and Birgit sharing Nneka’s question. 
Birgit stepped in and rightly surmised that I was at the center of this betrayal. She contacted me, and I confessed my breach of trust. She spoke with Nneka, who was a close friend, to confirm what had transpired. Alice and Birgit conferred. I still recall the feeling I had receiving Alice’s call while standing in the middle of a field in Utah.  

That call was the beginning of my reckoning for the harm I had caused. It was only then that I fully considered the impact of my fraudulent act. I offered to resign my role as co-chair. Alice, whom I highly regard, was seriously considering accepting my offer, but she wanted to talk to Birgit first. It was no longer my place or call to decide what would happen next. And I felt unmoored.

I wasn’t perceptive enough to fully appreciate the challenging position my dishonest decision and behavior had placed on Birgit as the conference co-chair, and as well as her being close friends with Nneka and the other two co-editors. I was embarrassed and disappointed and thought it be easier if I walked away from the conference.
My first thought of remedy was to call Nneka directly. I needed to clarify that this manipulation was my action and not condoned or encouraged by AHP. I felt this was an important message to convey because, under Alice’s guidance, AHP was on its own path to greater racial representation. I wasn’t attuned to this at the time, but my quick reflex to apologize, and full expectation that my apology would be enough and accepted, was also steeped in white culture defensiveness as well as the fear of losing the power of my volunteer leadership position. Yet, instead of calling Nneka, I wrote her an email.

Several seemingly long days went by before I heard from Alice again. She and Birgit had deeply thought through the best path forward. They considered but ultimately rejected my resignation. Instead, they were taking and expected me to take, the harder, more uncertain path of reconciliation and reparation. Birgit decided that given her unique positioning, she could serve as a bridge to achieve an acceptable resolution. Without her leadership and direction, I would not have had a path forward to learn and redeem myself.

It is at this point that I thought I was ready to share the truth and the apology that I owed Nneka. I called her. I introduced myself,–and of course, she knew who I was. I asked if it was a good time to talk. She responded that it was an important day for her, Emancipation Day, the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the British Commonwealth, which included Canada, where she lived. I could hear that she was irritated about having to put in the effort to explain this to me. This was not a good day for her to deal with me and my belated apology.

Time passed, as more effort was expended by Birgit, Alice, and Nneka to consider what reparations might look like.  From their work, I was offered the chance to participate in one-on-one coaching with Nneka, through her consulting company, The Empathy Agency Inc. I agreed to pay for twelve sessions over three months. I knew I was signing up for self-examination, and I knew I needed a guide to do that. I wanted to understand the motivation behind my decisions and behaviors and re-commit to living my values of justice and equity. Yet for this new foundation to be poured, I needed to place a second call to Nneka to take responsibility and offer a genuine apology excluding any rationalization of my behavior. I did this with a shaky voice and no certainty that it would be accepted. I listened, and Nneka stayed open to listening too. When I got off the call, I felt I had been scrubbed of my excuses.

It was the acceptance of my direct role in causing harm that was the beginning of my real anti-racism work. And I welcome and appreciate that my journey continues. Last December, I joined a life-changing group focused on Interracial Sisterhood. Nneka also recently reminded me that “we are connected to each other.” Her expression filled me with overwhelming gratefulness. 

To be in a vulnerable state of reflection and growth often requires the generosity of community to call us into the work.  And a community of wise and warm humans will insist that justice and equity are built from a genuine desire to learn and do better, not from a weak position of self judgement. 

< BACK Nneka Allen's Narrative          Birgit Smith Burton's 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
The third article in The Waters of Anti-Blackness mini-series is told from Birgit Smith Burton's 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.

Meet The Author

Fran Petonic
National Director
Mercy Housing

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