AHP Connect Details

AHP Connect delivers updates on industry news and research, educational and professional opportunities, best practices and other articles related to health care philanthropy.

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

Nneka Allen, CFRE, COC, PCC
Published:  05/16/2024


“The fact remains that I would never have done this to a white professional colleague. I would have only had the hubris to draft a submission if I knew them and had their permission. I am deeply sorry that I caused all of you harm by treating your expertise and time as commodities in order to make a deadline for submission.”

~ Fran Petonic, AHP International Conference 2022 Co-Chair.

These were the words I received in an email on July 31, 2022. To understand what led to such a naked admission, I have to take you back a couple of weeks when I was returning from my summer sabbath at the beginning of July. Within days of my return to work, I received an email from the Education and Events Team at the Association of Healthcare Philanthropy asking me if I was still interested in presenting the session “Collecting Courage: Fundraisers’ Stories of Grief, Hope and Determination” at their annual international conference in Chicago. 

I was confused because I had never engaged with AHP, even as a former member. This was the first time I saw this invitation. I was unsure why was I receiving it. I thought, “What am I missing?” So I asked for some more information. When the original letter of congratulations was sent to me including an invitation to speak at the conference, I saw that my friend and fellow author of Collecting Courage, Birgit Smith Burton was listed as a co-presenter. I sighed a breath of relief and thought, “Oh, my sister must have applied to elevate the work of our book at the conference.” I knew that Birgit was a co-chair for the conference and so, I sent her a quick text. 

“Hey, did you submit an application for us to speak about Collecting Courage at the AHP International Conference?” I wrote. She replied, “No.” My confusion deepening, I desperately turned to my fellow Sister-Editors, Nicole Salmon and Camila Pereira, just to confirm I wasn’t forgetting a speaking proposal submission. In my gut, I knew I hadn’t. You see for the last 4 years, Nicole, Camila, and I have met every Monday as Editors. Our work is done collectively, but in the absence of an explanation, I just had to check in with them. When they both replied that they were unaware of this opportunity, frustration and a simmering fire ignited in my belly.

I followed up with my AHP contact to tell them that I was uninvolved and not aware that an application for this opportunity had been submitted. Alarm and anger were dancing around within me as I wrote my message;

“I am concerned about the fact that a proposal to present was submitted by an unknown person on behalf of three Black women without our participation and without information about how our time and contribution to the conference would be compensated. This to me is an example of anti-Black racism, expressed through the belief that anyone is entitled to our time and talent. We are not a commodity to be consumed or to be accessed whenever and however. There has been a long history of using Black women for these purposes in our sector and I will not allow it.”

By the time I got to the end of my message, I was red hot and demanded to know WHO this person was that fraudulently and inaccurately represented me and my fellow Sister-Authors through this act. That was Friday, July 29th. That same day Birgit messaged me to say the issue was being elevated to the Board and that they were working to get me answers. I shut my computer down and left my office to debrief with one of my elders to release some steam and move through the anger so that I could immerse myself in our family holiday celebration for Emancipation Day on August 1st.

Two days later and before our family’s annual celebration had begun, that fire was reignited by an astonishing email from the person responsible, Fran Petonic. I did not know Fran. I was surprised to receive her message and did not expect the unveiled explanation offered that in many ways made matters worse for me. You see, Fran admitted what she did and even disclosed why she did it. I already knew it was based on the racist belief that Black women’s labour is a commodity. What amazed me was the fact that she knew I would find out what she had done and so there was an implicit expectation that I would accept and express gratitude for her duplicitous acts. This left me speechless. For me, this was a most egregious example of white supremacy culture. There was a lot to unpack.

In my furry, I refused to respond to her message. There was too much cleanup required and I surely wasn’t about to offer my free labour. Emancipation Day was a day away and I wanted to be present with my family at the beach. So, I “unplugged" and put it on the list of things to be dealt with the following week. But before I could get to that list, and as I was returning from our beach celebration, my phone rang. As I was getting out of the car with the sun blinding me, my new puppy in one arm and my beach bag in the other, I just answered the phone.

“Hi, this is Fran…” is all I heard and then the rage flooded back in. My heart was pumping fast and everything was moving fast. She said some things I don’t recall, but I do know I replied, “It is Emancipation Day here in Canada, and I will not be addressing this right now, goodbye.” I could feel the frenzy in her. A desire to return to the “rightness” or “righteousness” of whiteness, but she needed this Black woman to swing that door open for her. I refused. That fire that began in my belly a few days earlier was now an inferno. My anger was screaming and palpable. I needed to talk this out, so I called my Brother Mide. Often, he is the calm in the storm. He agreed that accountability was necessary and he reminded me that it would be easy to just exile the perpetrator, but he queried what might be possible if we required growth instead. For the rest of the weekend that became a meditation for me, while I continued to honour my rage.

The following week, Birgit introduced AHP’s President, Alice Ayres to the email thread. Alice wanted to meet with me. I still wasn’t ready to respond to Fran and I told Birgit that, but I did agree to meet with Alice to discuss the impact on me and the remedies I was contemplating. Little did I know what would emerge; a lesson about what repair can look and feel like and the power that it offers our relationships.

“Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.”

~ bell hooks – Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, 2003.

As I prepared for my conversation with Alice I recognized that this was an opportunity for me to speak plainly about the impact of Fran’s decisions on me. It was a chance to tell my truth without any expectations. Just the idea of that felt liberating and so it was from an open and free place I joined the Zoom room that second week of August.

Alice was apologetic and open. She didn’t shy away from my truth. She listened intently and empathized with my experience. She expressed her commitment to confront Fran again with the impact of her actions. In the end, she was clear and accountable. Her leadership was a refreshing change. I appreciated her indignation and kindness. Towards the end, she humbly asked me what outcome I was seeking, and I told her that learning would be the best outcome. I wanted Fran to learn more about why she made the decisions she made so that she wouldn’t repeat another version of the same act. She accepted that. But it was her last question that revealed an unexpected path forward. She asked me if there were any coaching or training programs that I would recommend to them given my work in the area of racial justice.

Here’s the interesting thing about genuine apologies, they often release grace. This was my experience with Alice. I could feel grace welling up inside me and I wanted to take some time to explore what that meant for me. I told Alice that I would come back to her with some suggestions shortly to allow me time to unpack the conversation and validate the instinct rising within me.

A few days later, I sent a note to Alice that ended with, “…in regards to coaching Fran, I have talked with some of my Elders and I would like to extend my 1:1 Racial Equity Coaching to her in November. I’ve included an overview of the themes and I am happy to discuss this in greater detail with her in a discovery session.” In mid-September, Fran booked that Discovery Call, and she decided to hire me as her coach for the next 12 weeks so we could explore issues of racial identity, justice, and culture together. I respected the investment Fran made in her growth. I knew her decision to hire me as her coach was courageous. I honoured that. I could see there was nothing fragile about her. She was deliberate and brave.

"White fragility is a lie, a dodge, a myth, a form of denial. White Americans [Canadians] can create culture that confronts and dismantles white-body supremacy. Any suggestion that they are unable to rise to this challenge is a lie. White Americans [Canadians] are anything but helpless or fragile; they are (of course) precisely as capable as other human beings. But they need to refuse to dodge the responsibility of confronting white-body supremacy - or the responsibility of growing up."

~ Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands

And then in a small turn of fate, but mainly due to Alice’s tenacity, about a month after our initial call, I ended up attending the AHP International Conference in Chicago as a guest and speaker. Alice’s invitation included covering all of my costs to join her at the conference. My Sisters, fellow Editors and Authors, Nicole and Camila joined Birgit and me virtually on the last day of the conference for a panel discussion about our book Collecting Courage and about why the stories of Black fundraisers are critical to the philanthropic sector. I never imagined that a situation that began with utter confusion and descended into rage would lead to a useful on-stage conversation about the realities of Black fundraisers in my favourite US city. But it did.

As I left Chicago, I began reflecting on the many lessons this experience offered me. I was so glad to have spent time getting to know Alice better. I was able to meet Fran in person. And I got to share time and space with my Sister Birgit. It was delightfully serendipitous. I also felt excited about the opportunity to engage Fran for our mutual learning and growth through our coaching relationship. This felt like a happy ending, so who would guess there would be more?

A few weeks after returning home, I had a follow-up call scheduled with Alice to revisit some of the training programs I had recommended to her previously. I was again surprised, yet thrilled about Alice’s interest in coaching. She wanted to learn more about her own identity and how it was shaping the culture of AHP. Alice wanted to know how to address issues of inequity and injustice in and through her organization. She realized that the work began with her. With enthusiasm, I agreed to also coach Alice. 

In late 2022, I began a racial justice journey with Fran and Alice separately. We spent over 12 weeks together removing the masks that white supremacy culture expects people to wear. We created a container that conjured and honoured our authentic selves. There were testimonies and tears, insights and wisdom, clarity and care. But most of all in the end we left with a belief that there is another way to be in this world. A way that supports our well-being and is more equitable and just.

Every coaching engagement offers me new ways to understand myself and others. My time with Fran and Alice was no different. What I learned through this experience are the acts and practice of repair and the potential of each of its elements; acknowledgment, restitution, and closure. In the book From Here to Equality, the co-authors write the following.

 "Acknowledgement involves the recognition on the part of the beneficiaries of the social injustice that’s in question…that there has been a wrong committed and that there must be some form of repair to be provided to the folks who are the victims of that injustice.

Restitution constitutes the actual program that’s enacted to undertake that form of repair.

Closure constitutes the acknowledgement on the part of the victimized community that they have received a satisfactory act of compensation from the victimizers, and that they have no reason to request anything that’s specifically for their group in the future unless there’s a new wave of injustices.”

In response to Fran’s pseudo-acknowledgment email, I could have demanded punishment (and I wanted to!). Instead, I heeded Brother Mide’s voice and decided to lean into an expectation of accountability and change. Once I opened myself up to that path, the unexpected was invited in and something beautiful emerged.

To be clear, there was nothing magical about what happened. We were simply four women, Fran, Birgit, Alice, and me who chose courage over comfort. Instead of letting this injustice divide us, we decided to choose authentic connection. That was hard at first, but the richness of my time with Fran and Alice has made me a better relationship builder, stone catcher, freedom fighter, storyteller, and coach. Gratitude is my response.

“[A woman] will need to prize her tenderness and be able to display it at appropriate times in order to prevent toughness from gaining total authority and to avoid becoming a mirror image of those men who value power above life, and control over love.”
- Maya Angelou

We chose life and love. And love always wins!

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 second article in The Waters of Anti-Blackness mini-series is told from Fran Petonic's 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.

Meet The Author

Nneka Allen, CFRE, COC, PCC

Share This

facebook-icon twitter-icon linkedin-icon