Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 14, 2020

A lifetime of experience

Women’s Fund director knows the lives of those she’s here to help lift

Erika Burnett, the new executive director of the Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga, likes to engage people in difficult conversations, so she smiled to herself as she shared her identity circles with her board during a virtual meeting.

One of the circles contained “Focus Hope,” the name of a government assistance program in Detroit. While Burnett was growing up, her family relied for a time on public assistance.

“I come from a family of hard workers,” Burnett, 34, explains by phone from her home in Nashville. “Most of my family still lives paycheck to paycheck and resides in the houses our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles bought. We’re working class people.”

Although this environment had a hand in shaping Burnett’s worldview, it did not stop her from finding and making use of resources that helped her to bring about transformative personal change.

After earning an undergraduate degree in English education at Tennessee State University in Nashville and teaching there in public schools, Burnett earned a Master of Education at Vanderbilt University.

She then served Music City through roles at a number of nonprofits, including workshop facilitator at the Center for Nonprofit Management, affiliate director at Communities in Schools of Tennessee, director of programs at Leadership for Educational Equity and senior director of programs at Hands On Nashville.

In 2018, Burnett co-launched the Women of Color Collaborative, a nonprofit which aims to build a more equitable future for Black women.

In her most recent role, Burnett leveraged her nonprofit work to launch the Burnett Group, which offers training and consulting to professionals and organizations focused on volunteer management and engagement, youth development and team building, among other matters.

Now Burnett is spearheading the Women’s Fund, a nonprofit with the goal of bringing about social change that improves the lives of women and girls across the region.

It’s all tall order. Tennessee ranks 49th out of 50 states in terms of equality for women, the Women’s Fund reports, which means life is harder for women in Tennessee than in almost every other state in the country.

But Jennifer Harper, Women’s Fund board chair, and Mary Kilbride, search committee chair, say Burnett is up to the task, with skills that align with the organization’s priorities, which include leading local and state advocacy, encouraging philanthropy and creating strong networks of women.

“Erika’s leadership experience, strategic thinking and passion for addressing the root problems facing women and girls in our state stood out during our interview process,” Harper and Kilbride said in a joint statement announcing the board’s selection of Burnett as executive director.

Although Burnett assumed leadership of the Women’s Fund in July, she already has an essential understanding of the organization’s mission and how it works to achieve it.

“First, we curate a substantive legislative agenda in partnership with other organizations across the state,” Burnett says in reference to the group’s advocacy work. “I have had the privilege of working with entities across Tennessee that are doing amazing work on behalf of women and girls, and the reality is they often work in silos.

“Some of those silos are self-built, some are a product of historical challenges and some arose naturally out of the need for funding, meaning we sometimes see other organizations as competitors.

“This creates lines of division. The Women’s Fund comes from a place of neutrality to amplify the collective voices of women across our state, so we collaborate with organizations that are doing work on the ground and join our partners in thinking about which policy level changes will help us move forward.”

With regard to philanthropy, Burnett says the Women’s Fund supports organizations that are “helping to move the needle for women and girls across the state” with grant dollars, seed funding and resources.

Burnett says her guiding principle as executive director of the Women’s Fund will be to “create room at the table for those who might not have been invited.”

“My goal is to expand the number of voices and the diversity of experiences around tables of power. It’s our responsibility to make room and amplify from the bottom up.”

For inspiration, Burnett needs to look no further than her own household, which includes a 15-year-old cousin and a 36-year-old cousin who moved from the family enclave in Indiana to Nashville.

“When I imagine taking Tennessee from 49 to one, I see them,” she says. “How can the state help a 36-year-old whose life is not what she would have chosen to thrive? In what ways can she access the information and resources and opportunities she didn’t have in Indiana?

“When I think of the 15-year-old, what are the pipelines for workforce development? How are we talking about autonomy over our bodies so she feels empowered in a way generations did before her did not? What’s happening in or social and political landscape that will make her want to invest herself in the Tennessee community and become an asset as an adult?”

Burnett also can look in the mirror and think back on the girl whose hard-working family relied for a time on public assistance.

Born in South Bend, Indiana, she grew up in a large, blended family, with four generations and a revolving door of cousins and extended family members living under one roof.

Burnett’s family moved to Detroit when she was three and settled in a neighborhood that was home to people from across the economic spectrum, including police officers, construction workers and teachers. “I saw what it looks like for a community to come together to identify and meet needs,” she says.

Her first experience organizing a movement took place the summer her family decided she and the other children were old enough to go to camp. Burnett and her young cohorts disagreed, so she created a plan that delivered what everyone wanted – including no summer camp.

“Learning what it means to be a leader and what collective impact can look like happened at an early age because I was fortunate to be a part of a large family and diverse environment,” she notes.

Burnett’s family returned to Indiana when she was 13, but when the time for college arrived, Burnett chose Tennessee State University rather than a Hoosier school.

A first-generation college student, Burnett was drawn to literature and the arts, but she says she had smart advisers who connected her passions to something concrete – teaching.

But Burnett quickly realized the classroom was not the correct vehicle for the impact she wanted to have. “There was always a shooting over the weekend, or someone had to take a second job because their father was laid off, or there were child care issues at home, and as much as my students wanted to be present with me, life wouldn’t allow it.”

In search of direction, Burnett Googled “education community master’s program,” and Vanderbilt’s community development action program appeared at the top. Although she was apprehensive about learning in that environment, she was committed to Nashville and the volunteer work she was doing – which included tutoring youth, teaching dance and working in a soup kitchen, among other efforts – and wanted to deepen her involvement.

“I saw how these pillars of our community were serving residents and families and became interested in how the university could help bridge the gap between academia and community.”

Burnett’s reservations about studying at Vanderbilt rose out of the juxtaposition of a university of that school’s stature committing itself to understanding how systems of oppression and marginalization appear in a community.

“As someone who has experienced life outside the corridors of power and privilege, entering into that space to learn how to better a community was morally challenging,” she clarifies.

After completing her studies at Vanderbilt, Burnett remained in Nashville to work. Or, as she puts it, “the city sucked [her] in, like so many other young professionals.”

Although Burnett has lived in Nashville since her TSU days, she’s only now turning her sights toward Chattanooga. Other than speaking within friends and colleagues who live in the city and her conversations with local leaders while she was the affiliate director at Communities in Schools, she has no deep ties to the city.

However, as Burnett makes plans to be living in Chattanooga by October, she’s acutely aware of what she called “outsider dynamics.”

“One of the questions I asked during the interview process was, ‘Why not solicit local talent?’ There were great answers, but I would be doing this work a disservice if I did not acknowledge I am not from Chattanooga and there already is a wealth of talent in the city.”

Burnett also acknowledges she has a lot to learn about Chattanooga and its people in the months and years ahead. “I anticipate a steep learning curve, but I’m up for the challenge,” she adds. “I want to learn from those individuals who might not have a voice at the tables of power I mentioned earlier.”

Before Burnett packs her bags and moves to the Scenic City, she must decide what her household will look like. Currently, she shares custody of a set of siblings her family adopted with an aunt. Although Burnett does not have any biological children, she thinks of Allianah, 11, and Jaidan, 13, as her own.

As Burnett envisions what her life in Chattanooga will look like outside home and work, she sees long hikes with her dog, gardening and dance instruction in her future.

She also sees herself becoming an asset to the city and its people. “The last thing I want to do is perpetuate friction, or misalignment or mistrust or someone feeling excluded from a conversation,” she says. “There are many shining stars in this city, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish together.”