A Time for Reflection: Our Efforts and Commitment to Anti-Racism
As stewards of our company’s reputation and values, we believe that every day should be an opportunity to stand up against racism and “be the change we want to see in the world.” So, while Black History Month shines a light on both the long history, contributions and achievements in the Black diaspora, this is also a moment to discuss the everyday challenges that this community experiences and what we’re doing in response. We are in constant solidarity with people who face discrimination for any reason. While George Floyd’s murder and, more recently, that of Tyre Nichols, among others, have galvanized the nation, we reaffirm our commitment to be deeply engaged in issues of race. We are most interested in what we can do rather than just signing on in solidarity with others.
These are values on which Burness was founded almost 35 years ago, and they are as relevant and as important to us today. We are trying to model what a small-to-mid-size company can do to bend the arc toward justice— and we feel good about what we have done but remain troubled by what remains to be done.
In June 2020, we laid out our five-part anti-racism plan to formalize what was already in place at Burness. In no particular order, we are committed to the following, and continue to act on each:
We contribute funds to anti-hate, anti-racist, pro-empowerment organizations. Over the past three years, we have contributed more than $150,000 to these groups: the National Association of Black Journalists, Black Lives Matter, Empower DC, FairVote, Black Votes Matter, the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund for HBCU students and the African Education Program in Kafue, Zambia.
We educate ourselves about the many facets of racism, discrimination and stigma. We seek to hold ourselves accountable to racial justice within our organization by creating spaces and opportunities for staff to express their opinions and share ideas; inviting well-respected thought leaders on racial inclusion to participate at Burness events and discussions; and being proactive to support and retain diverse staff.
We have a very dynamic, wide-ranging company anti-racist Film Festival where all staff are encouraged to watch films that highlight important conversations and issues from the perspectives of underrepresented groups, and then share their thoughts.
At our most recent retreat, we spent one of our two days learning about the racist past of Cambridge, Maryland. While there, we visited the Harriet Tubman Museum and learned about the deep roots the city has with the Underground Railroad. Along these lines, we have had the opportunity to learn from a recent Montgomery County Philanthropist of the Year about his perspective on growing up in Cambridge, Maryland, and how he is “giving back” to improve people’s lives there. That experience inspired us to contribute to a nonprofit coordinating support for residents with low income there.
We’ve also invited outside speakers to meet with us, most notably Valaida Fullwood, the author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, to share her experiences with Black philanthropy, as well as Trabian Shorters, who educated us about “asset framing” as critical to emphasizing possibility in minority communities, as opposed to focusing on deficits.
We actively lead and support pro-equity initiatives. As a company, Burness founded and still manages the Karel Fellowship in Public Interest Communications, the nation’s only college internship targeting first-generation and minority students. To date, over the last 10 years, 71 Fellows have completed the program, in partnership with 40 nonprofit organizations. The program has been working with D.C.-based nonprofits and will expand to other cities across the country in 2024.
We’ve created a summer internship program that provides opportunities to Black and other diverse students to gain hands-on experience in the public interest communications industry. This year, we offered one position to a student from Howard University and another to a candidate from the Universities at Shady Grove.
Of course, much of our work with our nonprofit partners focuses on equity. These partners include the National Association of Black Engineers, the global Commission on Racism, Structural Discrimination and Global Health to elevate the salience of this issue across the globe, to name just a few.
Independent of Burness’ multiple clients addressing inequities in health, company President Andy Burness was named to the International Experts Group on Race and Health, based out of the National Health Service in England. He is one of 12 people from seven countries serving on this global task force. He is also a member of the Committee for Common Ground in Montgomery County, Maryland, which seeks to persuade community members, education leaders and political figures to support policies that enhance opportunity for all, incorporating truth-telling about our racial history.
We lend our skills through pro bono support to anti-racist organizations. Over the past two years, Burness has devoted more than $200,000 of pro bono time in support of Montgomery County’s Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity. There is tremendous interest in the Coalition’s agenda for equitable education across race and ethnicity, and we have lent our strategic and tactical skills through the range of services we customarily offer to our clients.
We continue to examine and refine our internal practices. We have also retained a highly respected compensation consulting firm to conduct an annual salary and benefits review for Burness staff to ensure that we avoid discrimination of any kind based on race, ethnicity or gender, and that our salary and benefits are on the high end in our industry.
With all this said, we know that we must continue to examine our performance in each of these areas, including advancing the values of justice and equity in our own operations. These are not commitments to be announced or honored just during Black History Month, nor what we should be doing only in the aftermath of particularly visible and outrageous incidents. These actions are core to who we are, and we have every intention of doing more, of making progress on each of these fronts this year and in years to come. We invite other businesses to join us in these efforts.
Andy Burness is President of Burness and Vanessa Bigelow is Principal and Director, Human Resources and Community Engagement at Burness.