President's Perspective Blog

Mike's Message Takeover: The Journey Towards Healing and Racial Justice

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Birgit Racial Justice

“Privilege isn’t about what you’ve gone through; it’s about what you haven’t had to go through. And right now, we are in a time that is calling on us to learn the stories that we don’t know.“ - Janaya Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) Toronto.

Last summer, as AFP deliberated on the ideal person to deliver the opening keynote at AFP ICON in Toronto, thoughtful consideration was given to identifying an individual pivotal to the association's history. The unanimous choice to extend the invitation to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The 1619 Project, marked a decision, centuries in the making—a decision not fraught with hesitation but rooted in the acknowledgment of the changes that need to take place within AFP and the entire philanthropic sector.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, through her work, shares her experience and perspective as a Black woman and a descendant of American slavery. Her creative expression weaves a new origin story of America, placing Black Americans and nearly 250 years of forced free labor at the forefront of the nation's wealth emergence. While some may find this narrative challenging, AFP recognizes the importance of embracing uncomfortable truths to align with its organizational values.

When considering who would be most suited to conduct the interview with Ms. Hannah-Jones, Nneka Allen emerged as the perfect choice. A well-regarded leadership coach and storyteller, Allen's openness about experiencing anti-Black racism while serving on the board of the Greater Toronto Chapter of AFP initiated public conversations about collective roles and individual responsibilities in addressing racial injustice. Her willingness to share, despite potential risks, demonstrated boldness and courage.

As I reflect on the theme of uncomfortable truths and unknown stories, an experience involving my grandmother, Rev. Alvene E. Grice, comes to light. A woman of courage and inspiration, her legacy has influenced my own journey. Most of the stories of her encounters with racism have not been documented other than passed down over the years through family members, long gone. 

Fortunately, I discovered an article highlighting her visit to the White House in 1963: “Pastor of the Community Church of Covert was personally invited by telegram to the White House by the President of the United States, John Kennedy, to attend the President’s Civil Rights Conference Tuesday. The Rev. A.E. Grice, National President of the Women’s Christian Fellowship of the National Council of Community Churches, was one of 300 women delegates representing 50 - million women of the United States. She talked personally and shook hands with the President.”  The article further reveals the challenge she faced due to her skin color, staying with a host family when unable to stay at a D.C. hotel. My grandmother's resilience and tenacity on the road to racial equity paved the way for me to become the first Black woman to chair the AFP Global board.

The journey towards healing and racial justice for AFP must involve truth-telling and amplifying courageous testimonies.  Acknowledging those who dare to speak truth to power, is vital for stories to emerge without further oppression, and crucial to cultivating a racially and socially just AFP.

In April, two descendants of American slavery, one American and one Canadian, will sit together on AFP’s largest stage uniting the American and Canadian narratives of Black history and life.  I am thrilled to witness this remarkable event – it gives me hope.  

Author Information

Birgit Smith Burton

Birgit Smith Burton is the Chief Executive Officer of AADO, the African American Development Officers Network, which she founded at Georgia Tech in 1999 to provide professional development, education, employment support, mentorship, and networking...
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