We are already one month into the New Year – can you believe it?! This is the time of year when we take stock of our progress on our resolutions and make plans for personal and professional development. How are your resolutions going? Have you committed to giving a bigger investment into your community? Our board has.
That’s why I’m so excited to present our most recent “Digging Deeper” series profile with Nancy Burnett, Chief Executive Officer of the SB Group. Nancy is a Board Member, Community Investor and long-time supporter of DC Social Innovation Project. Nancy discusses her passion for creating systems of empowerment for low-income communities and details why she invests in hyper-local change through DCSIP. Next up, meet Nancy.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. How long have you lived and/or worked in the District and what do you do?
I currently live in Northern Virginia but I’ve lived off and on in the District since 1978. I originally came to DC for law school, having worked with women coal miners and their families for a few years just prior. I had learned about poverty close up in a rural context; and wanted to concentrate on using legal advocacy skills to influence social change. For the first few weeks of law school our program required we live with local DC families who were selected clients of the school’s community legal services. This was a key method to better train us to represent poor people. The law school program was a sobering and stimulating experience that gave me access to community organizers and advocates from all around the world. It was a life changing experience on many levels.
This experience also shed light on urban poverty that was new to me–and DC’s uniquely juxtaposed communities. The closely co-located economic inequality here has and continues to defy all consciousness. From those early days to date, I have enjoyed living and working in all parts of DC. Over these years, I have continued to pay attention to the stark contrast between DC neighborhoods–along measures of publc and personal health, economics, political self empowerment, education. I watch families struggle through triumph and tragedy both personal and community-wide– national and international. Now as an elder, I can see even more as I reflect on how closely positioned the most and least powerful are in the city, living literally side by side.
After spending years as a lawyer in the financial regulatory sector, and simultaneously as an entrepreneur and educator, I’m devoting serious time to advising and engineering for private sector clients. I’m also devoting time on our educational nonprofit that is focused on increasing diverse perspectives through greater diversity of leadership in the financial industry. One might say this organization is a complimentary bookend at the other end of the engineering spectrum from the work of DCSIP.
What social issues do you care most about? Why do these issues matter to you?
Creating innovative systems of information flow and empowerment. I want to bring more diverse perspectives into the rooms where big policy and small execution decisions are made. In 2008 generations of wealth were lost, predominately among middle- and low-income people. Those are the people that can articulate to the world most vividly what has happened–that the most powerful people in the world need to hear–including my neighbors and colleagues here in DC and its suburbs. DCSIP is a quiet giant of an organization/community that can be an agent to bring the most and the least powerful into hearing range of one another. It is one way to involve the newly voiceless and the tragically silent into the conversations around bigger engineering solutions and policy decisions.
There are great organizations that are providing opportunities for people in poverty to maximize the limited resources they have. That’s great work. But what appeals to me so much as a leader with DCSIP is the opportunity to shift the flow of power and access to include a broader based input. This happens when we increase understanding of DC poverty issues among the most powerful–indeed among and between neighbors who live side by side in DC.
How did you first get involved with DC Social Innovation Project? What interests you most about the organization?
I had been looking for something that is hyper-local. For so many years I had been professionally devoted to a more global and national policy and regulatory focus. It means so much to me to be a part of a community trust that is very local. It was also Darius. The light in his eyes. Here was a man who was leaving a six-figure job to take no salary for who knows how many years. That’s powerful. I’m determined to make sure that light I saw in his eyes never burns out.
Over time I realized I could further explore the DCSIP mission to reach people in a certain economic status to increase understanding about the degree of poverty occurring in certain areas of the District. I wanted my curiosity about how to solve these issues, by intellectually and financially nourishing local entrepreneurs, to be contagious with those with whom I share a similar educational and economic status.
DCSIP’s focus on entrepreneurship is key. I’ve seen it change people not only fiscally, but intellectually and spiritually. Professionally, executives and board members hire me to help them assess, design, compete and concentrate their business success. The people we fund through DC Social Innovation Project have the same genius I see in the leaders of those multi-million dollar companies. You know it when you see it. I love seeing that in all people, but especially those who have a lot of odds against them. The businesses DCSIP invests in are niche initially by scale and progressively have an impact that can reach wider and deeper than larger companies can. That’s another reason I persuade others to devote their valuable time to support the work– the returns are exponential.
If you had the mic to tell your friends about why ending poverty in the District is important, what would you want to say?
The District is the nexus of power in the world by most measures. Decisions get made here about how much of the world works, yet some of the greatest poverty in the world is right here. It’s a shame that we all share. It doesn’t square with my expectations for a community that is compassionate and otherwise evolved. It is a paradox that calls for engineering like DCSIP is advancing. We have a responsibility to our neighbors. We have a duty to at least know who our neighbors are. And only then of course, can we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.