Women of Industry: Keetra Burnette a just-in-time bridge builder

For Keetra Burnette and the entire Madison community, the timing could not have been better. In the months preceding the Tony Robinson tragedy, a group of community and police leaders were already making plans to avoid a repeat of what happened in Ferguson, Mo., where a police-involved shooting of Michael Brown, an African American man, led to civil unrest.

Burnette, senior director of community impact for the United Way of Dane County, is a big part of the reason that Madison not only avoided a repeat of the Ferguson unrest following the death of Tony Robinson, but also set the stage for the implementation of long-overdue solutions. Burnette’s leadership in this endeavor is the main reason, but not the only one, that she is one of six local women who will be honored in IB’s 2016 Women of Industry awards program.

The program was established to honor women who have had a significant impact on their respective industries — locally, regionally, nationally, or globally. While relatively young, Burnette is one of this year’s honorees because she illustrates the forward-thinking, accomplished women the award is meant to honor.

In the wake of Ferguson and other police-involved shootings and the civil unrest that followed, United Way of Dane County convened a collaboration of local law enforcement and leaders of color. Burnette volunteered and was appointed as the United Way staff liaison to the group, but she probably would have been approached whether or not she stepped forward. The two people who nominated her for the Women of Industry award, Edward Lee, senior vice president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, and Nia Enemuoh-Trammell, an administrative law judge for the state of Wisconsin, will tell you that if there is a community initiative addressing racial, gender, and socioeconomic disparities, and leadership is required to help manage change, Burnette is at the top of the list of those who are consulted.

After Tony Robinson’s death, Enemuoh-Trammell notes that Burnette stood up and stood out because of her ability to be blunt and keep it real. “Keetra wants results and she wants creative solutions,” Enemuoh-Trammell states. “Keetra is not the type of person who is going to sit back and allow rhetoric to take over the discussion. She is about finding solutions that work, and that’s why she has a prominent voice in those efforts.”

In response to the Robinson tragedy, the collaborative ramped up its efforts. It began meeting weekly, discussing both short- and long-term needs, and it worked with Madison Police and city officials to maintain public safety while protecting the rights of people who chose to exercise their right to peaceably protest. The collaborative coordinated dozens of African-American leaders to serve as peacekeepers at various protest rallies that took place over several months.

Earlier this year, after developing recommendations for changes in use-of-force policies, the collaborative also issued a call to action to all law enforcement agencies in Dane County on the use of force by law enforcement, and the next step is to develop a process and tools to monitor the implementation of its recommendations in police departments throughout Wisconsin.

This is the first effort Burnette is aware of to build a bridge between law enforcement and communities of color, and given the deteriorating relationships elsewhere the timing was critical. “When the group first came together, it was initially to do relationship building and relationship cultivation in case something like the Michael Brown incident were to happen in Madison, so we were proactive in establishing those relationships,” Burnette notes. “The timing of it was really perfect because it was prior to the Tony Robinson shooting in Madison and because we had established that relationship already, we were able to quickly move into action to partner and really help to calm the tension in our community.”

“Keetra is not the type of person who is going to sit back and allow rhetoric to take over the discussion. She is about finding solutions that work, and that’s why she has a prominent voice in those efforts.” — Nia Enemuoh-Trammell, administrative law judge, the state of Wisconsin

One of the recommendations stemmed from a disturbance at Madison East High School, after which people of color were recruited to serve as “wise witnesses” to ensure that youth of color were aware of their right to protest, explain how to legally protest, and inform the youth of any citations that could result from illegal actions. “The timing of us coming together provided the opportunity for that very first incident to operate much more smoothly and with less tension than could have occurred had that not been done,” Burnette notes.

The collaboration, a partnership between the United Way and the NAACP of Dane County, has produced recommendations endorsed by the Dane County Chiefs of Police Association. When the collaboration initially came together, it went through a strategic prioritization process to identify natural barriers to a relationship between law enforcement and leaders of color. In addition to use of force and how and when it’s applied, it addressed the concept of implicit bias and the ways it can lead to discriminatory actions, and it worked with law enforcement to build a pipeline of job candidates to help diversify police departments across Greater Madison.

Change agenda

After a successful stint with the Urban League, Burnette now works for an organization with a similar mission: to create a Dane County where everyone can succeed in school, work, and life. Burnette oversees six United Way community solutions teams responsible for the annual allocation of more than $11 million of United Way’s annual investments in the community’s “Agenda for Change.”

Part of that agenda is the aforementioned effort to improve police-community relations. Another part is to implement a new strategic focus aimed at addressing poverty and racial inequities. Burnette spoke of a new way of thinking about how to fight poverty and promote upward mobility, one that packs the one-two punch of addressing academic challenges of youth of color and supporting the stable housing, job training, and family-supporting job placement needs of their parents. A native of Chicago, Burnette herself is a survivor of poverty, and she characterized such multigenerational strategies as too rare.

“Success in surviving poverty does require support at both the youth level, as well as the family structure,” she states. “There are a lot of initiatives that focus on one of those but very rarely do we see one that focuses on both.”

Burnette has lent her voice and passion to a variety of community-building efforts, including “Stop the Violence” public-service announcements and the ACT Prep initiative to increase the college readiness of youth who would be the first in their family to attend college. She was instrumental in getting Madison fully engaged in President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. No less than 128 organizations and individuals have taken the “Madison MBK Pledge” and resources already have been secured to help the 100 Black Men of Madison organization launch Project SOAR (Student Opportunities, Access, and Readiness), a mentoring program for African-American males ages 12–17 who are either economically disadvantaged, from single parent homes, homeless, involved in foster care, or involved in the juvenile justice system.

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In addition, Burnette has mentored and supported women who also are interested in leadership positions in the nonprofit world, as well as the private sector. She co-founded Madison Black Women Rock, one of the community’s first efforts to celebrate and raise awareness of the accomplishments of black women and raise scholarship money for young people. Her goal is to help the Madison business community become more culturally diverse and gender inclusive, which is the reason for the event “Madison Black Women Rock! A Celebration of Sisters Who Are Getting It Done!”

“Madison Black Women Rock is an effort to promote the positive contributions of African-American women in the Madison community contribute to our community,” Burnette explains. “The primary goal is to overcome the negative stereotypes that we so often see in certain reality TV shows and national media outlets.”

Youth is served

The Urban League’s Edward Lee has watched Burnette up close and isn’t the least bit surprised that she’s been able to make such an impact at such a young age. Lee notes that she’s focused and determined and when she commits to a project, she’s “all in.”

“She is a very results-oriented, action-oriented type of person, and she’s very passionate about the work that she does,” Lee says. “A lot of that is driven by her desire to make this community a better place to live.”

Burnette already has taken home a few honors of her own. She was part of In Business magazine’s 2013 class of “40 Under 40” and was one of eight finalists for the 2013 ATHENA Award, but being named a Woman of Industry is special. “It means a lot,” she says, “to be recognized for something I’m so passionate about.”

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