Women of Excellence Afro/Caribbean Series — Jasmine Burton Interview

Interviewed and Transcribed by Lilly Khorsand and Calbeth Alaribe on behalf of Women in Global Health.

Illustration by Lilly Khorsand

Black History month recently passed, as a woman of color in the U.S. what does this month mean to you?

Jaz: My relationship with Black history plays a major role in my personal story and development. I grew up in a predominantly white community in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, often as one of a very small number of people of color and more specifically Black women. I viewed myself as mostly one dimensional and held myself to unrealistic, unhealthy, and unsustainable expectations in terms of beauty and popularity in order to “exceed expectations” and fit in. In educational contexts, every year when we learned about Black History, others often looked to me to tell them my thoughts and to reflect on slavery as it related to my family and our history. I specifically remember one teacher asking me about a piece of African fabric one day and him being subsequently enraged that I didn’t know what it was called. He said “You should know this. This is a part of you and your history”.These moments were always super hard to process — so I would often read ahead in history class so that I could go to the bathroom or nurse before we got to the slavery or Jim Crowe chapters. I was seeking to avoid the expectation of representing all Black Americans and their experiences. So, as a result, during my adolescent years, I often felt a deeply seeded tension around anything that was Black or Black History focused, especially in spaces where I was singled out or tokenized. As I have grown and evolved (a journey that I am actively still on), I have come to increasingly understand and find strength in my mixed racial identity, which is quite nuanced. I always knew that my dad was Native American as a part of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe from Delaware, but it wasn’t until high school that I started pursuing a deeper understanding of my indigenous heritage and a larger presence with my Native family. Through my college and post-college years, I silently struggled to understand why my Black American and Native American identities felt so deeply interconnected while also feeling so deeply complex whilst still largely navigating the world in predominantly white circles both personally and professionally. It wasn’t until recently when I came across the following passage from the novel Confounding the Color Line that I gained some perspective and understanding that I have been seeking:

“Since the days of slavery, the lives and destinies of [Native Americans] and Blacks have been entwined — thrown together through circumstance, institutional design or personal choice. Cultural sharing and intermarriage have resulted in complex identities for some members of [Native American] and Black communities today.”

Discovering this book and this text (and really recently too), has helped me in the journey of discovering my voice. My voice as a young and disruptive global health practitioner working in the name of inclusion and innovation in light of COVID-19. My voice as Bright Smiling Sage (my Nanticoke Tribal Name) — A perceptive and empathic indigenous storyteller and healer. And my voice as a strong Black Woman from Atlanta Georgia who is working tirelessly to amplify and proliferate the message of Black Lives Matter through the communities in which I was raised. All of these voices may not always fit together nicely, but all of these voices represent me and my complex identity as a Black and Native American woman and blossoming thought leader in global health.

As I continue to codify my advocacy cadence, tone, and platform in the health, gender and racial equity spaces as well as in life at large, I now also seek to be intentional about amplifying importance of diversity, social inclusion and representation in my personal and professional spheres — seeking to lift as I climb.

Why is it important to remember history as leaders?

Jaz: In my journey to understanding my racial identity, there has been a lot of tiptoeing around my own strengths. I very actively fight with imposter syndrome on a daily basis and the idea that I am still not qualified to be doing the things that I’m doing in global health, the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and social inclusion spaces. But what I’ve found is that it is really powerful and important to make space in historical storytelling for Black stories that are both positive and showcase our resilience. For me personally, I have been able to see that amplifying the power and strength of the African Diaspora and its people not only works to combat negative stereotypes, racism, and neocolonial perceptions, but it also helps me to couch my successes in a larger narrative — that I too am a Black woman (quelling the belief of those that have never thought I was “Black enough”), and that I too have that fierce resilience and drive for positive social change. Framing myself and my successes in light of the amazing communities to which I belong has helped me continuously work to sidestep this pervasive imposter syndrome. I’m not perfect by any means, but I do think that focusing on historical acts of leadership, progress, and tenacity, particularly from both the Black and Native American communities, helps me to reflect and see that I am often doing better than I give myself credit for. I’m leading and helping to lead progressive change with sustainability and equity at the core. These are often slow-moving foci — sustainably and equity- but it is staying true to what I believe in while working to make this world and its people on the aggregate safer, happier and healthier. “Code switching” has also been a bit of a challenge for me and has been silencing in a lot of ways. But then I sit in the idea that I’m going to show up and express myself in a way that is true to me and how I feel in that moment, and that is how people will have to receive me. Because I recognize that I am here and seeking to do good work, and that I am part of a complex nexus of powerful communities that has a history of resilience and strength — so that the fear of needing to constantly edit myself is slowly evaporating. Even if I don’t see it in myself all the time or if I feel underqualified or silenced, the histories of my communities are a part of me, which means that I have that resilience and strength in me, too to show up and do this equity-related work in the global health sector. Remembering history keeps me educated, inspired, rooted and growing.

You said it’s sometimes difficult for you to express yourself particularly in relation to code-switching — do you think that makes a difference in your leadership style?

Jaz: I think so. That’s definitely something that I’ve had to reflect on in terms of where I am working and who I am working with. My evolving leadership style is to meet people where they are and walk with them through their journey — whatever that may be professionally or personally — which is sometimes pretty hands on, but it also opens up the lines of communication. I believe very strongly in transparent communications. And I think as I continue to build an organization with a focus on social inclusion and youth empowerment, I am working to be more intentional with how we recruit and include people. I have begun iterating ways for how to effectively have more diversity in my organization Wish for Wash so that we can help build a more inclusive pipeline for leadership in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector — and this includes race, gender, age, and educational backgrounds. I think I’m at a point now where I want to be intentional about leading diverse teams, creating opportunities for underrepresented minorities, while also reaching out to people that are neither in my immediate spheres nor look or occupy my same identities. Specifically though, there are not a lot of visible Black women leaders in the WASH and global sector at large so as I grow in my career, I ultimately hope to shine more light on other Black women leaders in the sector as well as help build them up and creating an environment for them to thrive in their countries and contexts around the world.

What convinced you to start Wish for Wash and some challenges in the field?

Jaz: My passion for working in the sanitation sector started when I was a freshman in college. I was starting a degree in product design and felt disenchanted by the idea of creating trendy products that would go out of style and end up tossed in a landfill after several years of use. I understood then and now that all products have a lifespan, but that was the first time that I realized my passion for social impact design. I went to the Georgia Tech Women’s Leadership Conference and heard that nearly half the world doesn’t have access to improved or hygienic sanitation- and how this reality disproportionally hinders the livelihoods of women and girls in resource constrained communities. One of the speakers asked, “how can you use the skills that you have to help improve this problem?” So, at 18, I left the conference, called my parents and said: “I’m going to design toilets.” Fast forward to my senior year of college and all these things started to fall in place when my senior design team was the first all-female team to win the Georgia Tech InVenture prize competition. It was a really cool opportunity to have a product that we designed to receive support and funding, be put in front of real people, and get real time feedback. That was when everything changed for me in many ways. Six weeks after we were on stage with a prototype foam toilet model, we were in a refugee camp in northern Kenya having diverse users test our toilets and give us feedback via a pilot that we were conducting under the auspices and leadership of the organization Sanivation. This was my first time on the continent of Africa and a deep dive into my passion for global health, health innovation and health equity related work. This was the first of many humbling experiences working in the Sub-Saharan African context. Over the years, I have developed a belief that your perceived identity is relative to where you are and who you are surrounded by. It’s been five years since founding Wish for WASH. I’ve lived in Zambia for a bit, conducted several toilet innovation pilots and research projects across the region and have continued to pivot, change, and be exposed to different sectors in this work. Through organizations such as Global Health Corps where I was taught to view global health work in the context of social justice frameworks, I learned that, in general, development and global health work (including sanitation) to this day is often deeply rooted in its colonial history. And I think that a part of the solution to combat this in an effort to create more sustainable projects and programs (in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals) is to integrally involve, from the project or program’s onset, a more diverse pipeline of leaders, researchers, businesses people, policy makers, grant writers, and team members from a host of different demographics. These voices are needed to combat the pervasive oppressive norms that permeate this work. I’ve seen in my own work that there is incredible power in having increased representation and diversity in the workforce. And for me, recognizing just how much my communities of support have enabled me to be where I am today, I’ve realized that maybe I am intended to amplify the value of diversity at the tables to which I’ve been invited in order to help move the needle of change and act as part of a community of support for others.

What are the unique challenges and barriers to becoming a leader in the space?

Jaz: We are in a dark time in history. The COVID19 and racism pandemics are simultaneously destroying lives and showcasing to the world how just how deeply seeded our inequities lie and makes the case for how much we desperately need to change the status quo. From my perspective, it feels like people working in the impact space are often seeking to approach their work with a socially conscious lens which is often times really fantastic. In light of Black Lives Matter, it does feel like there is transformative momentum building toward actionable and sustainable change against racism. However, the idea of diversity, equity and inclusion can at times appear to be a bit of a trendy concept which can sometimes feel like a checkbox situation — where people feel the social pressure to have representation and think that my presence (the one woman of color or even the one person of color on the team) qualifies as enough diversity to effectively ‘check that box’. Additionally, in light of Black Lives Matters, performative ally ship has been widely critiqued and has started the conversation of what it really means to show up for the Black Community. While not necessarily unique to this sector, these are still a frustrating concepts that I have been working to effectively navigate as a blossoming professional in this space. I think this relates back to the pipeline I have referred to and further represents why it’s so necessary to continue lifting as we — minority leaders — continue to climb and grow in our reach and impact. Another similar barrier to leadership is that sponsorship is often really hard to find. I found that while representation and mentorship from people who look similar to me has been crucial in my ability to continue to learn and grow in the global health sector, the sponsorship that I’ve received from people that aren’t similar to me or who don’t look like me has been pivotal for my career as well. It’s been really interesting to reflect on my career trajectory thus far and realize that some of the big changes in my professional life that have given me access to leadership, networking, and financial opportunities came from the sponsors who were quite different from me either physically or ideologically. For many women and people of color, opportunities are often out of reach without the access and support of an influential or highly networked sponsor or mentor. So for me, I know that it’s my goal to not only become a mentor to help open doors for others, but to also advocate for increased sponsorship for other women and people of color in the networks and communities that have poured into me as I am definitely not “the only one”.

How can we best advocate for ourselves and other women in leadership in global health?

Jaz: I think we need to continue this idea of lifting as we climb. Sponsorship and mentorship are very ‘buzzwordy’ at times but this idea of creating a community — and a pipeline — of women and people of color to transition and grow into positions of leadership is huge. I don’t consider myself to be an expert by any means, but I know that I have the capacity and relative life experience where I can mentor. And even peer mentor. I don’t need to be completely self-actualized to bring along with me a diverse group of people who are perhaps looking for their opportunity to make an impact in the international development and global health sectors. This is one of the reasons I started one-on-one coaching to help young leaders looking for support and connections. I think if we have women of color in leadership positions or as emerging leaders with a mindset that success is collective, they can use their platform and privilege to continue to lift additional women as they grow. At that point, we will be successfully advocating for ourselves and others.

Do you think there are certain biases or assumptions about black people or African American women that affects your leadership opportunities?

Jaz: Firstly, I want to recognize that there are stereotypes about all people. And yes, there are many stereotypes about woman leaders, regardless of color, when they are compared to male leaders. We are all human, no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes, but those imperfections or learning moments can often be turned against you when you occupy a minority identity. When talking about biases related to Black women in leadership, the comments that I hear from people often in professional spaces reinforce many of the negative stereotypes and underlying racism that still exist. Because I am mixed-race (evidenced by my lighter skin color and hair texture), and have been afforded enormous educational privileges, I have been acutely aware of the institutional power granted to me as a result of society seeing me as an “approachable Black girl”, which I find to be deeply disturbing. I have always sought to redistribute this power as a force for change and to lift people as I climb. However, in addition to many organizations reaching their ‘diversity quota’ with my presence, people in the workplace will also say things like “you’re so cute” or “you’re so smiley” or “you’re so articulate” which are often incredibly uncomfortable things to say to someone in professional environments. I have had a number of supervisors and superiors touch my face as if I were a child for no other reason than just to infantilize me, which is again is a deeply inappropriate behavior, especially in the work place. These are a few statements that represent the stereotypes and assumptions that people have about Black women which have impacted me on my journey. I am continuing to work on how to effectively navigate these incidences when they happen in a way that helps moves the needle of change forward.

How can we encourage colleagues and people we work with to be transformative and see color and gender? Why is it important?

Jaz: I think we can showcase women of color to our colleagues through reflexive questioning and through physical examples of powerful woman of color, whether it’s on your screen as a screensaver or on the actual materials you or your organization creates. Having colleagues see these images more can help combat the often-negative information that society tends to highlight about women and people of color. I think that intersectionality is important for colleagues particularly in the global health, international development, and social impact/justice sectors to see, understand and appreciate. It’s important for people in your close proximity to have these sometimes-uncomfortable conversations. Asking reflexive questions to get people to react to and think about the power of representative in language and images is important for educational purposes and for coalition building. My philosophy is to approach people with grace as much as possible. People have their worldview because of their lived experiences. I believe that when people haven’t been exposed to many of these thoughts about diversity or that combat social norms/stigmas, it can be a great opportunity for reflexive and nonaggressive discourse. Sometimes questions lead to further conversations with merging worldviews where colleagues, friends or family members can end up saying things like “oh wow, it didn’t cross my mind that could be offensive” or “thank you for sharing that point of view.”

Do think the fact that you are a certain ethnicity makes a difference for the people that you serve in the communities?

Jaz: Yes. I initially realized this in 2014 during our first toilet pilot in Kenya. I worked with an all-white American team and began navigating my first experience on the continent of Africa. I had been called “not black enough” in US contexts due to various social constructs, but until that point I had never been straight up called ‘white lady’ or Mzungu. In Kenya during this pilot, while people called me ‘Mzungu’, one of the data collectors asked if I wanted to join the community-based data collection. As we worked with a predominantly Somali community within the refugee camp, a lot of the interviewees had very similar skin tone and facial structures as me. I was told that I could come to observe but that I couldn’t speak since my American accent would bias the results. This was the first time I realized how my phenotype could allow me into spaces (even as an observer) that perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to enter otherwise. In general, people often perceive me to be ethnically ambiguous, so it remains a common thing to have people try to guess where I am from or where my parents are from. In global contexts, I think that ambiguity gives me access to conversations and research that would potentially be challenging for me to access if I didn’t present in a way that could fit into several ethnic, racial, or cultural boxes.

What advice would you give a junior professional about power and privilege and succeeding as a woman later?

Jaz: Last year, the Women Deliver conference theme was “the power of…”. The whole conference was centered on how we all have power, how we have to work to identify it, and that we have to figure out the best way to use it. This goes back to the idea of the imposter syndrome that many women leaders face which can contribute to feeling alone in their journey, and it is a bit scary. But what has been helpful for me is to lean on the idea that ‘we all have power’ within us, rooted in the histories of our identities and communities, even if we don’t see that in ourselves. This can help us realize that historically, the communities that we come from got us to where we are. Women throughout history — particularly Black and Native Women- have showed time and time again their immense strength and resilience in the face of adversity; so, when you feel the imposter syndrome or self-doubt creep in, lean on their power — the power of women who came before you because their power and strength in apart of you and your story. And then finally, if you can recognize your own power, you can recognize your own privilege and better understand how you can be an effective, empowering and sustainable woman in leadership. I believe we all need to be lifted but in order to be lifted, you also have to lift others. We are all connected.

How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic influences the communities you work with on a regular basis?

Jaz: The social and economic implications of COVID-19 are vast. The below reflections about how this pandemic has influenced the livelihoods of the communities that I work with both domestically and globally is a vignette of a blog post that I wrote for World Water Day on March 22 entitled “World Water Day In the Era of Pandemic Pandemonium”. In fact, there has been a significant global push towards improved handwashing practices in light of the WASH-related nature of Covid-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been recently and frequently promoting the use of accurate handwashing and social distancing techniques to #flattenthecurve of the virus. However, due to the pervasive inequities of our world — resource constrained communities and systems frequently lack access to safe and adequate WASH facilities. According to the World Health Organization’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Healthcare Facilities 2019 Practical Guide, “1 in 4 healthcare facilities lack basic water services, and 1 in 5 have no sanitation service — impacting 2.0 and 1.5 billion people, respectively.” Additionally:

This lack of water on both a personal and health systems level acts as a massive barrier in combatting the spread of infectious diseases. In addition to these infrastructure and access inequities, many people that live in densely populated areas or informal settlements and or those that are fleeing from war or political/social/climate-related unrest not only typically have limited access to clean water and healthcare facilities, but they also frequently lack the ability to effectively practice ‘social distancing’. In the US, the general public has been inundated with public health messaging about the increased susceptibility of older adults and immunocompromised peoples of contracting Covid-19 (although this data is rapidly expanding). The convergence of these realities that marginalized communities both domestically and globally are facing during this Covid-19 and social distancing era shines a light on the large scale societal implications of health inequities; the way that resources are allocated on both an individual and systemic level bar many global minorities from helping flatten the curve of this pandemic due to their social determinants of health. All of this information further makes the case for why vigilant handwashing by those who have continued access to safe water and soap and social distancing by those who have homes in which they can safely remain is imperative for the protection of both our Earth and its diverse humanity.

What change would you suggest, in the COVID-19 response, to ensure disadvantaged communities, communities of color, LGBTQ, poor communities, and women are reached more effectively?

Jaz: In a blog post that I recently wrote for Women in Global Health entitled “Women in Global Health and Women in Dev”, I stated “In an era of social distancing and other efforts to mitigate this new global pandemic, these post-Women in Dev calls to action are even more important. UN Women has issued a set of recommendations placing the needs of women — especially the need to engage the female talent pool as leaders — at the heart of effective responses to COVID-19. Now more than ever, it’s the time shift the international development paradigm in the name of inclusion and progress.

Read the full interview and article here.

Hybrid Professional | Social Entrepreneur | Design Thinker | Impact Accelerator | Global Health Consultant | SDGs 3,5,6 jasminekburton.com

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