Women Who Lead – Debbie Burke-Benn
In honour of Black History Month, Live Your Potential (LYP) highlights an empowering black woman leader, Debbie Burke-Benn. Awarded as a Women of Inspiration Winner in the Authentic Leader Category, Debbie has demonstrated authentic leadership throughout various roles and organizations in Canada and internationally.
As a humble and inspiring leader, Debbie has successfully developed programs, projects, and organizational changes for her clients with passion, creativity, and innovation. With over twenty years of change management experience and in her recent roles she has successfully implemented strategies and tools in her initiatives while having led teams through her engaging and inclusive leadership approach.
Debbie wholeheartedly speaks out about her story as a black woman leader, the core principles she has executed which have contributed to her success as well as advice for non-black people who want to be allies for their black colleagues. She shares her wisdom from the interview with Live Your Potential below.
1. When LYP first approached you about being interviewed for the Women Who Lead Series, you emphasized that you would like to be featured as a Black woman leader. Why was this important for you?
As a proud African leader, it has been a journey to discover the nature of my strengths, within the contexts of systemic, institutional and even internalized racism. My mother and grandmother were extremely spiritually and emotionally powerful, positive forces within my life and our communities. In all aspects of their lives, they were both absolutely radical in their pursuit to overcome oppressive forces. They refused to be invalidated. Their care, vision, love, and forward thinking values taught me how to hold space for people (from all walks of life), channeling everyone’s strengths toward a unified and elevated goal – which is the essence of great leadership.
2. What’s your story as a black woman leader?
My first memories of trauma were as a newly arrived immigrant to Canada. I felt a mixture of endless gaze, constant comparison, and unjust accusations. But the only option is to overcome, whatever way you can… even as a child. Over the years, I have learned to stand my ground, to be proud, to know my value, to respect myself in ways others did and do not.
Though they were painful, these experiences of trauma are a part of what makes me who I am today. Because of them, I made it my mission statement to treat others with dignity and respect. I learned to demonstrate my leadership power in the organization to live with authenticity and integrity. I learned the importance of not suppressing your voice even if others are uncomfortable… sometimes or even oftentimes in instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and all other forms of oppression… their discomfort is more about them than you.
I developed the courage to speak about my experiences without conforming to the social systems in place. I built my own internal validation system. I now know that it is okay to have different perspectives than others, even in the workplace. The diversity of our voices and experiences only make us stronger as a team.
It is important as “others” for us to validate our own experiences. We cannot heal while suppressing our experiences, emotions, traumas, lives. Your greatest success is to learn to love yourself, only then can you live your highest potential. Be firm and know your worth.
3. What are some core principles that you have discovered and executed that have contributed to your success as a black woman leader?
Be on the continuous path of building inner strength. Surround yourself with people who uplift you, not deflate you. I walk away from those who make me feel less than. When your sense of true self is strong, you can rely on your intuition to validate yourself.
As a racialized woman, it’s taken me a decade to overcome the baggage of society enough to implement these lessons. But now, I make my mental, spiritual and emotional health the priority. As women, we’re taught to sacrifice our own needs for others, but the truth is you can’t take care of other people without taking care of yourself first. You must extend as much empathy to yourself as you would to others. And in fact, this will increase your overall ability to empathize. What contributed to my success as a black woman leader is an ability to empathize with those around me… I pride myself on helping to build teams that care about one another so we can achieve the ‘impossible’ together. Outside the common goal of the organization, we care about one another’s wellbeing. From an organizational perspective, I value a culture where my colleagues and I look after one another. Because if your values are misaligned, the work will not get done to the best of our abilities. When we care about one another, the sky’s the limit.
4. What has been your greatest failure/disappointment? And what did you learn from it?
I’m very hard on myself but, I don’t believe in failure in a traditional sense. Experiences are an opportunity to learn. There are no ‘problems’ only ‘challenges’ and challenges make us stronger. I believe that even the most negative feeling experiences can be transmuted within us, healed within us, overcome and learned from and become strengths.
It has taken years but now 80% of the time I can take a negative feeling experience and see the silver lining of it within seconds. My thought is that if it was easy, I wouldn’t have learned anything from it. One of my biggest challenges was when I was at an organization where I didn’t accomplish as much as I wanted to. I was exhausted and emotional because of the time and investment I had put into the work without seeing a tangible result. My biggest lesson there was learning that everything I do doesn’t have to be a concrete tangible difference that I can see immediately. I can make a difference for one person and even that is moving the mark and sometimes that is big enough. Changing even one person’s life for the better, uplifting even one other person has as much a domino effect as tearing someone down… It’s important to show up everyday and do your best, treat others well, and not only focus on the tangible deliverables but bring joy to the process and learn from it. As someone who always wants to accomplish something greater than the day before, I realize that teamwork is the one most important aspect within the organization. I also strongly believe something my mother has always said: “everything happens for a reason even if we can’t always see it and the universe has your best interests at heart.” In that moment it may feel difficult but in hindsight, I am now able to see the silver lining and opportunity that it holds.
Now, when I’m faced with adversity, I’ve learned to ask myself “what’s the opportunity in this?” Rather than go down a rabbit hole. Over time, you will let go of the fear and it will become more natural for you to focus on the positive of every experience. Not only that but, you will become the positive within the experiences of others.
5. What is your advice for non-black people who want to be an ally and better advocate for their black colleagues?
Empathetically listen with the intention of understanding instead of judgmentally, critically or skeptically listening with the intention to defend. Don’t practice performative allyship — the worst thing someone can do is say they are an ally but then abandon ship right when needed most. Speak up in your own social circle, community, family. You don’t need to be in the presence of a black person to speak up… in fact, true allyship requires no audience from that community. You are an ally even when no one is watching. You have a lot more power than you realize and it’s okay to have uncomfortable conversations with family, friends, and colleagues in regards to an issue as crucial as this. They may not agree with you but you can amplify your voice for black people when they’re not in the room. Do your homework to understand and learn about the different issues black people face. As an example, I support the LGBTQ+ community and am proactive by doing my own readings and research. And when I see someone with a disability who may need help, I research what I can do to offer help rather than asking them directly. So to be a true ally, do not be fearful of having challenging conversations, do the work to unlearn racial biases, and learn how you can stay active and support the community.
6. What are the keys to developing the next generation of diverse leaders in your world?
We’re all born God-like: kind and loving, open and free. It’s important to protect that in the children… It’s important to support, encourage and never blemish that innate humanity within children. We must un-condition our own thoughts and processes so as not to taint those of another generation. We must learn from our own history of mistakes to guide them. No matter what we see on TV or are taught by family and authorities, growing up, it is always the right time to unlearn, re-educate, expand, grow. It takes each individual person to create or break, to uphold or destroy… It takes a village to raise a child. Let’s raise children to value everyone in the village.
Debbie has drawn a lot of lessons and wisdom from her past experiences and leaves us with a quote to think about: “One love, one heart, one destiny.” by Bob Marley. This message is profound because it expresses the idea that we are all one and our destiny is combined.
Thank you to Isa Benn for her contribution in editing the article.