What’s Brewin’ | E5 | Customer Spotlight: The Haywood Burns Institute Copy

Learn how the Haywood Burns Institute is working to transform justice through a community-centered approach.


Brendon Lanouette: Good afternoon, everyone. And welcome to today’s episode of What’s Brewin’. I’m your host for today’s session, Brendon Lanouette. I’m a client partner here at Plative. And just to kick off each episode of What’s Brewin’, we always talk about what kind of coffee we’re drinking. So me, I am all about the Colombian medium roast coffee through the French press.

It’s a great morning routine. I’ve been doing it since college and definitely gets me excited for the day. But enough about me. I am very excited for today’s episode to be joined by Sharoia Taylor from the Haywood Burns Institute, a client from our nonprofit practice. Sharoia, I’ll pass it over to you to introduce yourself and let us know what your go-to coffee is.

Sharoia Taylor: Hey, thank you. It’s so great to be here. Thanks for having me. I am with you on any light roast in a French press. I feel like a coffee snob, but anything in a French press that’s light roast. I’m your girl. So yeah, I’m with you there.

Brendon Lanouette: Awesome. I love it. I’ve been looking forward to this chat for a really long time.

And like I said, so excited that you’re able to make time for us today. So why don’t we jump right into it. We’ve had such a fun time working with Burns on technology projects and we’ll definitely get into that, in a minute. But we’d love to learn a little bit more about yourself, so your role at BI and really what made you decide to venture into the nonprofit world, given your extensive background.

Sharoia Taylor: Thank you. Yes. I am the senior manager of operations at the Burns Institute. And I can say that I got to the Burns Institute in a very jagged way, but I’m very happy to be there. I grew up in Aurora, Colorado, some may call it a very disenfranchised community, and unfortunately also the same place where Elijah McClain was slain down by police.

And so I use that example only to say it represents a full circle experience for me. Where I went to undergrad was really deeply interested in how oppression was intersecting with race, class, and gender. And then I went to my master’s program because I knew I wanted to go to law school but didn’t know what I wanted to do.

And it’s a lot of money, so you don’t want to just go there with no vision. And I did my master’s program and had the opportunity to work with young people in East Oakland, California. I work with those youth every day and I was able to see what it was like to live in their environment where it was a food desert, a lot of food insecurity, police presence in the school, them having to deal with a lot of PTSD and a lot of different things like that.

And I recognize that even though, maybe I was doing some marginal, everyday good help and support. It wasn’t enough. And so I decided to go to law school with a very focused in understanding how the legal system worked, how we could understand the interconnection of those things. And while I was there, I worked at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office, really just trying to find a way to address some of these systematic and institutionalized issues. And I still just never saw a full understanding of the problem or solution. And it wasn’t until I got to the BI where they were doing racial justice work, they were doing policy work, they were doing direct service where my world was able to come together, and I was actually able to do all of these things under the same roof with people who were just as passionate about that and looking for solutions.

So that’s how I landed there. I haven’t left and then I love working there because it’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

Brendon Lanouette: That’s amazing. Having learned about your background and through law school and being able to channel that and really find something that drives you to come to work every day. And I think you had mentioned early on that it doesn’t even feel like a job.

It’s really just something that’s a big part of your life. That’s amazing. And I love to hear that. One of the other things I really love about your organization is really the diverse cast of individuals that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, but also from the leadership team.

When you look at the website and go through the bios of the folks that are really driving change, at the top of the organization, it’s so well-rounded. And not just around background and where someone grew up, but really just the experiences that they bring to the table.

Can you talk a little bit to how you’ve managed to do such a good job of that for so long? When I think a lot of organizations are really trying to replicate what you’re doing in the near term because of how much light’s been shown on that in recent years, through DEI initiatives and things like that.

You were doing it a long time before it became such a hot topic. So would love to hear your thoughts on that and how you came to that formation of the organization.

Sharoia Taylor: I really appreciate that. So, our founder and fearless leader, James Bell, started the organization in 2003.

And I think what’s important to remember is he started this during a time when racial justice work was not sexy. It was just not; they weren’t your favorite people in the room because they were saying things that a lot of people didn’t want to hear. They were pushing for things a lot of people weren’t ready to see, and they were putting up mirrors in places where people had to really reflect on who they wanted to be and what they really were doing to communities.

And I think. When you do that kind of work and you are that person in the room it’s hard, right? You can’t go in there because you’re just like, I’m doing this hot, flashy work and everyone’s going to, no, it was adversarial spaces where people were being challenged and the type of people who were drawn to that came to work knowing that it was going to be an uphill battle, knowing that the solution wasn’t going to be tomorrow or the next day, but it was going to take the churning and pushing and just the continued activation of that. And I think over the years, that’s why you see the type of people who work at the Burns Institute.

You see those who are community activists directly impacted, lawyers, policy makers. But at the end of the day, you see a streamline of people who understand that we have a problem that’s affecting all of our communities, because it’s not just those people’s problems, it’s all of our problems. And they were deeply invested in making sure that we were doing the work to solve the problems that needed to be solved and were unafraid to step into that space for as long as we needed to get it done.

Brendon Lanouette: Got it. And the reason I chuckled it when you said making it sexier. It wasn’t sexy work to begin with. It’s funny you guys do it so effortlessly. And not to take away from the actual effort, how much of an impact that I’ve seen you’ve made in some of the work that you’ve done across, communities like as large as LA which we’ll get into that in a second. But even some of the smaller communities that you work with, it’s so interesting how you’ve approached these types of projects and the initiatives that come across your plate. Would love to learn a little bit about that.

So you mentioned, a few different examples when we were working together of some of the work you’ve done, but would love to shine a little bit of a light on some of the work that the entire Burns team is taking on today.

Sharoia Taylor: Yeah, I think most importantly where we start is the understanding of we take a community based and community centered approach.

And that really means more than just the words in there. It means, hey, we’re not going to come in here and tell you we have the roadmap. If we had the roadmap, we’d be trying to solve this problem yesterday. But we go into communities and we’re like, okay, listen to what they need, and they are driving the work and we’re just helping facilitate what they need in order to get what they are trying to achieve.

And I think a lot of organizations do that, but our organization does that in a way where we are okay with that. We’re comfortable with taking the time to have collaborative values, taking the time to listen to where people are at and what they actually are trying to achieve, and not trying to push an agenda or assume we know everything in the room.

I think it’s interesting because we are at a very pivotal time in our work. We have very distinct projects right now and we work across the nation. But two that I think are really interesting is our work in LA and our work in Ramsey County. I use LA because that Community that work is work that was facilitated by a mandate.

So the governor and the board of supervisors said, we’re going to close juvenile facilities, we’re going to close the Department of Justice, and we’re actually going to transition our work into something that is not focused where probation as holding youth, but actually, we’re going to make sure that we’re focusing on people’s wellbeing and the use wellbeing.

But with mandated work comes a lot of different challenges. We have accelerated timelines; we have new frameworks and mandates we have to navigate. We have power down dynamics where there’s a lot of politics involved. And then we have the other side, which is Ramsey, which is a smaller community, smaller site, but they’re doing it from a non-mandated perspective, right?

So, we were able to create shared values, collective collaboratives with each other and community leaders, but also with elected officials. And it was definitely a collective momentum. And so it’s a slower implementation, but it’s also built by the people for the people with community officials. And what you see there is you see the city build and change their approach, right?

So, they spoke to the community and they said, okay, what’s happening? And traffic stops were a huge issue in their community because if people were being stopped, and they found that 80% of the people who were being stopped were people of color and being arrested and going through these different facilitations of the law.

However, once they came up with that realization they said, okay, even though it’s constitutional for us to view the stop and traffic stop, we’re going to choose to stop using that as a predication to look into other things and prosecute folks. Because we see that there’s a racial lens there that whether or not we’re aware of it, it’s happening now for a county to take that huge step where they have a constitutional right to stop people and do a reasonable search and decide that it’s impacting their community so much so that they’re going to take a different approach, is significant. It’s a way to reimagine how our justice system focused, and it uses data, it uses community, it uses that collaborative solution that a lot of times we wouldn’t have been able to come in and make that solution for them.

It had to be a collaborative effort. And you see the same thing in LA, where you have politics, you have money, you have all these different things, but they’re also reimagining an entire system where youth are built on being able to thrive, not being able to be incarcerated. So very different approaches, but also very community based, very focused, but also still invested in reimagining what it could be in a world where it’s not about incarceration, but also rehabilitation and building a community. So it’s a very unique experience, but a very powerful one to see how our work can change things.

Brendon Lanouette: I love that. And I’m curious, just one last question on that.

Obviously, there’s been a lot of events that have happened over the last couple of years, I think that have shown some serious light on a lot of the work that you’re doing in areas of the community that need to be improved. But, aside from some of the obvious ones, what other underlying themes do you think are there that have really galvanized these communities to start taking that on themselves? And I ask that because you mentioned that these are things that are being initiated by the community and not something that you’ve had to come to them and prescribe or say that here are areas that you need to be looking at and evaluating.

They’re almost coming to you now, it sounds and saying, hey, we’re trying to figure out the best way to approach this. So what do you think has changed over the last couple years?

Sharoia Taylor: I think I never want to diminish the community because the community is always going to have the solution and they’ve always seen it.

I think what you’re feeling and you’re seeing is when enough is enough. And I say that in the realest most honest way possible. I think communities have always been hustling to find a way to protect themselves. Hustling, to find a way to protect all the people that they work with, that they love and that they care about.

But we’re also in a new age where you see, hey, what’s happening to me is also happening across the nation. It’s happening to George Floyd. It’s happening to all these different individuals. And I thought it was just like an issue with our community. And so you could also talk about how technology is revealing a lot about our society and about ourselves and saying, I’m not alone, and I’m not the only person who’s going through this. And how do we come together as a community and recognize that like we believe in something that’s greater than ourselves and that’s going to be great for the next generation to come and thereafter. And if we’re going to have that generation, that reimagines a world that they want to live in, we need to do that work now and build that in every single day.

And so, I don’t think it’s new. I just think that people are galvanized by what they have seen and what they’re tired of seeing and what they want to see change for their selves and for the people who they love.

Brendon Lanouette: That makes complete sense and I appreciate the honesty there as well too. It’s something that our team at Plative and I know I can speak for a lot of the organization continuously trying to do better and understand these issues and really support organizations like yours.

So really appreciate you sharing. Last question because I know we’re almost out of time here. Focusing a little bit back on the relationship with Plative, because we have had so much fun working with your team and really understanding what you do as an organization but taking on a project like Salesforce that we were a part of together it involved a lot of collaboration, and we always have to sometimes lean on our clients to help us understand how to help them.

In a similar way, almost that you are describing with the communities that you work with, there’s a lot of learnings that come out of every engagement. So, I’d be curious if you could share with other nonprofits that are similar to yours or in a similar position of evaluating a Salesforce or a big technology shift is something that’s needed to further their mission. What would you give as advice?

Sharoia Taylor: That’s a really great question. I think, to be fair with you, it took me two years to get Salesforce for organization and to end up working with Plative, and I’m glad that it took that time. I think that folks need to be ready to take on the work that it takes to build it and to maintain it.

We got to a place in our organization where we realized we really wanted to centralize everything that we do from our contracts to our grants, to our contacts, to our donations, to all these different aspects of our work. And we wanted to do it in a way that was, effective, that was user friendly.

We wanted to feel like this was a part of our work but didn’t cause more work. And to do that, we had to have a clear idea of what we wanted. And not saying we had it all figured out, but we had to go into these conversations being like yeah, I think this is what I want to do and how I want it to function.

And I commend your team because you all were very patient with us, and you worked with us and you listened to us. And I really appreciated the multiple sessions of, let’s keep thinking about this. Let’s work together. Let’s practice and see what it looks like and test it. And through that we built a relationship where I felt like you all were just as invested in our work as we were and understanding the solutions as much as we were.

And I think that I would say that I hate to delay anybody getting Salesforce through Plative, but I would say if you’re not ready to put in the work as well, you’ve got to actually not start the project because this project in this product ends up being really great if you put in the work. But if you don’t, it can be arduous, it can be difficult, so I think knowing what you want and that you’re willing to commit to it like you are with anything else in your life and in your community and in your organization, and then putting in the work is what the product will look like.

And I think if you’re willing to put in the work, put in the time, and really invest in that way, the product always turns out, especially with this team, I’m not going to lie, it’s really great. Turns out how you want it. Normally I don’t like to put too much on it, but I’ve had on a wonderful experience because I felt like we were really in it together and that’s the best type of team you can create.

Brendon Lanouette: Likewise, Sharoia. And hey, if you’re ever looking for a side hustle in promoting Plative you’re more than welcome to join the team. I’m sure Mikaela would love to have you. I think that’s about all the time we have for today. Sharoia, thank you again so much for coming on and telling our listeners a little bit more about Burns Institute and yourself.

It’s such a fascinating and such a crucial story for people to hear. So really appreciate your time and look forward to our continued partnership together.

Sharoia Taylor: My pleasure. Until the next time.

Brendon Lanouette: Thanks so much.

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