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Out of the Ashes

An abridged conversation with Sharon Burney, program officer for CLIR’s grant programs and host of the forthcoming season of the Material Memory podcast, focused on HBCUs. Nicole Kang Ferraiolo, CLIR’s director of global strategic initiatives, interviews Burney about how her personal experience over the past year has shaped her approach to work and life.


You’ve described this past year before as “the best of times and the worst of times.” I’d love it if you could elaborate on what that means for you.

I have a personal mantra that in the most profound tribulations, out of this smoke and out of the ashes can rise greatness that we can use going forward. So you can have some of the most profound revelations out of the most detrimental tribulations. This was the most difficult year of my life. I lost a family member to COVID, a friend of over 30 years, and my daughter spent months in the hospital in critical condition for issues that, while unrelated to COVID, were made so much harder by the pandemic.

Because of COVID you could only have one person visit her for the entire hospital stay. I saw a lot of death. You know, trying to stay positive when people are dying all around you or they’re going in and out to resuscitate your daughter really affected me in a variety of ways. And I say that because I saw how precious life could be, how important we are, and how important everybody is to each other.

During this time, I had this new job. It was wonderful for me because I was remote and CLIR was very open and flexible.  I understood my access to privilege because I work in an environment where we’re intentional about making sure that our employees are healthy and in a healthy place. So CLIR was more than generous: “take whatever time you need; don’t worry about it.” And my team members, everybody was giving and wonderful. There were days that I came home and I was just completely despondent and there would be a package there on my door. Packages were coming like every other day.  And I think I’ve learned over the years that sometimes even a hello to somebody can keep them from giving up. And it was these moments I received from people that kept my family going and gave me enough strength to have faith, to make sure that my daughter made it out.

How’s she doing now?

She’s doing much better now. She’s at home. They thought she was not going to live; then they told me she was going to have permanent brain damage. She couldn’t talk for some time, she couldn’t walk. But she’s walking now, taking a few steps without a walker around her house. She’s doing her puzzle books like she’s always done them. She’s talking. She’s a diva, so her makeup is on fleek all the time. So she’s back. She’s back.

I’m so glad to hear that.

In addition to your work with CLIR’s grants programs, you are hosting the next season of CLIR’s Material Memory podcast, focused on HBCUs. How have the events of the past year affected the forthcoming podcast season? 

I’ve learned to be very flexible with myself and with everybody and be thoughtful of what everybody’s going through. We’re going to have to deal with PTSD. People have lost numerous members of their families. People have lost matriarchs and patriarchs. They’ve lost children. They’ve lost best friends. They’ve lost classmates and coworkers. And nobody’s talking about it. Nobody’s talking about these voids that are going to be there forever. I’ve had to delay several interviews because people had deaths in their family. We’re not even able to have funerals and mourning. And in communities of color that is very important. You can’t move past something until you acknowledge it. You have to deal with the problem and then you have to mourn it and you have to discuss it. And then you have to heal. We’ve missed these big blocks in the middle of all of this trauma that we have to figure out how to feel. So I try to be respectful of it. I try to be flexible and very intentional emotionally. And then talk about it. Like, how are you handling COVID? How is it in your workplace? Is your work environment being helpful? How are you dealing with the loss of humanity and human touch and interaction?

Are there any additional takeaways from this past year that you’d like to share?

COVID was an opportunity for us, as a society, to create something new. We were at home, we were stuck with our family, so to speak. We had a chance to connect again as individuals and then as a unit, and then spread that out into the community. We have food banks. We’re asking, how do I give back? People paid attention to what their elderly neighbors needed. The neighbors in my father’s community were really wonderful.

And while it’s bad, when we think about the pandemic and all the people we’ve lost, there was also this light bulb moment that we could utilize to advance society as a whole. We saw this cataclysmic national Black Lives Matter movement during this pandemic and moments of acts of community care. And out of the collision of COVID, BLM, and this community organization, something wonderful was created–an opportunity for growth that could disconnect us from capitalism, excessive grief, sexism, and racism. And I think that we’re in a very precarious, decisive moment right now, where we can either go forward, stagnate, or go backwards. And it’s imperative that we are intentional in everything that we do moving forward right now.

Another part of this interview will be published in the next Digitizing Hidden Collections newsletter, which you can subscribe to here. To learn more about and remember two of the people mentioned in this interview, you can watch this video by SISTUHS Inc. at UF that includes interviews with Sharon’s daughter, Tamisha Ferguson, and Sharon’s friend, Patricia Hilliard Nunn, who passed in 2020.


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