An Interview with Bonita Robertson, Director for Civic Leadership, Greater New Orleans Foundation
In this Black and Bold interview, Bonita Robertson and Makiyah Moody discuss working towards innovation, the value of having an executive coach in your kitchen cabinet of supportive people, and fighting impostor syndrome.
Makiyah Moody (MM): Thank you for joining this next installment of Black & Bold Perspectives on Leadership. I’m really excited to have this conversation with Bonita Robertson coming from New Orleans, the Greater New Orleans Foundation. It has been a while since I’ve seen you, Bo!
Bonita Robertson (BR): I know! It’s good to see you, Makiyah.
[0:28] MM: Ditto. I’m so excited to just dive into this conversation because I know from our time with Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans that you have a lot of dimensions and a lot of elements that make up your exciting life in the work that you’re doing. And so I guess I wanted to start with a context question. Given that 2020 is a year unlike any other with this global pandemic and protests from coast to coast, has there been a moment of reckoning for you over the last, say, four to five months that you wanted to lift up?
[1:00] BR: Yeah. So, I think there’s been so much that’s happened, right. We’re living in a pandemic and then for our context in New Orleans, we actually are in hurricane season right now as we’re filming this. So this idea of the fact that you can be in multiple disasters at the same time, also with the COVID pandemic, we have the slow moving disaster of racial injustice that has happened throughout the history of this country. Then layering on top of that, the fact that we could actually have a storm coming. About a month ago we had a scare, which is like you could have all of these things happening at the same time. That was really a moment of reflection and now, whoa, this is very intense, right? So, I think one of the things that has really brought some peace to me during this time is the work that we’re consistently doing at the foundation. That has been kind of my North Star to keep me moving through this time. That is very strategic work, really trying to support our nonprofits during this time with grant making, with also technical assistance, and so that’s really been how I’ve been able to move through this and then getting as much information as I can and informing people as much as we can. That has really been the way that I’ve kept my head on straight during all of the things that are happening right now.
[2:33] MM: It takes a different skill set to juggle and navigate so many layers of trauma, of needing to survive, of anxiety – there’s just there’s so much that’s happening in this current moment with all of those elements colliding. I hadn’t even thought of hurricane season.
[2:50] BR: I mean, it’s crazy. We actually hosted a webinar – the foundation has been hosting a series of webinars since COVID happened, I guess since March 13th – and we had a webinar about two weeks ago on mental health. Dr. Denese Shervington really said it so eloquently. She was like, “if you have a threat to your very existence, then your response is going to be heightened”, and that was this moment of, yes, we are all feeling all of this, particularly as black people, at this moment. Layering on top of that the pandemic, layering on top of that the anxiety that comes with hurricane season every year, as you know, having lived in New Orleans and around the Gulf Coast. So it was this moment of reflection and for me to stop and say, yes, this is normal for us to all feel this way and we have to take the time to really reconcile that.
[3:46] MM: Wow. So you’ve touched a little bit on the foundation. Can you elaborate on your work at the Greater New Orleans Foundation and maybe share what the what the GNOF is actually focused on as far as the community foundation for New Orleans?
[4:01] BR: As you said, we’re the community foundation for Southeast Louisiana. So, we serve about 13 parishes in our region with our main offices in New Orleans. We have a center for philanthropy so we built a building a few years ago where we can host convenings which helps people to come and really explore philanthropy and really act as a convening space for our community, which is wonderful. The work that I do at the foundation as the director of civic leadership, is about supporting and catalyzing progressive initiatives of the foundation. One of those initiatives right now is our work around the Spirit of Charity Innovation District. People from New Orleans and the region will know that Charity Hospital was our safety net hospital prior to Hurricane Katrina. That hospital has been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina, and now the hospital is going to be revitalized into a mixed use development, but one of the things that we focus on at the foundation is how to make sure that that development is really equitable in the area surrounding the development more important is ethical. So, people have access to transit, access to affordable housing, access to good jobs. And how do we create this really innovative district around this multi-million-dollar project that is going to come online in the next few years? That’s the work that I’ve really been focused on since I took on this role, which is a new role for the foundation, along with trying to really lift up any innovative research that is happening within the foundation as well, particularly within our programmatic department.
[5:47] MM: Wow. And I know that prior to joining the staff at GNOF you had other experiences in the working world. I’m curious if you had to think about a soundtrack of greatest hits as it relates to the work you’ve done; different experiences on your resumé and not on your resume because I know we met through Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans, which was a not a full time job. I mean, as a sidebar, it’s been great to see the newsletters and see how much EPNO has flourished since I was a part of my class.
But, I’m curious if there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your life experiences and career. What kind of tracks would you have?
[6:33] BR: This is a really hard question because it’s so hard to narrow down all of these songs that I feel like have been impactful in my life. Right now, what I would say is one of the things that I keep thinking about in my work, because prior to my work at GNOF, I worked for an organization called the BioDistrict and they had a similar mission to some of the stuff that we’re trying to do with The Spirit of Charity Innovation District. So, I feel like I’m in a kind of deja vu state right now. A lot of the work that has started out right out of law school working on, I’m doing again. So that’s very interesting. And Deja Vu keeps playing in my head. The other song that is important and reflects I think a lot of where I am is Lean On Me. That’s a song that I just always hearken back to when things are really challenging and that’s a song that I’ve used. I really have been blessed to have people in my life in my circle that act as mentors throughout all major phases of my life, whether it was in undergrad or grad school and now professionally. I really think on that song as a way that I act as the person that’s leaning on others and they lean on me. And then the song that I really want to be the soundtrack for my life, I guess I would say, or my career is I Was Here, a Beyonce song, I really love that song. I want my work to reflect and people to understand that it has made a change and a difference in others’ lives.
The work that I did prior to my role as the director of civic leadership was really around workforce investments so knowing that those investments had clear benefits to people, that is really impactful and important. And I know the work that we’re doing in the spirit of Charity Innovation District will have the same.
[8:38] MM: Sounds like based on those song titles as well as where you have your thumb prints and fingerprints on different pieces of work within the greater New Orleans community, that your values really undergird how you engage with the work, how you navigate in the community, etc.. I’m wondering if you can share an example of when your value set may have been in tension and how you reconcile that tension and or reclaimed your time, depending on what the circumstance was related to that.
[9:11] BR: One of the things that I do right now is I am a board member of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and I have been on the board for a few years now. Really, that is an awesome responsibility that I do not take lightly at all and I feel very privileged to be able to serve on the board. One of the things that I have really tried to push as a board member and as the chair of the Small and Emerging Business Committee, which is really around building our small businesses and making sure that small businesses are included in our procurement opportunities, is really pushing for smaller and diverse businesses to be a part of the work that we do. That has been something that I have really been pushed on by my values. One of my uncles had a small business so I grew up in a small business and I understand how important they are to our communities. That has been not always the easiest of jobs. This is a volunteer position, but really making sure that I was very clear on the expectations of what I thought that we should be doing to include small businesses to make sure that that was aligned with the general values of the board that I served on as well. I’m really proud to say that we’ve made tremendous progress.
Now. That is a time where I had to reclaim my time multiple times and really, I am one of the youngest people on the board. I was the only black woman on the board at the time. And so, there are a lot of dynamics that that come into play during those moments. Really being comfortable with myself and my own leadership – that was a huge growth experience for me. I think we’re at a moment right now where everyone understands on the board and is fully supportive of these efforts to really ensure that small businesses are included in every way, shape, or form, in our procurement opportunities. Now, it has been a road that we’ve traveled. I got a note yesterday from our staff person that works on this and she said, you know, for quarter one of 2020, over twenty six percent of our contracts went to small emerging businesses. In 2016, we were at about nine percent. So, we’re seeing this growth that has happened, which is really a confluence of a lot of different people, not just me pushing to make sure that there was actual change that happened. That was a moment where I really stuck to the values of what I believed in. I had to reclaim minds as a board member and as the chair of that committee and make sure that this was an imperative for everyone across the board. I’ve had many allies in that fight and so I’ve been very grateful for the work that we’ve been able to do.
[12:35] MM: It’s an impressive jump from nine percent to twenty six percent.
[12:39] BR: Yes, it required a lot of changes. We actually have a staff person is on board fully supporting this work now, which is the first time that we’ve had this since I’ve been a board member. When you hire someone to actually move this forward, it makes a huge difference because that is that person’s intention and that is their job so that has been a lot of progress. We’ve also gotten the support of our board to make this happen. When you have all these different levers and allies, both internally and externally, it really makes a difference.
[13:24] MM: So you mentioned being the youngest board member for some time and the only black woman on that board for a time and something about developing your confidence and finding your voice. I might be paraphrasing what you said, but I’m just imagining you in your power pose of being. Being in the room where it happens to make things happen. I’m curious if you could, reflecting on that experience, offer any advice to other black women who are trying to develop or amplify their voice and become better self-advocates?
[13:58] BR: So, Makiyah, I think one of the things that I benefited from – I work in philanthropy, obviously, I was a part of the Association for Black Foundation Executives. Their leadership program two years ago. And one of the things that benefited from that was having an executive coach. And she was really wonderful in helping me identify some of the challenges that I had around in my own self, around resilience and really my communication style. And so that was really helpful for me when thinking about how you communicate with people that, you know, we’re not the same, obviously. But if you have a similar mission, how do we all get to that same mission and really understand how to talk to folks in a different way? So that was one of the things that was really helpful for me.
The other thing that I will say is for anyone looking to develop their own leadership, especially for black women, I think it is important, and I know you share this to have your own group of people that you can talk to. That is, you know, your girlfriends, your partner, whoever it may be, your mentor around this is happening, I’m trying to navigate this how best to do this. And I really have been blessed to have that. I have my girlfriends that I can talk to about anything. And we’re all similar ages. We’re in different sectors, but how we’re navigating this. And so that’s really important. I also have a mentor that I can really call on and say I am trying to I’m trying to do this. And she’s the black woman. How can I do this? And that’s been really helpful and she’s outside of philanthropy. And then I really am very blessed to have a colleague inside of philanthropy that is also a black woman that has helped me navigate so much within philanthropy that I am very grateful for. I think it really is about having your kitchen cabinet, so to speak, of people that you can talk to. But also, I think it is important, I know a lot of people can really struggle with impostor syndrome; you know, you’re not good enough. We’re not smart enough. You know, you don’t deserve to be here type of thing. And it has taken me a while to realize, no, I’m just as smart. I deserve to be here. I have work to be here. And if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here. Nothing is given. Right. And so really understanding that in claiming them and owning that we go into these conversations is really important.
[16:47] MM: Impostor syndrome is such a pernicious little devil. I’m thinking, oh, I need her executive coach. All of the things that you mentioned have been themes in other conversations for black and bold. So, coaching support, mentors, the kitchen cabinets or finding your tribe. I think the circle of support is just critical because there’s so many times when it feels like we might be on an island to ourselves just struggling. Instead of being able to, you know, leverage and stand on the shoulders of others who have been navigating the same waters.
So thinking about, I guess, the body of work that you’re focused on, I realized that I keep going to your work. But I realized you have multitudes of life within you. So you’re not just work at the Greater New Orleans Foundation. But in managing your work and your personal commitments, what is your approach to self-care and happy wedding since you are a relatively new newlywed! And I’m curious if your self-care routine has changed since you became married. So a two part question.
[18:07] BR: One of the things one of my colleagues at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, this was six years ago, put on all of our desks, which is that it’s a quote from Audre Lorde. It was this quote around self-care is not an act of self-indulgence, but is an act of political warfare. And so that is actually not on my computer right now because we’re all working remotely, but it just typically right on my computer, because you have to, I have to, remember that every day. So one of the things, as you noted, I just got married in March. So, it is a different set of self-care that I am undertaking right now. We’re also in the height of a pandemic. Work has been, you know, a little stressful, a little crazy. So, one of the things that I started doing right at the outset of this was reading a book every night. And reading a couple of pages every night helps to really calm me. And it really helps to get me in a good place to go to sleep, which is great.
Also, I take walks with my husband now about three miles a day after work, before dinner. And it’s really that time where we’re in the same place working, but we are both on Zoom calls or doing all these other things. And so we see each other during the day, and we’re in the same space, but we are not connecting as much during the day. The walks provide us an opportunity to like, download on all the things that happened during the day. What’s upcoming? And also, not just about work, whatever else that we want to talk about. And so that’s been different than what I was doing prior to the pandemic. I was not doing three miles a day of walk. So that’s been really good and that is something that we do together.
The other part that I try to practice is, you know, I had been really good about meditation. I think trying to reincorporate that at some point during your day is important. I had typically started it in the morning. That’s something that I am trying to do better, get back into that zone of meditating as well. And then just working out so I know that I sleep better. I feel better if I’m doing some kind of physical activity. Whether that’s the walk or yoga, which is really important for me to work on my breathing, I try to do those things as well. So, it’s not always equal. We do try to do the walk every day, that’s something that we do every day unless it’s raining, but all the other things, you’re trying to balance your time as well.
[21:01] MM: Yeah. And I think it’s such a gift to have the ritual of the daily walks with your husband just because it is a very different world with the number of Zoom calls where we’re just engaging with people through technology instead of being able to share space and like the same time. It’s just a big adjustment. And so having that daily moment for three miles, that’s a that’s a little bit of a walk.
[21:33] BR: We’re walking around the neighborhood so it ends up being like a little over an hour. But it really is a great time to just not be in front of screens. I mean, now we’re all in front of screens all day. You learn also so much about your neighborhood, things that you never notice while driving in your car that you noticed while walking. It’s been that’s one of the best things that I’ve incorporated and one of the things that even after we’re back to our new normal, whatever that may be, that we both said, we want to make sure that we’re doing a daily walk.
[22:08] MM: Awesome. So that’s a great segue to my final question for you, which is with the craziness of this current moment, where are you finding joy?
[22:18] BR: I am finding my joy these days through being able to have our walks, have the walks with my partner. I’m also finding joy in being outside. And it is a different way, I think everything has slowed down; there’s not as many cars all around and you really get to enjoy nature and hear the birds and experience things in different ways. I’m also finding joy in these bold acts of resistance that are happening all across our country. That is a way to really empower all of us to really move this work forward in really meaningful ways. That is really impressive and it provides fuel for us all to, or for me, to continue to do this work. That is just a little bit about where I’m finding some joy and also doing some Zoom calls with my friends to stay connected. That is really important since we all can’t see each other right now, you can still see each other virtually. So I’m staying connected with folks as well.
[23:42] MM: Yeah, that makes me think that I’ve done maybe two virtual dance parties by Zoom, which they’re just different because as much as I love dancing, it makes me miss being at a house party or in a club as I dance in my office by myself. It’s different, but it’s still there’s still a sense of connection. That’s great that you’re prioritizing the virtual meet ups with your friends.
Awesome. Well, Bonita, it has been so lovely to reconnect with you and thank you for making the time to share your insights and wisdom with the black and blue community.
[24:21] BR: Absolutely Makiyah. Thank you for the opportunity. It’s so good to see you. I can’t wait to see you again in some place between New Orleans and New Hampshire.