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Colleague of the Week: Janelle Burke

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“I’m not interested in using my race as a crutch. I want to get out there and make change. I want to see our membership at least doubled to about 150 members by this time next year.” 

That’s Janelle Burke, the Red co-chair of Braver Angels’ Angels of Color Caucus. Janelle is an action woman by any definition – mother on the move, active member of Braver Angels’ We the People’s Project (WPP), married to a US Marine and the daughter of an Air Force veteran, and leader of a spiritual group in her community. 

She’s also a former nurse and school board candidate in her city of Everett, Washington, founder and editor of an activist community blog, co-founder of a community outreach organization dedicated to healing in the Black community and for U.S. veterans, and…the list goes on. 

There’s one more thing. Janelle, who is originally from Missouri, is a creature many believe is rare if not actually non-existent: a Black Republican. “You can’t possibly be a Black Republican in the United States,” she says, wryly.

Which brings up the unusual way in which Janelle became a Braver Angel. Attending a local county fair a few years ago, she got into conversation with people at the Republican Party booth. A registered Democrat at the time, she surprised her new friends. After hearing her views on a range of political issues, one of them said “There’s nothing Democrat about you!” And when the topic of polarization came up, she was asked if she knew about the group then known as Better Angels. 

Intrigued by what she learned; she joined Braver Angels. It wasn’t an immediate fit, though, and to some extent, it still isn’t. That’s because the organization still skews heavily white, older, and educated in four-year colleges. Janelle contends that it’s one thing to hold workshops on depolarizing conversations about race but quite another to act on the outcomes of such workshops in ways that consistently engage people of color. “It should be about putting in the work to make change,” she insists.

She is candid about having come close to leaving the organization at least once, but she credits co-founder David Lapp with helping her “recognize her worth” and what she could contribute to Braver Angels.

She was one of the founding members of the Angels of Color Caucus, a group that now has 53 members in all – about a third of whom regularly attend the meetings — but deserves to have many more. “We’re still in our infant stage – still trying to get our legs under us before we spread our wings,” she says. That means the members are still sounding each other out on key topics, and beginning to crystallize some shared positions, including how, without putting themselves into a monolithic “people of color” box, they represent themselves within and outside of Braver Angels. 

Janelle is in the thick of things, leading a project to rewrite the content on the Angels of Color page on Braver Angels’ site and planning outreach campaigns to expand membership quickly. “I do the communications for the group and help to plan external events. The main goal is outreach – finding the right messaging to promote us,” she says. 

The hard part is getting target participants to, well, participate. Janelle reiterates a concern voiced by other Braver Angels: that it’s hard to break down outsiders’ preconceptions about the organization. “People in my communities say it’s just another white organization; a lot of us don’t have four-year college degrees,” she explains. That’s clearly frustrating for her, and she wants people of color – people of potential, she likes to say – to give Braver Angels a chance rather than passing judgment. “I want to see us participating,” she says. 

The other lever that Janelle can pull is as a proactive member of WPP. Last September, she was central to a powerful and emotional WPP forum built on an incident in her own experience. Some years earlier, her then 14-year-old daughter had been detained in error by local police and then, in an unusual twist, Janelle and the (White) local police chief began talking, and gradually established a strong and highly respectful connection. 

Next month, Janelle will again be in action as a lead participant in a Common Ground workshop on bridging the divide between police officers and the Black community. The event – a follow-up to the WPP forum last fall – is largely of Janelle’s making, with inputs from David Lapp and others. Notably, the Everett chief of police – Dan Templeman – will again be a key voice in calling for strides toward common ground. 

Watch out, America. Janelle Burke is coming your way, with a broad Braver Angels smile and a determination that will certainly benefit the organization for years to come. 

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