The co-author of three books on poverty, Donald Burnes has served as an executive director for various nonprofits. Culminating a longtime commitment to advancing racial equity and fighting poverty, Donald W. and Lynn K. Burnes gave a generous gift to Colorado Center on Law and Policy, creating The Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at CCLP.

Nov 20, 2019

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Don Burnes: My Fight Against Poverty and What’s Next

by | Nov 20, 2019

It is with great excitement that I am announcing that I have developed a partnership with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy (CCLP) to establish the Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at CCLP. Colorado Center on Law and Policy has ensured that its legislative and legal advocacy is evidence-based and advances an anti-poverty and racial equity agenda. With the formation of the Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at CCLP, together we can ensure that poverty solutions are rooted in quantitative and qualitative data.

My sincere hope is that this collaboration will inform the policy dialogue across the state to help us bridge the gaps in our economy, so that ideally all Coloradans will have the chance to thrive. Over the last 16 years that I have lived in Colorado, I have come to understand the enormous respect that the community has for CCLP and its work, and I am thrilled to become a part of that.

Decades of service
People often ask me, where does my drive to address inequity come from? Growing up in an upper-middle class community but from a strictly middle-class teaching family where I was confronted by being a second-class citizen almost daily, I have always fought for the underdog. Being on scholarship at prep school and at Princeton, I always felt somehow “less-than,” and this carried over into both my graduate education and professional career.

Following two years as a church-based volunteer in a low-income neighborhood in St. Louis and a stint in the administration of predominately African American college in Alabama in the mid-1960s, I worked in Washington in several positions dedicated to civil rights and educational advancement for disadvantaged children. Even after receiving my PhD from Columbia Teachers College, I continued working at the National Institute of Education as a researcher on programs for children experiencing poverty.

In 1985, I “returned to my roots,” based on my St. Louis experience, and directed another church-based effort, this time to directly address poverty in Washington. After two and half years, my late wife, Alice Baum, and I left behind the direct service arena and focused on a policy look at homelessness, ending with the publication of a book in 1993.

After Alice’s death in 2003, I returned to Denver to reconnect with an old flame with whom I hadn’t even talked for almost 20 years. Fortunately, the reconnection worked, and we were married in 2004. Upon my return to the Mile High City, I also immediately became involved in the issue of homelessness, helping with the drafting of Denver’s 10-year-plan to end homelessness, sitting on the Denver’s Road Home Commission and the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative Board, being appointed to Gov. Bill Ritter’s and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s state homelessness advisory commissions, and being part of Adams County’s Blue Ribbon Commission on poverty issues.

In 2013, with the help of two colleagues, I developed a small nonprofit called the Burnes Institute. Over the first two and a half years of its existence, the institute worked on program evaluation for several local service providers and conducted a major assessment of homeless services for Boulder.

That same year, the Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, James Herbert Williams, a member of the Institute’s Board of Directors, appointed me as a scholar-in-residence at the graduate school, requiring only that I do something to add to the intellectual life of the institution. That prompted me to engage on what became a truly life-changing endeavor, teaching a class on homelessness to graduate students. This commitment forced me to reflect on my years of experience and to read extensively more up-to-date research on the issue.

This tsunami of intellectual fervor forced me to admit that systemic forces at all levels of our society and economy — such as a failure to provide adequate housing, inadequate wages and the failure to provide adequate health care and child care to all our citizens — have been reinforced by pervasive structural racism. Ultimately, these factors are major culprits in our failure to address poverty adequately.

A second significant benefit of my association with Dr. Williams was our mutual agreement to shift the Burnes Institute into the graduate school. For over 40 months, our Center has conducted intervention research, policy research, program evaluation and community-needs assessment. Led first by me and then by Dr. Daniel Brisson, we strived to do quality work and to simultaneously engage with the community. As I learned over those months, being part of an academic community creates significant advantages in terms of recognition and prestige amid a community of dedicated and highly qualified faculty and staff.

I also came to understand that it was time for me to take the next step in the evolution of our organization and in the development of my own work. Co-editing and co-authoring two books on poverty and homelessness put me in touch with experts and the best current thinking across the country.

Conducting the studies at the Center reinforced the need to move ahead, as did the significant reports from CCLP, including the Self-Sufficiency Standard, The State of Working Colorado and the Human Services Gap Map. Here were data driven documents that highlighted major problems with our social system.

Looking forward
All of this forced me to recognize that identifying the problem is only a part of the battle. In order to make real change, one must utilize important data to identify possible systemic changes and then develop the legislation and build support to enact those changes (and take legal action if necessary). This is precisely what CCLP is about.

By focusing on food, health, housing, and income, CCLP will defend and expand Colorado’s safety net, advocate for Coloradans’ self-sufficiency, and endeavor to shift the state’s power dynamic.
From a personal standpoint, in the past several weeks, I have had an opportunity to renew professional acquaintances at CCLP and to meet the other staff for the first time. I have been impressed by the quality of all the staff and the work they are doing. Just as importantly, I have found the overall work environment to be so positive and refreshing, with great mutual respect, admiration and friendship. In addition, the CCLP leadership has welcomed an enhanced and better resourced research department — Burnes Institute for Poverty Research– with open arms, making the transition as smooth as possible.

As I look to the future of our Institute and of CCLP at large, I see exciting opportunities to affect systemic change in Colorado and throughout the nation. Added to that will be more training and technical assistance work with officials and consumers from counties and local jurisdictions around the state to help communities identify their challenges and work to address them.

Together, we can expand our research capacity — especially as we collaborate with research and service partners around the state. I foresee CCLP becoming a convener of important local, statewide, and even national forums on issues of importance. With the new leadership of Tiffani Lennon and the remarkable staff already at CCLP, this is an exciting time at CCLP. Again, I am pleased to be a part of it.

-Don Burnes

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