Dorian Burton: Philanthropy Executive Shares Journey To Servant Leadership - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise magazine Fall 2019 issue

BE Modern Man: Dorian Burton

Philanthropy executive; 37; Chief Program Officer, The William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust

Twitter: @Dorian_Burton

I work to create sustained opportunities for communities of color and individuals most affected by broken systems. In my daily work as a philanthropy executive, I serve as the chief program officer for the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust and have been dedicated to switching the narrative in philanthropy from one of charity to one of justice. Far too often, philanthropy rewards individuals who tell the worst stories, the best, about communities of color. As a philanthropy executive, I have taken it as a personal mission to flip the paradigm to one that increases the capacity of individuals to become the heroes and heroines that lead change in their own communities.

HOW HAVE YOU TURNED STRUGGLE INTO SUCCESS?

Growing up with my father, education wasn’t heavily stressed or supported. By the time I was 17, I was the proud owner of a 0.6 grade point average and had failed out of school. Eventually, my father remarried and I returned to my mother and sisters, with whom I’d had very little contact over the previous 10 years.

My mother and step-father, both professors, were elated with my return to the family and quickly implemented a plan of action to help me turn my life around. They provided me with what I lacked: a caring environment, structure, predictability, and academic assistance. After five-and-a-half years of high school, I finally graduated and was accepted to The Pennsylvania State University on probation. The turning point in my life was the transition from an environment where education was never talked about to an environment where education was the focal point of every dinner conversation. I went from a 0.6 G.P.A. to getting a doctorate degree from Harvard, all because someone made the choice to be significant in my life.

WHO WAS YOUR GREATEST MALE ROLE MODEL AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM HIM?

My two sons, Bryce and Brayden. My oldest holds me accountable as a man and my youngest shows me how to love unconditionally. They are two boys who continually show me how, and push me, to be a better man.

WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?

Surviving is not really living, success is about individual accomplishments, but to be significant means you served, poured into someone else’s life and helped to build a legacy. The greatest amongst us are the ones who seek to be significant through serving someone else. In that God has said that you are perfectly flawed, and that you have an opportunity to be significant and change someone’s life every day. God does not choose the qualified; he qualifies the chosen. Killing your ego every day, working for an audience of one, and choosing significance over success will always lead you to live in purpose.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT BEING A BLACK MAN?

Being a black man is a badge of honor. It comes with a rich legacy, and a tradition of honor, community, and service. Being a black man means to know love and compassion, and it comes with a responsibility and obligation to others. I love being a black man, and what I love more is being a black father and having amazing kids who I know I don’t deserve, but I try my best anyway.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE MANHOOD?

The greatest strength a man has is in his ability to be vulnerable. Now, I say that carefully, knowing that the privilege of being emotionally vulnerable is a luxury that not all of us have, especially our black boys. I have two sons, 11 and 9 years old, and I must say I am terrified every day because I know that America thinks it has a black boy problem.

As our black baby boys start to grow into young black men, the world forgets about the genius in their short stories or the Picasso-like masterpieces they are able to create with a minimal palette of watercolors and crayons. Unfortunately, it doesn’t create a great deal of time for us to teach them or reference points to show them how to be vulnerable. So like our fathers and their fathers before them, we tell our sons, “boys don’t cry,” and that they have to be tough because the world will be tough on them.

In spaces that have other black boys, we show them that there is danger in their tears, and that your smile makes you unsafe. In spaces with white boys, they learn to code switch and smile more, not out of joy but so they can neutralize the perceived threat. Where is our safe space for our boys to even play with the idea of growing into the man they might want to be?

The catalyst for me coming into my manhood came on the heels of being in the middle of a divorce and having a child on the way with a woman who was not my wife. My soon to be ex-wife told me I wasn’t a man and she “never wanted our sons to be like me.” Firm words and a hard pill to swallow, but she was right; I would never want my boys to be like 29-year-old me.

So when I hear “Man Up” now, I hear it in a very different way. “Man up” is not about the machismo of being the toughest guy in the room, or the deeply false and extremely problematic narrative of sexual conquest. “Man up” for me now means that I am deeply connected to my feelings, aware of how those feelings show up and affect those around me, and express myself in ways that are authentic to who I am and the loved ones and the community I am accountable too and for.


BE Modern Man is an online and social media campaign designed to celebrate black men making valuable contributions in every profession, industry, community, and area of endeavor. Each year, we solicit nominations in order to select men of color for inclusion in the 100 Black Enterprise Modern Men of Distinction. Our goal is to recognize men who epitomize the BEMM credo “Extraordinary is our normal” in their day-to-day lives, presenting authentic examples of the typical black man rarely seen in mainstream media. The BE Modern Men of Distinction are celebrated annually at Black Men XCEL (www.blackenterprise.com/blackmenxcel/). Click this link to submit a nomination for BE Modern Man: https://www.blackenterprise.com/nominate/. Follow BE Modern Man on Twitter: @bemodernman and Instagram: @be_modernman.