Ursula Burns is not about to waste the time she’s been given due to sheltering in place, and she doesn’t want you to either. For everyone who ever uttered the words, “If only I had the time, I would….” fill in the blank, she says now is that time.
For Burns, the blanks have included exercising more, eating better, and becoming the “crazy reader” she once was. But beyond training yourself to be a better steward of your mind and your body, Burns is urging everyone to look beyond their individual needs to the larger imperative for the better stewardship of our collective world.
“This really is a time that so many things are going to be reset. We don’t know to what, but the reset is going to happen,” she says. “We can sit back and let people do it for us or be actively engaged in these decisions.”
Reflecting on the events of the last six weeks Burns has spent quarantined alone in her New York City apartment, the corporate board director and chair of telecommunications company VEON becomes impassioned about the need to use the semi-frozen state of crisis the coronavirus pandemic has thrust the world into for positive outcomes.
“Use your voice, register for the census, and vote,” she says. “Don’t leave it to others to decide our future.”
This crisis has brought the plight of all marginalized groups of people into stark relief: black people and other minorities, the homeless, the poor, as well as the hard-working undercompensated and underappreciated masses whose very jobs are now placing them in harm’s way of the COVID-19 virus. This includes not only healthcare workers but sanitation workers, postal workers, supermarket and pharmacy staff, delivery, and security people. Raised in a lower Manhattan public housing project by a single mother from Panama who was one of the hard-working poor, Burns has not forgotten what life looks and feels like when there is no buffer for economic disruption, no less implosion.
“If she were here today, my mother would be panic-stricken,” Burns said in her “On the Clock with Caroline Clarke” interview. Not only the physical, but the financial health of too many futures have been put at risk by this pandemic, she says, and the reset must include a remedy. “We owe it to these people to reengage, to not be so insular, so dismissive, and so mean.”
“We have to lay a foundation for the world that allows people to participate in society,” says Burns, her words largely echoing the mission of the Ford Foundation, where she most recently joined the board.
“We educate two-thirds of black and brown people in ways that don’t allow them to fully participate. Throughout history, the systems that we have designed require a huge number of people to be subservient to a smaller number of people. That’s the way we’ve gotten ahead as a global society, to treat people like animals while treating other people like gods.”
One of the best things to have happened due to the COVID-19 pandemic is that “we now know how important our essential workers—who have essentially been invisible to us before this—are. Nurses, teachers, the guy pushing the gurney in the hospital, or the people coming in to clean up after the patient is gone. We have a chance to shift the power—to balance things out for everybody’s betterment.”
While Burns avoids much of the news, she is feeding her mind and perspective by plowing through books the way she promised herself she would again if she had time. Here are her book picks, in case you want to do the same.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann – a novel set in Occupied Palestine and Israel
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker – a 2011 Bill Gates recommendation about the decline of violence
The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw – profiles of those who grew up during the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II
The Many Lives of Michael Bloomberg by Eleanor Randolph – biography of the business giant and former mayor of New York
The Overstay by Richard Powers – a 2018 novel about nature that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction