When she moved to Middle Tennessee from the suburbs of Indianapolis, Indiana, after high school, Erika Burnett immediately felt at home at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
"I decided pretty early on I wanted to attend a historically black college or university," Burnett says. "I didn't have the language for it at the time, but I wanted to be in a place where I felt more welcome and where there was community that I'd been missing."
Burnett moved to Chattanooga in 2020 to become executive director of the Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga, and says her time in the mid-state, including graduate school at Vanderbilt University, formed the foundation of a career that has included consulting and helping shape public policy through women-centered nonprofit organizations.
While at Tennessee State, where she majored in English education, Burnett spent time teaching at Nashville's Glencliff High School. While she had deep empathy for her urban students, who in many instances experienced gang violence, she found herself wanting to look for systemic solutions.
"I adored those students, but I recognized that I didn't have the impact I wanted to have from inside the classroom," she says. " I wanted to get at the root cause."
As a graduate student at Vanderbilt, Burnett worked for Americorps where she was placed at a nonprofit organization called Hands-On Nashville to launch a youth volunteer program.
She soon found herself back at TSU, where she created a service-learning program for 1,800 freshmen. A focus of the volunteering was urban farming. On five acres of leased land in a Nashville flood plain the students grew pears, peaches, squash, tomatoes and other crops. The experience transported Burnett back to inner-city Detroit, where, as a young child, she had helped her grandmother grow tomatoes and okra in a little urban garden.
After graduate school, Burnett helped establish the Women of Color Collaborative in Nashville, which helps women and girls experience community. Burnett describes the collaborative as the "intersection of professional development, group therapy and the exploration of self."
Two years ago, she moved to Chattanooga to head up the Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga, part of a network of similar groups in Tennessee's major cities. Here, Burnett says, the Women's Fund is primarily focused on helping shape public policy.
* Job: Executive Director, Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga
* Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
* Residence: Hixson
* Family: Husband, David Grant; daughter, Nubia
For example, during the pandemic, the Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga discovered teenage girls who had to stay home from school because of COVID were not receiving social services to provide feminine hygiene products. Women's Fund leaders discovered that manufacturers were willing to help, in theory, but were wary of the state's product liability laws.
"There was a bottleneck that started to build for period products," she says. "Mass distributors did not want to incur the liability."
The Women's Fund drafted proposed legislation to protect period product manufacturers.
"We got two sponsors and it passed unanimously through the (Tennessee) House and Senate," Burnett says. "(As a result) we received over 8 million tampons that we will redistribute over the next few months to local organizations in need."
Burnett says she and her husband, David Grant, recently moved to a house in Hixson where they live with their 8-month-old daughter, Nubia.
"Chattanooga is home, at least for a little while," she says. "I'm exited that I'm in a community that will go on this journey (to help women)."