Jacqueline Burton, B.A.’08

Working for Social Justice

By Carol Olechowski
Jacqueline Burton
Jackie Burton pictured at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice in Manhattan.

When Jacqueline Burton applied for admission to the University at Albany, she received an unexpected offer: a Presidential Scholarship. “I couldn’t refuse,” she says. “It was an honor.” 

The only subject Burton knew she wanted to study was Spanish. “Coincidentally, I took urban sociology and found out that it was part of a broader program. UAlbany was one of the two SUNY schools that offered a bachelor’s in urban planning – how lucky! I declared a major and never looked back,” she remembers. 

For a while, Burton considered a career as an architect. Her urban-planning studies, focused on “why places look and function as they do; why suburbs exist; the impacts, good and bad, policies have on people,” were “fascinating.” However, her studies were interrupted just before the start of her final semester at UAlbany when she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Burton went to stay with her parents in Saratoga Springs while undergoing treatment. She returned to the University a year later, splitting her coursework into two semesters. 

After graduating in December 2008, Burton worked for the Historic Albany Foundation for about a year, then “wanted to try new things.” Accepted to Teach For America (TFA), she left for New Orleans in 2010. “I’d been there once and really loved it,” Burton recalls, “and I was eager for the opportunity to live there, helping and serving.”  

Burton taught seventh-grade science for a year at an all-boys charter school in the city’s Ninth Ward. Even five years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city, the infrastructure remained compromised, and lives were still upended. “In my neighborhood, there were a lot of empty lots. The school wasn’t in a building; it was set up in trailers with fences around them. Many of the children had spent the first few years after Katrina in Houston or Atlanta, so their educations were interrupted,” relates Burton.

After leaving TFA, Burton worked as a secretary with a New Orleans architectural firm. She left to study at New York University, where she earned a master’s in international planning. 

Since 2014, Burton has been with the Ford Foundation, a social-justice organization that boasts “a global vantage point.” As a Cities and States program grants officer working alongside “brilliant and passionate” colleagues, she appreciates “the incredible opportunity I have to support people and organizations working to eradicate inequality around the world.” She has traveled the U.S. and the world, visiting Uganda, Malaysia, Europe, Mexico, Kenya, South Africa, Colombia, and Brazil, notes Burton, adding that her work has enabled her to use the Spanish-language skills she acquired at UAlbany. “Puerto Rico is really top of mind for me right now.” 

Ford Foundation Logo

Burton has learned that “natural disasters impact people differently.” She explains: “Those who have more tend to live in less flood-prone areas and have less physical damage from the storm. They have better insurance, get their homes fixed more quickly, and pay for more things out of pocket. They’re able to leave when the storm is coming and return when it’s over. 

“Marginalized and vulnerable groups are more often displaced, and displaced permanently. They have limited access to transportation, jobs, and quality housing. I work with groups advocating for policy change to impact those inequities.” 

The “solid theory and practice” in UAlbany’s urban-planning courses prepared Burton well for both graduate study and her profession. “I learned a lot from Jeff Olson, an adjunct who brought in examples of how things are done outside the U.S. [Associate Professor] Gene Bunnell taught Community and Regional Planning. He was a great scholar, a treasure trove of information and a walking textbook, and he had a lot of practical experience. He wrote my recommendation for graduate school. [Professor] Chris Smith, my adviser, was very encouraging when I returned to school after undergoing cancer treatment. [Distinguished Service Professor] John Pipkin knew all kinds of trivia and talked about how buildings affect people emotionally.”  Pipkin, Smith, and Bunnell are now emeritus faculty.

Burton is also grateful that her scholarship was restored when she returned to UAlbany to complete her degree requirements. The support she received after her cancer treatment, she says, allowed her to resume her studies with “renewed energy.”

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