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Community members, organizations want answers from Newfields following CEO's abrupt exit

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Posted at 10:42 PM, Nov 19, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS — On Sunday, a number of community members and organizations called on Newfields for answers.

Many are left feeling frustrated after the announcement that Dr. Colette Piere Burnette was leaving her position as President and CEO after 15 months.

Led by the Liberation Center, people stood outside of Newfields holding signs.

"We are here to support Dr. Burnette, the now former President and CEO of Newfields," said Wildstyle Paschall, an artist and community advocate.

The announcement that Dr. Burnette would no longer be in that position came nine days ago.

Newfields released the following statement:

We thank Dr. Burnette for her service to Newfields. She helped deepen our relationships with the community and championed the transformative powers of art and nature. We are grateful for her work on behalf of Newfields and wish her well in her future endeavors.
Board of Trustees Chair Darrianne Christian

"I was shocked," said Paschall. "Dr. Burnette has had such a positive influence on this city, getting very involved in the community, having real discussions, making real change at Newfields, which is something we had never seen before. For her to be dismissed like that was really upsetting."

Everyone at the protest says they want answers and for Dr. Burnette to be reinstated.

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"It just makes me wonder what happened, why aren’t they talking about it. If they have nothing to hide, they should say something," said Hannah Milano, a protester.

The African American Coalition of Indianapolis, along with 18 other Black organizations, released the following statement regarding the matter:

The African American Coalition of Indianapolis (AACI) expresses profound concern and seeks clarity on the recent announcement of Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette's departure from Newfields. The communication from Newfields’ Board of Trustees does not suffice to explain the reasons behind the exit of a leader who has endeavored to rebuild the institution’s reputation and foster meaningful connections with Indianapolis’ marginalized communities.

In her 15-month tenure, Dr. Burnette confronted the institution's past issues with accusations of a toxic and discriminatory culture that failed to serve audiences of color. Her appointment, which followed a controversial job posting indicating a preference for maintaining a "core white art audience," was a beacon of progress, signifying Newfields’ commitment to transformation into an anti-racist and inclusive institution. Following Dr. Burnette’s arrival, we witnessed increased partnerships with community organizations as well as programming that advanced the inclusiveness of the institution. Dr. Burnette’s leadership, engagement, and collaborative partnerships finally gave the community a sense of belonging.

The lack of transparency surrounding her departure raises unsettling questions. Amid many rumors and allegations fueled by a press announcement highlighting her exit, we are left feeling angry, frustrated, confused, and betrayed. Did the Board of Trustees give Dr. Burnette the necessary support and grace to navigate such a complex environment? Does this sudden change in leadership reflect a deeper reluctance to authentically pursue the anti-racist and inclusive values professed by the board? Were complaints, if any, against Dr. Burnette given undue weight, and was the challenging environment she was tasked to reform considered in the board's decision? These are the questions that we now have because of Newfields’ announcement, and we must emphasize that the way Dr. Burnette’s exit was announced has created a worse perception. Newfields’ actions took it two steps back as it relates to community relations. The board should re-examine its commitment and determine if it is sincere and capable of building trust in the Black community.

The situation compels us to consider if the outcome would have been different had the racial dynamics at play been otherwise. These questions are not just conjecture; they stem from a discernible pattern in Indianapolis where Black professionals seldom see long tenures in executive roles. This trend contradicts our collective mission for a thriving African American community represented robustly at every leadership level.

We at AACI stand resolute in our mission and insist that local businesses, non-profits, and government entities not only recognize this troubling pattern but also act decisively. We expect a commitment to creating a supportive environment that not only invites but retains Black executives, offering them a fair opportunity to succeed and make lasting impacts.

Dr. Burnette's premature exit signifies a lost opportunity for Newfields and the community at large. As stakeholders in Indianapolis' future, we must collectively strive to implement a sustainable model that ensures the longevity and success of Black executives, which in turn reflects the diversity and vitality of our city.

It is incumbent upon Newfields’ Board of Trustees to not only reflect on the implications of the decision but to also undertake concrete actions that rebuild trust with the Black community—a trust that currently stands fractured. The path forward requires more than symbolic gestures; it necessitates a sincere, ongoing commitment to equity, transparency, and community engagement that transcends mere statements and is embodied in the very fabric of our institutions' leadership and governance.

100 Black Men of Indianapolis
Alpha Phi Alpha Iota Lambda Chapter
Baptist Minister's Alliance
Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis
Exchange at the Indianapolis Urban League
Indiana Black Expo
Indianapolis Professional Association
Indianapolis Recorder
Indianapolis Urban League
Indy Black Chamber of Commerce
Inner Beauty
Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Indianapolis
Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Alpha Alpha Omega Indianapolis Alumni Chapter
New B.O.Y
Not 1 More Project
Purpose for My Pain
The Fathers Foundation
The National Coalition of 100 Black Women
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Dr. Burnette was hired in May 2022 after a racial controversy at the museum. Her predecessor, Charles Venable, came under fire for listing a job ad that called for someone to help the museum maintain its white audience.'

"We want to make sure they’re still committed to being an anti-racist and inclusive organization. We want to understand if they are still wanting to develop and maintain a relationship because right now with this action they’ve really taken two steps back, as a it pertains to a relationship with the black community," said Marshawn Wolley with the African American Coalition of Indianapolis.

Wolley says it also brings up a concern about a larger trend when it comes to black executives.

"How these stories are silent and they have to be swept under the rug in this community. We’re expecting to hear more from the Board of Trustees and Newfields because what they said does not suffice," said Wolley.

WRTV reached out to Newfields for further comment, the Board of Trustees made the following statement:

"While we are unable to provide additional details around the current leadership transition at Newfields, we want to assure the community there is no change in our strategy, mission and values.  

Newfields has been working hard to earn the community’s trust. We are grateful to our staff, volunteers, boards, partner organizations and funders for helping to deliver on our commitment to being an inclusive organization. Together, we have made progress but understand important work remains.   

We will continue growing the programs which extend our reach to communities statewide. Our focused efforts to recruit and retain diverse talent at every level of our organization will not cease. Newfields’ commitment to providing exceptional experiences with art and nature— for generations to come—is steadfast. 

Again, Newfields will continue to work hard to earn and maintain the community’s trust. At Newfields, we value respectful and constructive dialogue with the community about all that we do and all that we aspire to be. We appreciate all who have helped shape our journey so far, and invite others to join us as we move forward."
Newfields Board of Trustees