HER MAGAZINE

Women of Achievement: Keesha Burke-Henderson makes mark on the community

Keesha Burke-Henderson
Keesha Burke-Henderson

Keesha Burke-Henderson spent only a few years living and working in the Cedar Rapids community. But she made quick work of doing her part to strengthen it.

Burke-Henderson recently wrapped up her role as director of Diversity and International Student Success at Mount Mercy University — the job that brought her to the Corridor — and now is headed for the role of chief diversity Keesha Burke-Henderson officer at a Virginia college.

While at Mount Mercy, she worked directly with international students and all minority students — including Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous students — as well as with the university’s LGBTQ+ student alliance, to ensure that all students were making a connection to their collegiate experience.

“My passion is for the students and just being able to help them achieve whatever it is that they are striving for and to help them in this transitional phase,” Burke-Henderson said.

“I believe a college or university setting is the best training ground for a young people who are sort of passing through that early adult stage of their life. They get an opportunity to be in a safe place to explore themselves and to be introduced to new ideas and things that they may not have been familiar with in the town or home they came from.”

It’s an opportunity, she said, to “engage with the world and get some global exposure.”

Although Burke-Henderson spent just two years in her role at Mount Mercy University, she greatly enjoyed the opportunity to work with the students there. She also marveled at the opportunity to quickly connect with and make a difference in the larger community.

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“I came here from Atlanta, where I would immerse myself in the community and where I was part of some women’s political organizations working to get more women to run for office,” she said.

“But here, I felt very connected and that people honestly wanted to get to work.”

Before moving to Cedar Rapids, Burke-Henderson worked at Morehouse College in Atlanta for more than a decade teaching intercultural communication. “That being a predominantly Black and male institution, I learned a lot in that environment.”

Her upbringing also shaped her professional passions.

“I am Jamaican and I grew up in New York City, so that particular life experience also informs the way that I see a lot of things,” she said.

“I was privileged to be immersed in a naturally multicultural environment.”

The events of the past year — between the pandemic and racial tensions once more being brought to the forefront of the nation’s collective conscious — seemed only to highlight the work on which Burke-Henderson has built her career.

“For me this is not a new conversation,” she said, particularly referring to the intensified racial justice discussions over the past several months.

“It’s just being made visible because now it’s more public. And to be quite honest, this is sort of historically happening. You have the reemergence, the reopening of a wound that has never really healed, nor has it been attended to.

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“It always has the potential to break open and start bleeding again.

And that’s what we are seeing right now.”

Burke-Henderson said the difference now is that technology and the speed of sharing information give movements more attention.

“The dialogue may be a little different, but not necessarily,” she said. “It’s just that our mechanisms for attaining the information, we have them at our fingertips. We have it faster, and so we can respond faster.”

Plus, having more people of color in positions of power can help take the conversations to new levels, she added.

“We don’t have to be subordinate here (in the United States). We can speak up.”

She has appreciated white allyship — focusing on social justice and inclusion — as well.

Burke-Henderson works hard to make sure students can voice their concerns, too.

“I work in an area that is a predominantly white institution with traditionally white leadership,” she said.

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“It’s really important that I represent and bring in perspectives that driven not only by academic and scholarly information but also lived experience that I can speak to and hopefully reflect that back into some policies and practices that need to happen.”

She credits other female leaders — such as LaNisha Cassell and Ruth White — in the community for paving the way.

“I have met so many people that are part of this community that do great work on a regular basis, and have done it consistently over time,” Burke-Henderson said. “I’ve had the privilege to work with and be around and be influenced by them and I’m just super humbled.”

Once a month, Business 380 spotlights some of HER magazine’s Women of Achievement, published by The Gazette. The awards were sponsored by Farmers State Bank.

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