Editor’s Note: Courtni Y. Burleson and Ahmed Ali recently joined Americans United’s Development Department. Burleson will serve as senior foundations relations manager and Ali as major gifts officer. They sat down with Church & State recently to talk about their new roles and how they’ll help Americans United achieve its goal of protecting freedom of conscience for all.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? Where did you go to college, and what is your professional background?
Burleson: I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and even though I’ve lived mostly on the East and West Coasts since I started college, I still consider myself a Southerner. I moved to Washington, D.C., to attend college and grad school at American University and then moved to California for law school at U.C. Berkeley. For the first part of my career, I was a public defender – at different points in my life, I’ve worked on trial, appellate, civil and capital cases in public defender offices in New York, California, and D.C. Wanting to work on greater systemic reform in the criminal justice system, I then moved into the policy world, where I primarily worked on sentencing and corrections reform issues.
In 2012, I did make it back to San Antonio, where most of my family still lives. I was fortunate to spend time with my mother before she passed away. I ended up staying two years there working as a freelance editor and nurturing my love of reading and writing. This was how I fell into fundraising! With my legal background and writing experience, I was hired to oversee the foundations portfolio for the American Constitution Society. And I had a real knack for it, growing that portfolio over my five years there. I’m so excited to use all of these experiences to build even greater support for Americans United.
Ali: I am a fundraiser and non-profit strategist with over nine years of experience working in philanthropy and the fundraising industry. I was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, and at the age of 20, I had to flee my country because of persecution by religious groups. I settled in the U.S in 2007, and shortly after I started studying political science and international relations at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Additionally, I just finished my master’s degree in nonprofits and associations management from the University of Maryland. Prior to AU, I worked for multiple nonprofits, such as Boy Scouts of America, Whitman-Walker Health, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and most recently at Children’s Hospital Foundation.
What does your job at Americans United entail?
Burleson: I oversee AU’s stewardship and cultivation of institutional foundations. This may involve assisting our president and CEO Rachel Laser as she promotes AU’s important work with these funders, coordinating with foundation program officers and advisers about opportunities to collaborate with their foundation or grantees, and communicating our activities for reports and proposals with current and prospective foundations. These types of grants are usually larger gifts, and they play an important role in furthering AU’s critical mission.
The best part of this job is making the case for why supporting the organization is key to not only protecting the rights of everyone in this country but also vital for protecting our democracy.
Ali: As major gifts officer, the primary purpose of my job will be to connect with members and donors across the country to help grow Americans United’s visibility and secure funds to support its mission to protect our First Amendment right of separation of church and state.
What are your goals for your work at Americans United?
Burleson: Beyond helping the organization meet (and exceed) the goals it sets for itself, I’d hope to raise the profile of the organization with the institutional grantmakers in the philanthropy community. Foundation funders are powerful stakeholders for social progress, and an important part of my role is to ensure these funders know and look to AU when executing their own objectives.
Ali: My ultimate goal is to meet with AU’s members and donors, listen to their stories and connect their passion and interests with Americans United’s mission. I look forward to meeting with members like those who are reading this over coffee or lunch to chat about the issues that matter to you the most.
What attracted you to the mission of Americans United?
Burleson: As a lawyer, I understand that the legal and constitutional mandate of church-state separation is a fundamental and easy directive to support. On a personal level, I was raised in the black Protestant tradition that is historically intertwined with movements of justice and equality. Although I’ve moved away from the faith aspects of that upbringing and my family’s deep religious roots, I still feel connected to the community in important ways.
I live the reality that we can respect anyone living a life guided by faith, no faith and every other related permutation while also expecting that these parts of our lives are not harming others. Especially given the history of religion as the basis of state-sanctioned violence and discrimination against African Americans, LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities, being vigilant and steadfast about keeping religion out of government is essential for a just and equal society.
Ali: What attracted me the most about Americans United’s mission is how relevant it is. Sadly, in this day and age, we are facing immense challenges that impact our rights to be treated fairly and equally regardless of our beliefs, gender and sexual orientation. I joined AU because I strongly believe that religious freedom should be a shield that protects and not a sword that harms.
What is your life like outside of work? Do you have some hobbies or interests you can share with us?
Burleson: I am a huge and proud nerd! I run a D.C.-based community group with over 3,000 members that promotes inclusive nerd spaces for people of color. We hold a monthly happy hour and go to conventions, game nights, book clubs and movies together. I’m a member of my local science fiction club – one of the oldest in the country – where we meet to share a love for speculative fiction and run a regional convention every year. I’m also in seven book clubs and go to up to 10 literary and media conventions a year! So mostly, I spend lots of quality time at home with my two cats, Zoe “ZK” Kleinfeld and Trixie, reading many good books.
Ali: Outside my work at AU, I like to spend my time enjoying the outdoors and try new restaurants and sample the nightlife in D.C. I also like to volunteer. I currently serve as the chair of the Fundraising and External Communication Committee at Achievement Prep, a tuition-free public charter school in northeast D.C.