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Sunday, June 4, 2023

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Malin Burnham (left) and Bob Payne ('55) Malin Burnham (left) and Bob Payne ('55)

Gift Establishes Program for Career Learning and Understanding Biases

Named for prominent San Diego civil rights figure Harold Brown, the program updates a 1998 effort to break racial divides that was ahead of its time.
By Tobin Vaughn

“I think that what we are doing here (at SDSU) is an extension of what we came together to do more than 20 years ago.”

San Diego State University has announced a $500,000 gift from San Diego philanthropists Malin Burnham and Bob Payne (’55) to establish the Hal Brown Career Learning and Understanding Biases (HB CLUB) program, designed to further the success of SDSU’s Black/African American students in becoming the next generation of community and business leaders. Update: In January 2021, HB CLUB was renamed the Harold K. Brown Knowledge, Education and Empowerment Program (KEEP).
The  program is named for Harold K. Brown (’59), a noted civil rights and community and economic development leader who fought racial discrimination to bring social and economic opportunity to underserved areas of San Diego.

The gift is an echo of the trio’s efforts in 1998 to promote understanding among races through a group they formed called Community Leaders Undoing Biases (CLUB). Brown, Burnham, and Payne would host lunches featuring speakers on such topics as “Breaking the Racial Divide,” but as Payne recalls, their effectiveness was limited.

“We weren’t reaching new people who weren’t already sold on the need to be educated about civil rights issues,” he said, “so after a few years we disbanded.”

Then came 2020 and its series of high profile killings of Black Americans. Among the most notable was the May death of George Floyd in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers who now face criminal charges.

The event was captured on video and beamed around the world. A re-energized Black Lives Matter political and social movement focused international attention on American inequality.

Diversity and inclusion

Paying special attention were Brown, Burnham and Payne. Burnham was first to pick up the phone.

“He called me and said, ‘You know, we ought to revitalize what we attempted in 1998,’” Payne said. “So then I called Hal Brown for his input and got back to Malin.”

“The reason we started the club to begin with was to bring the Black and white communities closer together,” Burnham said. “I think that what we are doing here (at SDSU) is an extension of what we came together to do more than 20 years ago.”

The men agreed SDSU would be the best vehicle in San Diego to help achieve their objectives. The university recognizes the need for a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“We have a strategic plan for our university that prioritizes this, and that didn’t happen after the George Floyd incident,” said SDSU Vice President of Student Affairs and Campus Diversity J. Luke Wood. “That happened long before.”

Wood worked for months along with other campus administrators to help merge the donors’ ideas into an impactful program.

Through meaningful interactions with mentors, speakers, and skills-development during the program, student achievement in CLUB will be tracked through such outcomes as higher retention rates and academic success, leadership development for success in society and the workplace, and financial literacy and investment strategies as a form of advancement. Other outcomes to be followed include:
  • Managing the intersections of identity, community, and career preparation and planning
  • Understanding the need to give back to their communities
  • Thorough understanding of Black history
  • Understanding systemic oppression and bias as ongoing challenges
“This program will truly empower our students and we look to the continued success of our Black/African American students at SDSU,” Wood said.

Under pressure

Among those who will benefit from the HB CLUB program are students like McKayla Shelton, a senior studying integrated marketing communications who plans to graduate in May 2021 and launch a business career.

During the fall 2020, Shelton was able to access support and resources through a precursor to the HB CLUB program. Prior to those resources, she admits to having some difficulty managing college life amid the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the turmoil of almost daily protests and counter-demonstrations that sometimes turned deadly.

“It was really hard to go through that as a college student and a Black college student, specifically, because classes don’t stop, the professors don’t stop,” Shelton said. “You still have to study, you still have all the obligations you had before this dramatic change happened in the country and it was putting tremendous pressure on me.

“I felt like I was being attacked for my Blackness, but it didn’t matter. I still had to perform.”

Shelton felt stressed out. She tried meditating and taking walks, but “it was very hard to concentrate and do my work,” she said.

Changing the outlook

Support designed to address the specifics of her experience made all the difference. Through online lunches and training sessions with other Black students and mentors, Shelton discovered a community that offered the solutions and coping strategies she had been missing.

“I gained a community of support and love so I didn’t have to fight the good fight alone. It has opened a door for me to access Black professionals who are successful in their careers and who are willing to take time out of their day to speak to me, guide me, and help me grow,” she said.

She learned about bias issues facing Black professionals in the corporate world. There was information designed to boost students’ financial literacy and along with tips about life milestones like buying a house or a car.

“The topics we talk about aren’t taught in regular courses at SDSU, so knowing that SDSU is supporting a program that is giving me this information is very beneficial,” Shelton said. “It really has changed my outlook on what I need to do to get where I want to go.”

That’s exactly what Burnham and Payne hoped to extend with their donations to establish the HB CLUB. “Our intended outcome is to provide support services for African-American students at San Diego State to help level the playing field for their success,” said Payne. “We want to offer our students a more equal footing that they do not have today.”

To contribute to the HB CLUB, contact Jen Stanley, SDSU director of development, student affairs, campus diversity and parent philanthropy at