Sitting at her desk in what used to be the administrative offices of Nelson County’s former segregated high school, Johnette Burdette said she could feel the culmination of her life’s work for diversity, equity and inclusion there with her.
“Every degree, every task, every project, every school assignment I’ve ever had now rests right here at this desk and the extension of this organization into the community,” Burdette said.
With roots tracing back five generations in Nelson County, the Mechanicsville native brings with her 20 years’ experience in education as a former teacher and principal, policy and nonprofit work.
Currently, she serves as the associate director of education with Insight Policy Research and was recently announced as the Nelson Heritage Center’s first part-time executive director, the Millennium Group announced.
In this role, Burdette will work with the Millennium Group Board of Directors to expand the center’s footprint in Nelson County, an announcement from the group reads. She is responsible for the overall administration and development of the Nelson County Heritage Center, including service programs, business operation, planning and fundraising.
She described her new role, a grant-funded position awarded by the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, as a humbling labor of love. She began serving in the role the beginning of April.
“I’ve known about this mission and what they’ve been driven to do and the importance of it,” Burdette said. “So I feel like all of those connections and all of that experience have truly prepared me to serve in this capacity of the first executive director of the heritage center and to work with facilitating conversations within the county.”
Having attended the group’s first meeting in the early 2000s, Burdette said she has closely followed the Millennium Group’s efforts for access and opportunity for all citizens of Nelson County.
Burdette said her life’s mission has been to ensure the least restrictive environment for the most vulnerable populations to excel by meeting people where they are, a desire born from the stories and from conversations from the dinner table with her grandparents in their Norwood home.
“Equity is what I’m focused on, making sure we provide the resources based on the need of the people, the circumstances that they’re in their current reality to get them to that place of access and opportunity,” Burdette said.
Edith Napier, a board of directors member and former student of the school, said she was elated to have an executive director position. Burdette was the “dream choice” for such a role, Napier said.
“She’s connected to the county, she’s connected to the center and she’s a brilliant young lady who wants to work with the board to take the center to the next level for the community,” Napier said. “The position will ensure a continued center.”
In addition to being the first executive director, it also is the first paid position that’s been associated with the center. Napier said up until this point, everything that’s been accomplished was done through volunteer work. It made sense the first paid position would be that of executive director, she added.
Currently, Burdette is working on implementing a 100-day plan dubbed “Building for Tomorrow by Investing in Today,” which hopes to build upon its 15 years’ worth of projects, programs and footing in the community the group already has established and partner with different county organizations.
Looking long term several years down the road, Burdette said she hopes to carry the heritage center to the next level, making it an example of what can be accomplished with “persistence, dedication and a genuine desire for communities to come together.”
“There’s a story here that needs to be told and any story needs a good storyteller or spokesperson and I see this role as that,” Burdette said. “There are stories like this waiting to happen across the country. The story that has happened here in Nelson County is one that can be replicated across the country and I believe it is my job to tell the story and take it nationally.”
Located at 1653 Thomas Nelson Highway in Arrington, the former school for Black students was constructed in 1960 before being repurposed to serve as the county’s middle school following integration in the late 1960s. The building housed the middle school until 2003 when work was completed on the new middle school.
Many of the center’s normal functions, with the exception of the food distributions, are on hold because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It also has served as the site for local COVID-19 vaccination clinics.
“This building represents all of the good of Nelson County, the perseverance, the triumph,” Burdette said. “What was not necessarily meant for excellence and for greatness has been turned into something that...the entire community at large can be proud of.”
While the grant only supports the executive director position for the first year, Napier said she hopes the center — working together with the community — can sustain it far past that expiration date.
Burdette said she holds open office hours at the Nelson Heritage Center on Thursdays and Fridays with more availability during the week as her schedule permits.