“The Heart of the [Family] Matter”


“I think this is an opportunity for us to slow down and take in all that is around us—to draw nearer and closer to those who we hold dear. I think if we go through this pandemic and not grow in closeness and intimacy with our family and friends it will be time we would have wasted.”

Those were the words that came pouring out of me on a sunny day in early April 2020. I was speaking with a coaching client who I had (uncharacteristically) cut off mid-statement. We were checking in for this first time since before the world around us came to a grinding halt due to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pandemic was in its fledgling stages and there was much we did not know. All of us were in reaction mode to a deadly scourge that seemed destined to sweep across our country and, indeed, the world.

My client had just finished telling me that he was able to bank 12-15 hours of commuting time by working from home. Knowing he had young children like me, I asked him what he was doing with that time saved. He told me that that time had been filled with work. He began reporting to work earlier and staying later.

Gone was the pretense of bringing him—through careful and insightful questioning—to the realization that what he was doing was probably not the best use of his time. Feeling compelled to do so, the aforementioned phrase leapt from my lips in a way that felt knowing, felt appropriate, felt timely.

In the year since, I have been working to be diligent in taking my own advice. To see—and, where not possible, to reframe the time we have apart from most as an opportunity to grow closer to those, with those, who we find ourselves in close proximity.

And to be intentional with that closeness.

If there is a lesson to be learned throughout all of this—and make no mistake, there are several—it’s that the Black family (and by extension the Black community) must be vigilant in its care for one another.

Sometimes that “care” is just surviving.

“By my count, I have only fathered eight children, but I must have a ninth child named ‘Not Me.’ You want to know why? Because every time something gets broken or misplaced, ‘Not Me’ is the culprit!” my father said.

I don’t remember the context of what happened in that particular time—and my sense is that I don’t need to because it was a constant refrain in our household. I grew up in the Northeast quadrant of Washington, DC, near Brookland/Catholic U. during the 80s and then moved close to Langdon Park at the beginning of the 1990s. I grew up as the third of eight children born to Eugene and Lena Burrell. What made us unique (other than the fact that we were the only family in elementary school with a van) was that seven of us were given names from different African countries and languages based upon my parent’s love of Africa and their deep and abiding faith as Christian missionaries.

My father worked as a Chaplain at Howard University and for the Navigators Christian Ministry and also as one of the very first and few Black Certified Financial Planners. My mother had the more difficult job of trying to wrangle eight kids (5 boys and 3 girls) whose ages spanned 18 years (“Not Me” was ageless and genderless, in case you were wondering).

As the third eldest, I guess I could be called a middle child, which meant an abundance of hand-me-downs from my two older brothers. We lived modestly, so there were plenty of trips to thrift shops as well.

My parents are flag bearers of wisdom, if not restraint, which makes sense given the huge task of turning loose eight healthy and productive, God-fearing humans into the world.

Now that I’m a father myself, I am acutely aware of how tenuous my existence is—as well as that of my wife and our two children. I am reminded of the times where my life could have been cut short over the years (especially growing up in 80s and 90s DC).

I often think of one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magna opera—Between The World And Mewhen he wrote “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have and you come to us endangered.”


That’s what it has felt like over the past year. Not only our children, but our ways of life. Of being. Of being together. As a high context community, Black people tend to revel in the company of the familial. In the familiar. Close friends become family as “Aunt” so-and-so and “Uncle” so-and-so stake claims on their versions of tradition.  Those ties with which we choose to bind ourselves have been threatened by the twin terrors of continued systemic racial injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic.

I feel in my very sinews a pull of collective mourning over those whom we have lost and could not collectively—or directly—grieve. I don’t have a background in the science behind genetic trauma, but I submit that it is a chiefly unnatural thing to not be able to appropriately mourn the loss of our loved ones. Even in war, there is an allowance for the burying of our dead. Outside of the pandemic, the only other times in American history where we were not able to appropriately grieve and bury our loved ones was during chattel slavery and the Trail of Tears.

What does that do, I wonder, to those of us who are experiencing the echoed incantations of ambiguous loss?

I hope it draws us closer and makes us spend our time more wisely.

I hope it prompts us to be both empathetic and kind. And I hope (beyond hope, even) that it keeps us together.

As family.

On February 14, 2011, Olutosin “Olu” Burrell discovered by happenstance that his first name is an anagram for the word “solution.” Since then, he has spent most of his time trying to temper his urge to solve EVERYTHING. That realization drives him to maintain a growth mindset by being not just a lifelong learner, but practitioner.

By day, Olu works in the leading human resource agency in the District of Columbia, where he administers leadership, training, conducts executive workplace coaching, and manages and Executive Leadership Program. In addition to this work, he also independently contracts as a writer, speaker, coach and consultant working with individuals, teams, and organizations in the federal government, not-for-profit, private, K-12 and higher education arenas.

Olu counts storytelling and the spoken word as part of his strengths, and–where appropriate–includes them in his engagements as he encourages his clients to craft their own legend. A student of inquiry and behavioral science, he “treats the interrogative as the imperative” in establishing first connection and then breakthrough.

Olu is a proud son of Howard University where he earned a B.A. in English. He also earned a M.S. in Organization Development from American University, and a Graduate Certificate in Comprehensive Evidence-Based Coaching from Fielding Graduate University, where he focused on leadership, organizational, and personal coaching. He is certified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) from the International Coach Federation and holds certifications in a number of leadership, diversity, and 360° instruments.

A fifth generation Washingtonian, Olu resides in Ward 8 his wife Farran and their two children Samara and Solomon.

Edited by Panama D. Jackson

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