The Pathways Project: Q&A with Leon Burnette hero image

The Pathways Project: Q&A with Leon Burnette

There are four interwoven themes in Leon Burnette’s life that have granted him a vast wealth of knowledge and experience: sociocultural rights, civil and political rights, Black music history, and mentorship: giving young people the tools they need to become successful and make their dream careers come true. All four themes are underpinned by the love of travel.


As a result of Leon’s passion for equity and the inclusion of diverse voices in the music and media industry, the Media Arts Institute of Alabama was born in 2005, and this year, the Tourism Pathways Project was launched.


Developed by the Media Arts Institute of Alabama and supported by Tourism Cares, TreadRight, The Travel Corporation, the TripSchool with more travel partners expressing interest, the Pathways Project aims to close the opportunity gap and reduce hiring inequalities in the Group Tourism industry by actively recruiting passionate Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and minority women to become group travel and tourism professionals. The project is committed to providing students with cost-effective tourism training programs that give these new voices the tools and experience they need to become Tour Directors (TDs), Tour Guides, and tour company owners.


Diversifying the voices in travel and tourism is critical for creating greater racial equity, preserving history and increasing cultural understanding.


We had a chance to sit down with Leon to learn about what led to this project’s inception, and to get his take on the importance of this workforce initiative.


You have a wealth of experience both in the music and travel industries and in the longstanding pursuit of social and racial justice. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?


Leon Burnette: I’m from Los Angeles, California, born in the South-Central neighborhood of Watts. People know about Watts through the 1965 Watts Riots – I witnessed one of the most racially charged events in US history. From an early age, I was into music, and I come from a family that’s always loved music and loved to travel. My family’s roots are from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Chicago, and so every summer, we would go on a trip to see our relatives. I was 6 years old the first time I ever flew on a plane, going from LA to Chicago. So, traveling has always been in my blood. And, I’m a ‘civil rights baby,’ so I was influenced by the violence I saw inflicted on young kids across the south who looked just like me. The lynching of Emmitt Till, The Watts Riots, the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, and the violence I personally witnessed inflicted on my friends and family by the Los Angeles Police Department motivated me to become interested in social justice issues. Those events really affected me and influenced my decision to get involved in Black human rights issues.


My father was an AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) Union Executive who worked closely with the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Through him, I got involved in the NAACP Youth Leadership Program. Listening to my father tell me stories about his fight for equality and higher job wages for Blacks and Mexicans really motivated me to become a little bit more militant. So, it was easy for me to embrace the ideology, and I hooked up with the Black Panthers who had just relocated to Oakland from Alabama and were expanding their community outreach, breakfast feeding, and protest activities to Los Angeles.


Because I loved music so much, I decided to pursue a music business career in college. I went on to work almost every job in the industry – radio production, concert promotions, record sales, street teams event planning, and session managing. I did everything imaginable in the music industry, trying to find my perfect niche. I soon realized that I needed one thing in my attempt to find the perfect gig: the opportunity to travel. So, I began my quest to become a concert Tour Manager.


When I got the chance to move to Chicago to work for Motown Records, one of the cities I loved and knew so well, I packed up my bags and left LA. While working for Motown, promoting their records all over the Midwest, I was offered a job as Tour Manager for one of the groups on the label. Here, I learned how to route, plan, and manage every aspect of a concert tour, and move an entourage of 30 – 100 people with trucks that carried the music, sound, and lighting equipment around the world.


I’m very inquisitive and like to learn everything about the countries and cities I go to, so as I began to travel more and more, I began to learn all kinds of information and stories about those destinations. I did that for close to 40 years: traveled from city to city, met new people, ate different foods, and experienced diverse cultures. This is where my passion for travel, Black history, music, and culture was nurtured.


How was mentorship a major part of your success?


LB: When I got successful in the music business, I had mentors. I have an intense passion for people who reach out to show others how to do things because you have to remember that in the early ’70s, there was no internet. You didn’t have all this information at your fingertips. You had to learn from stories, learn through the experiences of others.


As I grew in my profession, I naturally fell into mentoring myself because my own mentors told me to “teach one, reach one,” and to give back and share what I know. I met so many young people who wanted to get into the music and entertainment business. I was finding and hiring students to be production interns on college campuses in places like Ohio, Alabama, and Georgia. It was a great feeling to help them launch their careers. That’s part of the reason I started Media Arts Institute. I wanted to expose more individuals to new careers and help them travel so they could see and learn different things about this world, just like I did.


I heard all kinds of stories about music legends, civil rights events, and how they grew up in the music business. My mentors exposed me to how the music industry’s production, marketing, and politics were changing and evolving. That’s why my focus is civil rights history, Black music history, and Black culture, because that’s the life I lived and those are the stories that I heard. When I look back at my career, I was always learning, listening, and sharing stories. I love stories, and I love sharing them with my students.


What do you think is causing the lack of diversity in travel and tourism, particularly in the Guided Tour space?


LB: I believe it really starts with access to training, personal travel experiences, and the lack of career outreach in our school systems. You don’t see a lot of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in Tour Guide or Tour Director (TD) roles because they just don’t know about those career opportunities. When we talk about hospitality, people think about hotels or amusement parks. Nobody’s really talking about group touring or explaining what the opportunities there are.


Another cause is the high cost of tour guide certification. Some training courses are over $5,000, plus the cost of travel and lodging. That’s almost $7,500! Who has $7,500 to drop on a 2-week training program and not know whether you’re going to get a job or not? I was blessed to be able to afford it, but it took me a while to get hired and prove myself because most of the companies I applied to were just not in the habit of hiring Black tour guides. Because of unconscious bias, that’s what happens. So, there is a lack of diversity in storytelling.


I’ve had companies with white Tour Directors on their civil rights southern heritage tours call me, asking if I could jump on a plane and take over a tour. Because the guide they’d hired didn’t know the stories or nuances of the subject matter, the guests were getting upset with the lack of preparation and knowledge on the civil rights movement. That why I wrote my civil rights trail guidebook – to help these TDs, and so they wouldn’t call me so much, lol!


If we’re going to understand the civil rights movement or any movement for social justice, we must understand the root of these issues and why certain unalienable rights were taken away.


I think it’s important to raise these unheard voices because people need to know all the stories about our world and its condition. The best way to teach history is through a tour – but it must be an authentic tour where people can truthfully walk in the footsteps of heroes, victims, and villains.


After the George Floyd incident, tour operators and some of my TD friends asked what they could do in the tourism industry to make a change. I told them that putting a ‘Black Lives Matter’ badge on their website doesn’t mean anything. If you want to do something in this industry, you have to make a real change and make sure all voices and stories are told. I genuinely believe that as a Black man, our stories must be heard to understand where we are coming from. You need to see for yourself the roadblocks and struggles many minority people deal with. Listening leads to progress, and that’s true of everybody.


I’m very passionate about social justice and the civil rights movement because, as Tour Directors, we can teach in real-time, in real places, and real American history. These stories can address biases and tackle systemic injustices. We can share prejudices, tolerance, empathy, and determination.


I like to make my civil rights tours come alive for my passengers. I don’t want them thinking Martin Luther King is just a YouTube character. I want to bring these people to life and make them relatable; for example, when I’m in Atlanta, we study Martin Luther King’s life and works. I say to my passengers, “we’re going to MLK’s hood: we’re going to his house, to his bedroom, to show you he’s a real person, and he did things that you can do too.” So many lessons. Those are the lessons that matter.


In your own words, can you explain the aim of the Tourism Pathways Project and why it’s so important?


LB: As the Tourism Pathways Project Director, I help tour operators and non-profit tourism organizations take a hard look at workforce solutions that can help increase the recruiting, hiring, training, and placement of minorities and People of Color in the group travel and experiences industry.


My goal is to help the tourism industry rebound from the effects of the worldwide pandemic by creating training, outreach, and mentorship programs that intentionally chart a more equitable path for success and growth in the tourism industry.


As you know, Tour Guides & Directors are the face of the travel industry, and there must be community representation across the board. It’s funny, sometimes I get on a coach and the first thing many of the guests ask is if I’m the bus driver. And I say, “no, I’m your leader, I’m your Tour Director.” So, there’s a perception that we are lesser than, and that we can’t do that job.


This project is important because I want to help tourism organizations make structural changes in their racial equality efforts. No more excuses. I want to assist tourism organizations in meeting their diversity goals. I want to train and place people who are qualified in this industry. I want to make this industry more inclusive. And I just want to eliminate the biases and the systemic racism in hiring practices that people don’t even know exist.


I know so many talented people who’d do well in this industry if they knew more about it and how to get into it. So, that’s why I do this project – for equity, for inclusion.


What are your hopes for the future, and what advice would you give underrepresented individuals who want to pursue a career in travel?


LB: I want to help BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Color) communities know there are opportunities. I want people who come into the industry to be curious, learn how to be empathetic, never stop asking questions, read books, and watch videos. If they do these things, they’ll get the information they need, and then it’s just a matter of being themselves. Because their unique voice is something that the world needs.


A Tour Director needs to have an open mind, to get out there and live in the moment. You can do anything you want to do – that’s my thing. I don’t want access to training to be the reason why they’re not into it. Systemic change is where I want to go. I want to make it so that if I am BIPOC and want to do this, I know where I can get trained. I’m trying to eliminate all the barriers to entry – whether it’s lack of money, training, or representation.


As our industry changes and those Tour Directors rise through the ranks and start to work higher and higher within travel organizations, it starts leveling out. Equity and inclusion are my hopes for the future.