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Essence editor visits Dorchester school

Talia Whyte | 4/22/2009, 6:37 a.m.
Angela Burt-Murray (center), editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, meets with students at Mother Caroline Academy, an all-girls Catholic middle...
Angela Burt-Murray (center), editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, meets with students at Mother Caroline Academy, an all-girls Catholic middle school in Dorchester, on Friday, April 17, 2009. Burt-Murray talked to the students about the obstacles she has overcome to lead America’s top magazine for black women. Talia Whyte

Essence magazine editor-in-chief Angela Burt-Murray visited students at Dorchester’s Mother Caroline Academy last Friday, sharing some words of wisdom about life in the magazine publishing fast lane.

Citing the rising profile of prominent African American females like first lady Michelle Obama, Burt-Murray told students at the all-girls school that opportunities for women of color today are limitless.

“There has never been a more exciting time to be a black woman than now,” she said.

Burt-Murray was invited to the school by its president, Ingrid Tucker, who said she strongly believes that exposing the students at the Catholic middle school, most of whom are most black and Latino, to positive role models like Burt-Murray can help them dream of bigger opportunities.

“This school is committed to encouraging the girls to think about how they can contribute their talents once they leave school and go out into the world,” Tucker said. “We welcome Angela because it is nice for the girls to see someone that looks like them make an impact.”

Burt-Murray, 39, has overcome a number of obstacles to become the head of America’s leading magazine for black women.

Born and raised in southern California, Burt-Murray studied finance at Hampton University in Virginia. At the time, she aspired to become a banker. She later realized, however, that she had traveled down that career path for the wrong reasons. After failing in that field, she pursued journalism.

So Burt-Murray moved to New York, found a job as an editorial assistant at the Van Nostrand publishing company, and took evening classes in journalism at New York University. She also interned at a community newspaper. Burt-Murray admits now that she found it very hard to hold two jobs and attend school at night. She had a difficult time keeping up with her studies, but that forced her to work harder.

“As black women, we have to strive to survive,” she said. “Be true to yourself and everything else will fall in place.”

The hard work paid off, as Burt-Murray would rise through the ranks at Honey and Teen People magazines before landing the top job at Essence in 2005. While she says that working for the venerable publication is the best job she has ever had, there are drawbacks.

For example, her 60-hour work week, which includes traveling around the country for celebrity photo shoots, award shows and sales meetings, has taken its toll on her personal life. To deal with this, Burt-Murray says that she balances her family life by making sure she takes the weekends off to spend with her two sons.

In addition, she praised her husband Leonard, who works from home, for helping to normalize the home front.

“I am so blessed to have such a good man in my life, who has helped me along my career path [and been] a great dad and husband,” she said.

Interestingly enough, during a casual conversation with Mother Caroline students about what celebrities they would like to see featured in a future Essence edition, one girl told Burt-Murray she would like to see singer Chris Brown interviewed because she liked his music. That conversation quickly turned into a lesson on dealing with domestic violence.

Brown, who has become a heartthrob among teen girls, was arrested and charged with allegedly attacking his girlfriend, fellow pop star Rihanna, during a dispute in a parking lot outside the Grammy Awards in February.

Burt-Murray said she was surprised that most of the students were willing to give Brown the benefit of the doubt. She said she was even more shocked to meet grown women around the country that had the same feelings towards Brown.

Burt-Murray took the opportunity to school the girls.

“It’s never OK for a man to hit a woman,” she said. “If they hit you once, they will hit again. We excuse [Brown’s] behavior because he is really cute. [But] it’s not about being cute; it’s about what he did.”

The conversation was an eye-opener for Burt-Murray, who said it proved why black women still need outlets like Essence to provide forums for discussing such important issues.

“Black women, we really need to talk,” she said.