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BPM 2013 | A conversation with Meka Sales
Picture by Charles W. Thomas, Jr.
August 12, 2013
In observance of Black Philanthropy Month,Valaida Fullwood, local idea whisperer and co- author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, interviews, in a multi-part series, a number of Charlotte African Americans engaged in multiple facets of philanthropy and focuses on interests and concerns, 50 years after Dr. King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.
Meka Sales: Healthcare Program Officer, The Duke Endowment
Hometown: Chantilly, Va.
Years as a Charlottean: 6 years
Education: B.S. Speech Communication, Syracuse University; M.S., Health Promotion Management, American University
Philanthropic Involvement: New Generation of African American Philanthropists, Community Investment Network, Youth Empowered Solutions, Be A Blessing, Chantilly Pyramid Minority Student Achievement Committee (CPMSAC)
(Finish this sentence) Black Philanthropy is . . . Dynamic, layered and intrinsic to who we are as a people. We have always had to rely on community to survive and navigate the structural systems that in some cases were not designed to benefit us.
What is your first memory of generosity?
My mother founded Chantilly Pyramid Minority Student Achievement Committee (CPMSAC) in 1984 as a way to recognize the academic achievements of minority students in our school system. I was 12 years old at the time, but she still asked me to make a contribution. She asked if it was okay to re-gift trophies I won in dance competitions and pageants. I don’t even remember thinking twice about it when I said, “sure”—a typical 12 year old’s response. I valued those trophies, but I was also reared in a very generous household. My parents and grandmother embedded a spirit of “helping one another” deep down in my DNA.
How does that memory influence your philanthropy and your work in the field of philanthropy?
Because of that memory, I recognize my blessings and pay them forward. Look within yourself, look to your surroundings and use what you discover to help someone else.
Tell us more about the history and mission of The Duke Endowment.
James B. Duke was industrialist and a philanthropist with strong family and community values. He had a deep love for the Carolinas and used his wealth and influence to ensure that resources would always be available to support the populations and causes he cared most about. He laid out very specifically the amount of resources that should be available each year to support specific higher education institutions (Duke, Davidson, Furman and Johnson C. Smith), children homes, hospitals and rural United Methodist Churches. To date, three billion dollars have been distributed to fulfill the mission of nurturing children, promoting health, educating minds and enriching spirits.
What have you found most fascinating during your tenure at The Duke Endowment?
The adherence to the donor’s wishes—or “donor’s intent,” as we call it in the field—is an intriguing facet of philanthropy. The fact that one person can continue to have this much influence long after his death is remarkable. Every day I am reminded that one person’s actions can have a lasting impact and it encourages me to be mindful of how I show up in the world and how I engage and treat others.
Why and how did you become involved in the health care field?
I was professionally trained as a dancer and gymnast and have always had an active lifestyle. In my late twenties I began to notice the health disparities—particularly among my African-American sisters. At the time I had been exposed to some physical fitness/health education and knew how to construct a fairly healthy lifestyle, but I discovered that other Black women didn’t have the same information. When I made the decision to advance my education, I chose a graduate program that would provide me with skills that would allow me to help others get well and stay well. I didn’t specifically pursue the health care field, but here I am. With rising health care costs, there is more and more recognition that prevention of disease is more cost effective than treating chronic illness. The Duke Endowment, through its health care program area, had focused a majority of its resources on improving the quality of health care and access to services. I was hired to build our work in prevention.
What are some of the health care issues, programs and policies that you’re currently examining as a professional in philanthropy?
The notion of healthy, thriving communities is taking hold in the health philanthropy world. This means that various sectors (medical/clinical community, public health professionals, economic development) are recognizing that they should align their efforts. The endowment is working on improving a wide range of health topics by helping communities mobilize and address their highest priority needs. These tend to be figuring out ways to decrease obesity rates by improving access to healthy and affordable food, providing more places for people to be active, linking clinical and community efforts to manage chronic disease and increase the number of primary care providers in a community.
What are some of your thoughts on where America stands 50 years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech?
We have traveled a great distance but still have a lot of road to cover. And we have a lot of work to do to maintain the progress we have experienced, especially in the South. In some ways, Black folks are still marginalized by policies and practices that don’t provide feasible pathways out of poverty or attainment of overall well-being. Our ideas about race are colored by broad swaths of us who are doing “well” juxtaposed against those of us who are not. There is a troubling tendency to look at the less fortunate and conclude that they just didn’t try hard enough. But this attitude does not recognize the severity of the obstacles some of us face. We need to make a real commitment to racial reconciliation, which will take, in part, being willing to hear, believe and empathize with one another’s story.
When it comes to society or our community, what is your “dream” or aspiration?
That we embrace our differences, acknowledge our “one-ness” and work together to lift one another up.
In terms of your philanthropic endeavors, what’s your “mountaintop” or highest achievement to date?
I get a lot of satisfaction knowing new resources have been provided to fix a problem because I sat and really listened to someone’s story. It’s difficult to name one “mountaintop” achievement, because each day that I manage ways to broaden the table so other voices can be heard is an achievement.
Name a book that has shaped your philanthropy.
This is a difficult question to answer because my philanthropy was shaped primarily by the behaviors of my community that I witnessed growing up. My parents and grandmother’s spirit of giving was strongly influence by The Bible, so that book and its teachings is definitely an inspiration.
Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists definitely gives me inspiration and validates my philanthropic experiences and contributions to my community.
A business book titled The Starfish and The Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom also had a role in how I structured opportunities for others to engage in philanthropy. The book speaks on the power of leaderless organizations, which pushes against the typical hierarchical management structure and allows for equal contributions for all involved in an effort. I took concepts from this book when developing the giving circle, Be A Blessing.
Describe some ways that citizens can become more knowledgeable about health disparities, and how they can contribute time and dollars to help close the gaps.
People can look to our Department of Health and Human Services agency for reader-friendly information on health disparities. An effort called the National Partnership for Action to end Health Disparities has produced a simple resource on the topic and what our federal government is doing to achieve health equity for all citizens. We now know that there are many social factors that have an effect on one’s health—level of education attained, socioeconomic status, etc. I would posit that almost any effort that improves access to quality education, supports students who may be struggling in school, develops individuals for the workforce, creates jobs, or improves community conditions will have improve one’s health. I encourage readers to just look around, listen to someone’s story, mobilize your community and be a blessing.
Please leave us with a favorite quote that characterizes an aspect of your philanthropy.
“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.” — Maya Angelou
For more information visit BlackPhilanthropyMonth.com and follow the hashtag #BPM2013
CV thanks Johnson C. Smith, our sponsor for this series.