Creating Change starts with you: An intern’s perspective on the EmPOWERED To Serve Summit By: Demetrius Colombero

In the shadow of the Capitol Building, The American Heart Association (AHA) hosted the first of its kind, EmPOWERED To Serve Summit at the Gallaudet University in the Kellogg Conference Center in Washington, DC.  The two-day summit brought together a variety of people from the corporate, community and health-care fields to talk about how AHA and other companies can make a bigger impact in the community– or so I thought.

“I want to be someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down.”

— Maria Rose Belding, 2nd Place Winner of Urban Storytelling Competition

As an intern at the American Heart Association at the Charlotte office, I’ve only been affiliated with AHA for three months, so when my supervisor suggested I go to the Summit, an anxious-yet-excited rush took over my body.  I knew the Summit would be an essential networking event during my senior year, but I also knew that there are only so many ways to state that “cardiovascular disease is the world’s number one killer.”  After mulling over the opportunity, I believed the networking would outweigh the monotony of the event and, if anything, I would get the rush of walking around the nation’s capital– a place where I aspire to be, in order to make significant changes but significant change begins with genuine conversation.

“Change begins with simple… salient… significant solutions.” — Melvin Thompson, Executive Director, Endeleo Institute

Tuesday morning, opening day for the EmPOWERED To Serve Summit, didn’t go so well for me.  I attempted to take the DC metro (being from a metro-less city you can imagine how that went) and arrived at the conference in a Lyft, 15 minutes late.  I walked into a smorgasbord of food and smiling faces, typical conference atmosphere.  As I navigated through the room–smiling at familiar faces and shaking hands, I noticed something, most of the attendees didn’t work for the AHA.  The conference center was crowded with an assortment of professionals from oncologists, to clergy men and women, to entrepreneurs and social activists — it all didn’t click, until I was well into the afternoon of listening to the presenting panelists.

“Sometimes the truth just has to sit there in your face for a while so it’s no longer so strong and harsh.” –Maisie Chin, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Community Asset Development Re-Defining Education (CADRE)

I took a seat in the back of the room– in case I needed to help the local Marketing and Communications Director with anything–when Keith Churchwell, M.D. took the stage.  He began by explaining the obvious, why we were all here. However, his explanation didn’t have anything to do with cardiovascular disease or stroke. He explained that yes, the Summit’s intentions were about health equity for all citizens, but talking about health equity becomes impossible unless you discuss housing crisis, food deserts, income inequality, and corporate social responsibility.  Looking at any issue at face value leads you to misinterpret the problem and come up with impractical solutions.  From that moment I understood that the Summit had nothing, yet everything to do with AHA’s commitment to cardiovascular disease and stroke.

“The comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there… Know your power, know the issues and then implement appropriate strategies.” –Alisahah J. Cole MD, Medical Doctor and Vice President/System Medical Director, Carolinas HealthCare System

Americans have different perspectives when it comes to finding solutions for problems.  A portion of us believe that the majority of problems can be solved if the right data is inserted into an algorithm and spews a solution.  Some Americans believe that problems can be solved by government assistance, using a top-down approach.  Then another segment believes if someone has enough self-determination and will, they can solve any problem they face.  The panelists’ solutions had nothing to do with algorithms, government aid or personal will– instead the Summit and its panelists urged people go into these communities and listen.  Ultimately, people in impoverished communities know what they need but you can’t hear them if you’re uttering fruitless solutions.  There is no greater power, than the power of the people banded together behind an idea, problem or solution and that’s what the Summit encouraged people and communities to do.  If you have your ear to the ground, a part of the grass roots, it’s impossible not to see the trends in communities and its impact on its citizens.

“Listen… solutions can be discovered and implemented more quickly if we listen to the communities and ask…’what do you need.” –Pamela G. Johnson, National Vice President, Multicultural Markets, American Heart Association

During the break between the night and day session, I decided to walk around The Capital, gazing upon where legislation that affects 330 million people’s lives, and on a daily basis, is made.  As I walked, the ideas of the panelists festered in my head.  I came to the Summit with the belief that socioeconomic problems could be primarily solved through legislation, we just needed legislators who care.  However, the truth is they may care, they just don’t know how much you or the communities care.  The more I thought about collective impact and transformational change, the more I realized it starts with you and me– average citizens who want to be a part of a wholistic solution.  I can be the change that I want to see in my community, I just have to get involved, and get started. But how?

“If you don’t have a seat at the table…. pull up a folding chair.” – Vanessa Mason, Co-Founder and Managing Director of P2Health Ventures

I arrived back at the Kellogg Conference Center and looked at the itinerary: “Urban Storytelling Competition and Awards Dinner.”  I had no clue what to expect considering initially and it did not disappoint.  Over dinner, social activists took the stage in a contest to win grant money to help their initiatives that limit the burden of socioeconomic problems in their communities.  That was an understatement.  As contestant after contestant came to the stage and spoke about their idea, company or plan and how it helps their current community and in what way the grant money could further their ambitions, I was awestruck!   From growing potatoes out of potholes in inner cities so they could have fresh produce; to encouraging people to get active by helping communities prepare for, and run in, 5Ks; and even an innovative initiative for workers in inner cities to carpool through a service provided by their employers instead of relying on unreliable mass transportation.  The top three contestants earned a total of $60,000 in grants…but how could the judges pick just one? Each contestant used a hyper-local approach that efficiently helped alleviate crisis in their community.   Although only three went home with funding, all the contestants provided me with a much-needed reality check– storytellers clearly had the passion to end inequality similar to me, but they were actively doing it—so what was holding me back?

“Not one policy, not one strategy, not one company can solve these problems… We need each other.” — Kimberly Perry, Director, Food Security, AARP Foundation

The second day kicked off with a speech from Nancy Brown, CEO of American Heart Association and American Stroke Association.  She began by thanking everyone for coming but one prominent thing stood out to me, even the CEO of AHA knew that this event was not intended to spread the message of what AHA is doing in communities.  The AHA wanted to be a facilitator that could help spread change in communities.  By hosting this Summit with a facilitating role, it allowed the AHA to look within and ask, “are we really doing what needs to be done? “Are we listening to the community and providing the resources so they can feel empowered?” The AHA knows these problems are expansive and can’t be sufficiently dealt with if we all don’t work together, but instead of trying to eclipse the conversation, the AHA’s stance is to offer its resources and connections to help empower groups to implement change.

We recognize now more than ever that we need to identify the strategy that will make lives better… What we are doing is coming up with new ways that AHA and its partners can find ways to better help the community… Because the need is deep.”

–Nancy Brown CEO, American Heart Association

The seven-hour drive back home put everything into perspective.  After Richmond, VA, I stopped for a coffee break on Route 1.  Route 1 in Virginia, prominently known as Jefferson Davis Highway really solidified the purpose of the conference.  “We have to come up with solutions so that people can live their lives without limitations, said Tyronne Stoudemire.” Whether the problem is economic mobility, food deserts or confederate monuments, solutions can’t be heard if there isn’t a debate about it first.  The Summit also reminded me that change is a slow and painstaking– no one legislative bill, no one company’s initiative or one individual can solve all of these problems.  Instead a combined force, filled with the sense of community, is the most significant way to make impactful change.  The EmPOWERED To Serve Summit enabled all its attendees to hear from a diverse group of philanthropists and activists who gave their resources to us, which we can now use to empower someone else– even a hurricane starts with one drop of water.

For additional information about EmPOWERED To Serve and to learn more about the competition winners, visit

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