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Passion for Health and Reducing Disparities Drives Kwanza Jones

There are many reasons why someone donates their time or treasure to Susan G. Komen. For national Board Member Kwanza Jones, it was a passion for ensuring all women are informed about their health and have access to good healthcare to enhance their wellbeing. 

Jones is an accomplished artist, philanthropist, impact investor, and sought-after speaker, who is committed to using her voice to spark change for the betterment of humanity. As CEO of the Kwanza Jones & José E. Feliciano SUPERCHARGED Initiative, a philanthropic grant-making and investment organization, she invests in individuals, organizations and early stage/growth ventures across four areas: Education, Entrepreneurship, Equity and Empowerment.

Jones recently visited with Susan G. Komen and discussed why she is so passionate about supporting Komen and what she’s excited about for the future.

Komen: How have you been touched by breast cancer? 

Jones:  As it relates to breast cancer, there was a moment in my life that I will never forget. My sister and I were visiting our 84-year-old aunt. While we were helping her get dressed, we realized she had had a mastectomy. Prior to that moment, we had no idea.

There had never been any discussion. No stories shared. No information given. Perhaps it was because we were much younger when it happened, and it was “grown folks business.” Or, perhaps it was because, when it happened, there was a social stigma. Given that my aunt has passed away. I know I’ll never know. But, I do know this. Daddy’s sister survived breast cancer. And, I had no idea she had even been diagnosed with this deadly disease. No idea. I’ll never forget that moment and all the questions that will go unanswered.

Komen: How did you get involved with Susan G. Komen?

Jones:  I’ve had family members who had breast cancer. A close friend is a survivor, too. And, the mother of another close friend of mine, fought, and eventually died from breast cancer. There are so many stories.

I suspect breast cancer has touched the lives of most people, or someone they know, in some way.

For me, quite frankly, beyond breast cancer, it’s about health. That’s what’s important – health and wellbeing. For women, breast health falls under that umbrella. That’s one of the reasons that I came to Komen.

Another reason is equity. After heart disease, cancer is the leading cause of death for women – that includes breast cancer. As a Black woman, an African American woman, I understand disparities exist in health and health care…and in breast cancer. It’s not just a black and white issue, but with breast it seems to be. Did you know breast cancer deaths are 40 percent higher among Black women than white women?

There’s a lot that has been done. But there’s still much to do. That’s why I joined Komen.

Komen: Now that you are on the Board, what has surprised you about Komen and its mission?

Jones:  Beyond giving grants and funding research, I was surprised how much advocacy work Komen is doing. It’s also been great learning about how Komen helps patients navigate the overwhelming maze of decisions that need to be made after a breast cancer diagnosis.

A lot of people know Komen for the races and walks. But, Komen is so much more. That’s what has been wonderfully surprising. Really being able to see the expansiveness of the work – from research to community to care to action.

Komen looks at breast cancer holistically. They take the entire person into account and identify the need. They provide tools and resources to help.

On a different note, I have to admit, I was surprised about the lack of representation on the Board. Given the numbers of Black women that die from breast cancer, I was shocked that before I joined, there were no African American women on the board. I am encouraged though. Komen is taking real action to make the Board more diverse.

Komen: What has you most excited about the future of Komen? 

Jones:  I always say, “No one succeeds alone. Sometimes you need a boost.” Komen’s current and developing partnerships are going to provide a phenomenal boost to patients, to survivors, to people who are just diagnosed, or to those who are simply trying to get a breast cancer screening test. There are really, really exciting things in the works that stem from the partnerships.

Komen: COVID-19 has put a spotlight on some of the really tragic health disparities that exist in the overall public health. How is Komen working to address these inequities?

Jones:  Komen has a program that I’m not sure a lot of people know about it. It’s the African American Health Equity Initiative. A lot of people and organizations highlight the existence of health disparities. This program is one concrete way that Komen is actually addressing these inequities.

I love that Komen is dedicated to eradicating breast cancer – not just eradicating breast cancer for one segment of the population, but eradicating breast cancer for all segments of the population. That is Komen really living up to its mission and fulfilling its purpose. And, it’s necessary.

It should not matter what your skin complexion is, it should not matter what your zip code is, it should not matter how much money you have in the bank. If you are struggling with breast cancer, you should be able to get services, you should be able to get care, and you should be able to know someone is there to help you. They’re rooting for you. They’re going to help you throughout this traumatic process.

It really is a big thing that Komen understands disparities exist; and Komen has taken action. That’s truly Komen being for the cure…for all communities.

Komen: We hear from many young Black women that they didn’t realize they could get breast cancer. What would you say to a person that is not sure if breast cancer is something they should be concerned about?

Jones:  Wow. That is such a deep, heavy, and loaded question – and an important one. That’s why it’s important that Komen has diverse representation on the Board. That’s why I love what Komen is doing.

Not only at the Board level, but also in the marketing, and in the messaging, Komen is showing diversity.

Oftentimes, Black women are invisible. We’re not seen or we don’t see ourselves represented. This can lead to thinking certain things don’t apply to us…including breast cancer. 

If the messaging seems to say, breast cancer only happens to white women, then you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m fine. I don’t have to worry about it, I don’t have to get tested for it, I don’t have to talk to my family about it, I don’t have to talk to my friends about it because it doesn’t happen to me.”

So, especially for young, Black women I would say, “Get tested. Know your girls.” Breast cancer does not discriminate. It does not matter what you look like, it does not matter what your ethnicity is, it does not matter what your gender is. It does not matter what your age. Breast cancer, unfortunately, impacts everyone.

Komen: How important is it to use your voice and be your own advocate?

Jones:  Oh, such a great question. The importance of being your own advocate cannot be underestimated and it cannot be understated. Have you ever heard the phrase, “You don’t know what you don’t know?”  Well, that applies in so many instances, but it especially applies to breast cancer.

If you walk into a doctor’s office and you’re not using your voice and asking questions, you miss out on an opportunity to learn what you don’t know. You cannot assume a doctor is going to give you all the answers, especially if you’re not asking the questions.

That’s where Komen comes in. Maybe you don’t even know the questions you should ask. Komen has tools to help you understand some of the things you should be bringing up, some of the questions you should be asking, and some of the things you need to know. Komen provides resources, it provides support, it provides information. If you’re able to learn what you don’t know then you’re able to advocate even better for yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to be an expert. It just means you have to get educated.

Komen: What do you want to say to people who are considering supporting Komen, even in the face of a challenging year? 

Jones: If you’re thinking about whether you should give or not, don’t think, just act. It has been a very, very challenging year, all around. But, it’s helpful to operate, not from a place of scarcity, and having a scarcity mindset, but instead from a place of abundance. Even in the midst of challenging times, you can always find a way to give something, no matter how seemingly small. Maybe it’s time. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s resources. Knowing that you have something to offer, something to give, well, that changes your mindset. It changes your perspective.

Maybe you did something much larger in previous years, maybe in future years you can support in even bigger ways. What’s most important is that you participate. Support in whatever way you can. Giving is a habit. It’s a muscle. We are all connected. We’re not alone. We have obligations and responsibilities to each other. That’s what it means to be human. That’s what it means to express our humanity. That’s what it means to support each other. That’s what living is. To live is to give.