A dual existence: Building communities in the US and Africa
By MARISA MATA, Student Writer
You sit with Mona Cummings (2012) in her office at United Way Fresno and Madera Counties, where she has recently been appointed the Senior Director of Resource Development. She is wearing a light blue dress that complements her athletic physique, and her short red hair frames her expressive smile. Her friendly, upbeat character is contagious; and you fall into a conversation about her passion for building communities, helping others and her love affair with Africa, which has led her to live a sort of “dual existence” for over 20 years.
After graduating with a BS in Biology from Missouri State University in 1994, Cummings joined the Peace Corps and moved to the small African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, where she would stay for two years, working to help establish a national park.
“The Peace Corps was the only job that I really ever dreamed about doing,” Cummings says with a big smile. “I attended university to make myself a more appealing candidate for the position.”
She slips into a story about being 13-years-old, watching television shows about nature and wildlife, wanting to take part in the on-screen adventures. She says she loved learning Portuguese and way of life in São Tomé and Príncipe. Cummings has always had a love for learning, and it has driven her to be hands-on and become as knowledgeable as possible about every cause she gets involved with, in both the US and Africa.
She settled in Fresno in 2006, after working in Washington D.C., Tanzania, Brazil and the San Francisco Bay Area. She worked as the Director of Development for Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education and Human Development, raising millions of dollars to support school districts around the Valley. During this time, Cummings was also taking night classes, working toward a Master of Public Administration at Fresno State.
She had the opportunity to return to Africa in 2010 — doing a six-month stay with the Peace Corps in Mozambique. The assignment was part of a massive undertaking by an American philanthropist (Greg Carr) to restore to grandeur a historically significant wildlife (safari) park, which had been decimated because of a 20-year armed conflict. Cummings and her program advisor were able to develop an independent study program that fit within the parameters of her MPA studies.
In 2012, Cummings completed her Master’s and started working as the Director of Philanthropic Partnerships for the Fresno Grizzlies. She tells you, “I was a founder of a program called ‘Farm Grown.’ We capitalized on the positive reputation of the Grizzlies Community Fund’s ‘Wild About Reading’ literacy program, which reaches approximately 80,000–100,000 school children every year. We saw there was an opportunity to bring an extra level of education into the classroom: agricultural education. The Farm Grown magazine, a major component to the program, promotes literacy and teaches students where their food comes from. I think it brought to the Grizzlies a tremendous vitality and connection with the larger community.”
In 2014 Cummings returned to Africa.
For two years Cummings was devoted to serving as Africa Regional Director of the Tererai Trent International Foundation. She says, “My work included connecting people; working with the village chiefs, all of the way up to various ministries of government. I felt most happy when working alongside the committed teachers, staff, and volunteers of Tererai’s school. That level of meaningful community engagement allowed my Zimbabwean co-director, Clif Ngwara, and me to put Tererai Trent’s organization on the map, in an official capacity. Tererai continues to do outstanding work furthering educational opportunities, especially for girls, who are often denied an education due to antiquated thoughts based on gender.”
Cummings tells you she returned to Fresno about five months ago, saying, “When my family returned, it really felt like a homecoming. I even re-joined my former Rotary Club of Fresno. People were happy to see me again. My children are back in the school district where they previously attended, and we plan to stay until they graduate.”
Meanwhile, Cummings has already dug her heels in deep on a dynamic grassroots initiative that the United Way is launching in the coming months, called “The Yield.” The initiative reminds her of a community empowerment strategy used on Tererai Trent’s project in Africa, where the focus of the model is to help lift up communities, beginning with the school. She says, “The Yield seeks to provide added resources to working families, so that they may improve their personal livelihoods. This is best accomplished through the expansion (and full utilization) of educational opportunities, an increase in income levels and better access to healthcare.”
“As long as you have a motivated community who puts forth the required effort to make real noticeable change, whether in Africa or America, better outcomes for society are possible. That’s what I see myself doing here now, being able to serve the United Way as an instrument to foster positive change.”
When you ask what her plans are for the future, Cummings leans back in her office chair, gazes out into the parking lot, and smiles coyly, “I’m always aware of what’s going on in southern Africa. It’s kind of a dual existence for me; and I see myself going back again after my kids have graduated high school.”