The weekend Danté McKay was scheduled to take his Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), he decided to save a stranger’s life instead.
Several years earlier, he had signed up for the National Marrow Donor Program. When he learned in February 2001 that he was a match for someone in desperate need, and that his donation could not be delayed, he made a fast decision. “I couldn’t change my mind once I had made that commitment,” he said. He skipped the law exams and donated his bone marrow instead. It would be several years before his own commitments and the scheduling of the exam again converged.
That kind of dedication still guides McKay’s professional life. Today, he is the Georgia state director of Enroll America, a national nonprofit organization that is helping the uninsured and underinsured gain coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.
“The work I do now very much serves as a catalyst to make change,” he says. “There are a lot of things that I can do professionally, but I’ve found only a few endeavors to feed the internal fire. Being able to be a voice for those who don’t have access really provides a valuable element to the work.”
Stepping stones of a career path. A look back to McKay’s early educational and career decisions reveals what the combination of thoughtful planning and serendipity can do. Writing always came easily, and he majored in mass media arts at Clark Atlanta University, in Georgia. That talent—combined with his passion for sports—sparked an interest in sports public relations. After two internships—one with the PGA (Professional Golf Association) tour, the other with the sports management agency Advantage International—McKay landed as a contractor in the public relations department of the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball team.
Eventually, he grew discouraged by the uncertainty of finding permanent employment in the sports world and took a job with Ketchum, then the largest public relations firm in the Southeast, where he serviced clients selling consumer goods and technology products. From there he moved on to Paragon Productions, a multi-disciplinary consulting firm. After doing some pro bono work for the Georgia Black Chamber of Commerce, and DeKalb County Commissioner Lou Walker, “I got very interested in policy and politics,” McKay said. The idea of law school surfaced again.
McKay re-upped for the LSATs, and this time he took them, applied to law school, and enrolled in the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, La., in August 2004.
Three years later, with his law degree in hand, McKay joined the Office of the Child Advocate in DeKalb County, first as a paralegal and then as an investigator. His responsibilities included advocating for the legal rights of children and visiting juveniles in foster care, psychiatric facilities, and other nonparental settings. The power of wise public policy grew more apparent to him.
Driving in his car one day while conducting client visits, McKay happened to hear an advertisement on the local African-American radio station for an informational session that very evening about the National Urban Fellows Master of Public Administration (MPA) Fellowship, a 14-month program that offers a combination of training leading to a graduate degree and a nine-month mentorship assignment. (Read the Progress Report to learn more about the program.)
“It sounded like it was right up my alley so I rearranged my schedule for the day, went to the meeting, and liked what I heard,” he recalls. Events moved quickly after that. Accepted into the 2011 class of fellows, he began his coursework at Baruch in June 2010 and was assigned a mentorship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in September.
Boot camp at the National Urban Fellows. McKay describes his nine months at RWJF as having three parts—exposure to the work of program staff; participating on the Coverage team as it pursued its goal of making affordable health insurance coverage available to 95 percent of Americans; and providing support to Debra Pérez, PhD, MA, MPA, former assistant vice president of Research and Evaluation.
From his perch at RWJF, he had a chance to see how grantmaking decisions get made, attend learning sessions with outside experts, such as Medicaid 101 and Strategic Planning vs. Business Planning, and participate in executive-level training on making presentations and working with the media. He was also there when DiKembe Mutombo, the National Basketball Association great, was honored with the RWJF Sports Philanthropy Award, and he proudly displays a photo of them together—McKay doesn’t quite come up to the 7’2” center’s shoulder.
Among other projects for the Coverage team, McKay became involved in RWJF’s Consumer Voices for Coverage: Strengthening State Advocacy Networks to Expand Health Coverage. He quickly realized that the full spectrum of the American landscape was not represented among the advocates. “You had all these high-level conversations related to health reform and coverage and moving things forward, but when you looked around the room, there wasn’t very much racial and ethnic diversity.”
For his fellowship capstone, McKay surveyed Consumers Voices for Coverage grantees, and concluded that lack of diversity within this group may limit the Coverage team’s ability to meet its goal—given the demographics of the uninsured. He recommended a number of steps that RWJF could take to develop and recruit strong leadership from communities of color.
McKay’s final set of responsibilities were guided by his mentor Pérez. He calls her a “jack-of-all trades,” which meant, he added, that “I had to be one too.” One of his tasks was to develop a webinar series on the RWJF grantmaking process in order to improve the quality of proposals that were submitted. He also contributed to discussions among RWJF’s Diversity team and brainstormed strategies for a national call to action on racial equity and social justice for the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance.
Prior to his RWJF experience, McKay had little exposure to the world of philanthropy. “The Foundation allowed me to pull back the curtain and open up a whole new world,” he says. “Private foundations weren’t on my radar.”
McKay says his experience as a National Urban Fellow was a bit like boot camp. During his nine-month mentorship, he was expected to meet his 9 to 5 responsibilities at RWJF, while continuing to work towards graduate credits. “I basically worked around the clock. In the evenings I’d break for dinner and then do schoolwork until the lights went out, and then start all over again the next day.”
Added to all that, McKay had been recently married, and his wife was pregnant, so he regularly travelled back to Atlanta during the same period. “It was a very intensive nine months,” he comments—with characteristic understatement.
Dedicated to the disadvantaged. Because he had a law degree before joining the National Urban Fellows, McKay initially considered the opportunity to earn an MPA degree a bonus, not the primary draw. But it turned out to be essential for his professional advancement. “Now, being on the other side, I realize how much I didn’t know,” he acknowledges. “I really see that having two advanced degrees, and those experiences, enhanced my skill set and changed my thought process. That was a revelation to me.”
In what he calls a natural progression from the fellowship, McKay joined Voices for Georgia’s Children in September 2011, as associate policy director of child health. The Atlanta-based nonpartisan agency advocates for more public investments in early childhood, insurance coverage for all children, and strategies to help youth transition successfully into adulthood.
“We serve as a voice for children to make sure their interests are represented and heard,” he says. His work included educating and lobbying elected officials, convening thought leaders, participating in state and national coalitions, and working with media.
His next move, to Enroll America in August 2013, was another way to fulfill his commitment to the uninsured. Georgia has one of the nation’s highest rates of uninsurance, especially among minorities, and in his new role McKay is building a network of staff and volunteers to blanket the state with information about health insurance marketplaces. Opposition from select legislators remains fierce, but McKay is determined and excited about the opportunity. “It’s really a continuation of some of the work I was doing at RWJF and Voices,” he says.
Meanwhile, he also is honing the skills he needs to promote change, most recently as part of the 2013 cohort of Atlanta Leaders for Results, a leadership-development program sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. A leader, he says, “is someone who thinks long term, is compassionate, honest, hard-working and basically has resolve.”
Because it is not easy being a leader, McKay says it is also essential to just hang in there—be “a person who can sustain.” Dante McKay seems determined to sustain.
RWJF perspective. RWJF began serving as a National Urban Fellows mentorship site in 2005, and has supported between two and four fellows every year since, mostly at RWJF but some at other health-related organizations. In 2010, RWJF began funding the Health Policy Advocacy and Education Initiative at National Urban Fellows to weave a public health component into the 14-month program for all MPA program participants.
“The issue of diversity is really important to the Foundation; we see it as a core value in the work that we do,” said Pérez.
A National Urban Fellow alumnus herself, Pérez considers the initiative a natural opportunity to introduce more diversity into RWJF. “We believe that having folks at the table who represent folks in the communities in which we work is a critical part of the equation. It enhances the work that we do.” The investment also reflects RWJF’s commitment to draw more people of color into philanthropy and create a pipeline for diverse leaders, especially in the public and nonprofit sectors.
Spotlight on Dante McKay, JD, MPA, Nat'l Urban Fellow alum: Advocating for child health policies in Georgia