Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

College fund staffer recalls mom’s fight for her children’s education

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Here’s a Q&A I did with Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, the area development director for the United Negro College Fund Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and TC Daily Planet.

College fund staffer recalls mom’s fight for her children’s education

by Anna Pratt

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Originally posted 2/16/2010

UNCF’s Sharon Smith-Akinsanya now advocates for Black higher ed

Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, the area development director for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), is in constant conversation with representatives of corporations and foundations and others about how they can help close the racial achievement gap — by giving money to the organization for Black students’ college tuition.

Smith-Akinsanya, (SSA) who arrived in the Twin Cities 25 years ago after having lived in St. Louis, MO, and elsewhere, talked to MSR about how her mother’s unusual tactics for getting her children a decent education in the segregation era and her past work in sales and marketing influence her present work on behalf of Black higher education.

MSR: Tell me more about your job. Why is it important?

SSA: I feel privileged to be talking about educating kids with individuals, corporations and foundations on a daily basis. I help donors understand why it’s so critical to continue to support UNCF. Conversely, I help students understand the need to be great stewards of those dollars, making sure that they’re meeting requirements and making us proud.

It’s important that the community pays attention to what scholarships are available. Education is the key to success. Even in the recession, there are jobs available that we [as a society] can’t fill. There’s a skills gap.

Corporations know how critical it is to have an educated workforce. They get it.

It’s our responsibility to do more advocacy efforts to help give Black and low-income kids what they need. They’re falling behind in school while today a college degree is more important than ever. If you don’t educate children, crime goes up. Everyone gets mad at one another. Education affords opportunities to make it an even playing field. People are happier. They can take care of their families. In America, to be competitive, we have to up our game.

MSR: What did you do before coming to UNCF? How did you get here?

SSA: I studied mass communications at Lindenwood in St. Charles, MO. At first, I wanted to do radio and TV. Later, I decided to do sales and marketing. I got good doing radio sales in St. Louis, MO, New Orleans and Richmond, VA, before coming to Minneapolis in 1991. I did radio sales at KDWB. After that I worked with Prince, doing marketing for some nightclubs that he owned at the time.

Then I went back to radio. Twelve years ago I started the Rae Mackenzie Group, where I worked with corporations, teaching them how to build better relationships with communities of color.

In 2007, the recession started and businesses were hurting. I had a business that many companies could delete. I was in denial because as a salesperson, you don’t want to believe there’s something that you can’t continue to sell. But that was the reality. So I started looking for something else. One day, I got a phone call about the UNCF opening from someone who had previously done this job. He said, “You’d be great for this.” So I followed up on the lead. It was a great opportunity.

MSR: How does your education relate to your work?

SSA: Growing up, we lived on the wrong side of the tracks. My mother said it wasn’t an option for us to go to the neighborhood school. She wanted my brother and me to go to school with the White kids. She wanted us to get a quality education. So, she used to borrow addresses.

MSR: Wait, how did you pull that off?

SSA: She would drop us off at the bus stop and we would stand there like we lived there. We’d have to remember our new address. I think we collected the mail in our backpacks. I’m not sure how my mom arranged that. We’d stay about six months at a school, until we got kicked out. Then she’d borrow another address. I think we went to eight schools that way.

At one point, we were in a Catholic school, which my mom scraped money together for. Finally, when I was in high school, places became desegregated and we were able to go to school legitimately.

Going to college was a given, with her making that sacrifice. I have that expectation for my daughter Rae, who’s 13. I know what it’s like to have someone fighting for your schooling. I’m trying to be a role model for her.

MSR: It’s interesting that should be your experience considering what you’re doing now. So, who has been a role model for you?

SSA: My role model is my mother. She is special. She has great wisdom. She used to say that everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. Donald Trump has the same 24 hours [as you]. It’s about what you do with yours.

She taught me to be a caretaker, but she said, “Always take care of yourself first so you can help others.” If you’re looking good, smelling good, you can take care of your family. You can’t be run down.

MSR: How do you achieve that kind of balance?

SSA: I try to get out of here at a decent hour. You have to reach out and grab balance. After a good full day of work, fun has to be a priority. You have to take time for that, to have work-life balance. That means planning happy hours, getting them on the calendar.

My daughter and I love theater. We’re huge musical fans. We’re huge consumers of TV, public TV, documentaries and educational pieces. All of us — Rae, my mom, me, we all live together — we’re all big music fans.

We like jazz, pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, soul and blues. We also like good food and cooking. We like to have meaningful fun.

To learn more about UNCF, check out www. (Click on the Star Power logo to donate or the “For Students” button for scholarship information.)

Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to


Written by annapratt

February 17, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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