Conversation with Tereska James, President & Founder, Brown Skin Too Foundation
Finding A Niche & Shining a Light
November 22, 2017
1. What is your non-profit?
Brown Skin Too Foundation is a 501c3 that provides education and awareness about melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, to people of color and promotes skin wellness. Throughout the year, we tell our story of how we came into existence and educate people on the importance of skin protection by placing emphasis on the fact that anyone can be diagnosed with skin cancer regardless of skin color. When skin cancer is diagnosed in people of color, particularly in African-Americans, it’s usually caught at a later stage and has a worse prognosis. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one out of five Americans will develop skin cancer in a course of a lifetime, but the estimated five-year melanoma survival rate for African-Americans is 70% versus 93% for Caucasians. That disparity is alarming.
We hold an annual benefit called “Melanin Bright, Shine the Light” which brings awareness to the disease and honors the memory of my sister Tanya A. Haman. We’ve partnered with the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services and made a Public Service Announcement for their Healthy Delaware Now and Protect Your Skin Delaware campaigns. We also speak at local churches under their health and wellness umbrella, talking to congregations about melanoma and the importance of protecting your skin. We have been guests on local cable and regional television and participated in a number of events and festivals throughout the state, including the August Quarterly just recently, where we worked to spread awareness of melanoma and provided education materials as well as SPF samples.
For the past two years, we have held workshops for campers at the West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington, Delaware, where we educate about 50 school-aged children on the importance of protecting one’s skin and using SPF. We also partnered with Westside Family Healthcare where we hold skin check clinics. During Skin Cancer Awareness Month in May, we participate in Don’t Fry Day which is a national event to provide skin cancer awareness during the last Friday in May. We’re very busy during the summer months, but skin exposure in summer isn’t the only time people have to take precautions. Any time one’s skin is exposed to harmful UV rays from the sun, people need protection, even in the colder months. Summer is typically the time of year when the use of SPF is top of mind.
2. What made you decide to start your non-profit?
Brown Skin Too Foundation was formed out of loss. My sister Tanya passed away in December of 2015 from stage four melanoma. So through her passing, I wanted to educate people about this disease and how it impacts people of color. A few weeks after Tanya died, I told my mom that I had to do something to make people in our community aware at this disease. So our mission is to provide education, awareness of melanoma, and to promote skin wellness among people of color. Tanya became ill the weekend of Labor Day. She went to urgent care and the doctor told her to go home, that she had a viral infection that needed to run its course and to go to the ER if she wasn’t feeling better. She was still very ill a few days later, and when my mom took her to the emergency room they discovered that it was cancer and that it was stage four plus.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
When my sister was diagnosed and we were telling people that she was diagnosed with melanoma, people would say, “What do you mean? Black people don’t get skin cancer.” So the name Brown Skin Too came just out of that, that brown people also get skin cancer too. Skin cancer in our community has not been widely discussed because of the common myth that people of color, in particular, African-Americans, do not get skin cancer because of the melanin in our skin. And so because of that myth, it’s really often caught in a last stage which results in a higher fatality rate–even though the incidence of melanoma is higher in the Caucasian population.
If you have always been taught from a little kid that because you have darker skin or you have melanin in your skin, that you don’t need some protection, then all of the awareness currently out there is going to be lost on you. People of color are more likely to dismiss awareness programs by thinking that only white people get skin cancer. So I have friends who are healthy, they exercise, they eat right, do everything right. And of that group, I have friends who don’t use SPF because they think that their dark skin will protect them. And I’m like, “Wow. You’re wrong.” Of course, they know better now. My mission is telling people that skin cancer is an equal opportunity cancer, and it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of color.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
I wouldn’t call it an obstacle, but the biggest challenge was getting off the ground as a 501c3 and learning how to get started. There are so many resources available out there to start a not-for-profit or small business, but when you’re doing something on a limited or shoe-string budget, how you go about using those resources as efficiently as possible is the key. So I relied on a lot of advice and information from people who had either started their own businesses or their own not-for-profits. I spoke to as many people as I could to get their input. I initially tried to do the setup of the 501c3 myself, but I found out that it was easier for me to hand over that task to a company that specialized in not-for-profits.
5. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
Initially, I started out with a larger board of directors, people who were friends or who had a personal vested interest in how the organization started. And I ended up having to disband the original board partly because many people didn’t understand the commitment involved. We operate and conduct ourselves as a business. I am running this as a professional organization and an official 501c3, so I really needed to treat the board the same way. So once people understood the time commitment and that we were a working board, many people opted out.
Now we are a lean, hard-working board made up of four family members and one longtime family friend. We all have key roles and hold ourselves accountable through our yearly strategic planning sessions, regular check-ins during event planning, and quarterly board meetings. We have a board advisor who is a veteran in the not-for-profit field and serves as our compass on key matters. In addition, we also have two dermatologists of color who serve as medical experts. So they keep us abreast of anything from the medical standpoint and also work to educate us and serve as an enforcement of the work that we’re doing. So anyone else we would bring on the board, we would vet very carefully.
6. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
I went to a company Harbor Compliance. And they literally did everything starting from setting up the legal entity. I felt really comfortable and was excited about the whole process. I thought about their cost as an investment, and it was worth it. I also worked with a very talented graphic designer who created the logo. I created the website myself using the Squarespace platform. For technical questions, I rely on a friend who’s a wiz in IT. I think in terms of establishing and seeking out resources, there is an opportunity to get pro bono work done…it’s just a matter of asking the question. Talk to your friends who are attorneys and offer pro-bono services through their firms. Most major cities have organizations that are geared towards assisting not-for-profits. There are also tons of online resources available.
7. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your foundation off the ground?
Initially, I used personal funds to get started. And through our fundraising efforts, we put that money back into the organization to fund programs and events. We hope to expand our operating budget in the future by diversifying how we raise money for the organization. If there are things that I or the board needs to be reimbursed for, we take that to the full board and get their approval either prior to spending the money or having the receipts to back up that the expense was attributed to needs for the foundation.
8. What was the best and worst piece of advice you have received as you were starting your foundation?
Someone recommended that I not start a 501c3 because the not-for-profit would always compete against older established organizations who were vying for funding for the same cause. But since we focus on people of color and a lot of the organizations that focus on skin cancer and melanoma aren’t focused on my demographic, I don’t see competition of funds as a problem. It feels like the broader outreach is missing communities of color. We have been able to do so much that it feels like Brown Skin Too has a strong niche that is filling a need.
9. Do you use social media for marketing your foundation?
Because we’re concentrated in such a small geographic area with limited resources, in terms of what we can do, the biggest thing that we do is use social media to get the word out and of course, tell our story to anyone who will listen. Building relationships and connecting with people in an authentic way is also key to what we do. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, we’re on Twitter as Shine the Light. My goal was to continue to grow and take this to a national level and garner additional funding through grants and donors.
10. What are your hopes for your foundation for the next five years?
Through our focused strategic planning and firm direction, our mission is continued growth. Our goal is to become recognized on a national level. The work that we do to bring awareness to this disease is important. Until everyone knows the importance of protecting their skin and how this disease can impact people of color, our work is not done. We need to influence changes in behavior and dispel myths. Skin cancer can impact anyone, period.
Conversation on October 27, 2017