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Meaningful Voyaging: A Sabbatical Honoree’s Journey

Mel Mason, executive director of The Village Project, poses with Olmec Head at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The Olmec are believed to be the first major civilization in Mexico.

Cal Wellness Sabbatical Award honoree Mel Mason adventured across three countries during his time away from work. But he nearly didn’t apply for the award at all.

As executive director of The Village Project for more than 11 years, Mr. Mason had to be convinced to apply.

“My board chair and my wife said ‘you need to apply.’ I applied, and then waited for the ‘thanks but no thanks’ call,” Mr. Mason said. “The day I received a phone call here that I had actually been honored with the sabbatical, I almost fell out of my chair. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”

A start in civil rights

Mr. Mason created The Village Project with his wife Regina in 2004. The organization, which came about as a result of the passage of the Mental Health Services Act, was established to help meet the mental health needs of underserved African Americans.

“With the Village Project, I often go back to my start in civil rights, because it goes back to my wife’s and my involvement in civil rights and social equality,” Mr. Mason said. “Back when I was in the Black Panther Party, I wanted to make things better in society for folks who’ve been historically oppressed,” including providing services for communities such as free breakfast for children and free medical clinics.

In fact, Mr. Mason once received a call from one of his fellow Black Panthers, who told him: “You understand that you’re carrying on the legacy of the Black Panther Community Survival Programs at The Village Project?” And I said, “Yes, we absolutely are.”

During his sabbatical, Mr. Mason traveled extensively and went on trips that connected him to his heritage.

“I went to Cherokee, NC, as part of my Cherokee heritage,” Mr. Mason said. “Following that, I went through Black towns in Mexico including Yanga and Veracruz, and then to Canada where, among other things, I visited St. Catharines where Harriet Tubman lived from 1851 to 1861.  I visited her old church and also a school that was built in 2016 and named for her. I also met with some very bright and very committed young Black psychologists in Toronto who now view me as an elder and mentor.”  (Story continues below)

In Canada, Mr. Mason visited Harriet Tubman’s former church and a school named for her in 2016. Ms. Tubman was known for her work helping enslaved persons escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Empowering staff

Before his time away, Mr. Mason also mapped out a plan with his wife for The Village Project to keep running smoothly during his travels. The Village Project staff “felt empowered to work independently and strengthen how they worked together as a team.” He added “they had faith in themselves and when I came back, I could see the fruits of their labor.”

Focusing on self-care

Part of Mr. Mason’s work at The Village Project also involves educating staff around self-care practices. He shared that “While I talk about self-care to my staff and have a curriculum, and every time I do it, my staff start snickering. I’m talking about something I don’t know how to do for myself.”

But after the sabbatical, Mr. Mason learned firsthand the importance of self-care.

“I can hardly put into words how grateful I am to have had the opportunity. After my sabbatical, I’ve realized now I have to take more vacation—and vacations that are really vacations, so that I’m able to sustain myself. I’ve learned that a vacation does not mean being available for work. So I’ll be making sure that I travel more—I’ll be out and away.”

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