Volunteer of the Year Was Integral to New Fellowship
Volunteer of the Year Was Integral to New Fellowship
If you Google Altria’s John D. Mason, you’ll find images of a dapper gentleman at opening-night receptions for major cultural events in the nation’s capital — at the Kennedy Center, maybe, or the National Gallery of Art. “I guess I’m a man about town,” the recipient of this year’s Public Affairs Council’s Volunteer of the Year Award says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “Just last night I was at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for the opening of the Simone Leigh exhibit. She’s the Black feminist artist who represented the U.S. at the 2022 Venice Biennale.”
Senior director of federal government affairs for Altria Client Services, Mason was not born into the glitterati, however. “I was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by a single mom — a strong Black woman — who owned a beauty salon where my siblings and I helped out,” he says. Mason’s involvement in the Foundation for Public Affairs’ Hogans Fellowship, a big factor in his selection, was driven by a desire to help others rise in their careers and to help organizations “in an America that is changing so rapidly. I understand how diversity drives business success,” he says. “I’m used to the situation where, in a professional setting, there are not a lot of people who look like me in the room, and that needs to change.”
The Volunteer of the Year honors an individual from a member organization who has made an outstanding contribution to the Council and the broader profession. Mason, as outgoing Council Chair Mary Moore Hamrick said in presenting the award at the Council’s Fall Board Meeting in October, was “an integral resource” for the creation of the Hogans Fellowship, which focuses on the retention and advancement of leaders from diverse backgrounds in public affairs. He “not only helped Council staff to conceptualize the program but has continued to actively provide ideas and other support,” hosting “an in-person, half-day convening for the fellows at his office in June. He served as a speaker at the event and encouraged other senior leaders who are people of color to attend and network with the fellows.”
A newly elected Council board member, Mason, in accepting the award, reflected on his own career trajectory. “A lot of people don’t know this, but I started my corporate career by being a receptionist at Altria.” And he went on to say he was determined to “expand my knowledge base and elevate my profile.”
‘I Was a Sponge’
After working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he joined Altria and had his first experience with the Council, back in 2010, “when I was still in an admin role and just learning about the profession. I was a sponge. I loved the opportunity to learn and network and discovered that I loved policy and advocating for causes I believe in, and within a few years, I was on the advisory board of one of the annual PAC conferences.” At Altria, he rose through its ranks to manage its political action committee, stakeholder engagement, and some of its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs.
Mason is also a member of the Council’s Social Impact Committee, which provides strategic and programmatic guidance on environmental, social and governance (ESG) and sustainability frameworks in support of member needs. But his volunteering has hardly been confined to the Council, as rewarding as he says that experience has been. Among other activities, he serves on the board of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees, where he is on the Executive Committee and is a member of its DEI Task Force. He also serves on the board of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, where he is chair of the Corporate Advisory Council.
Besides being instrumental in the development of the Hogans Fellowship, as Hamrick said, Mason has been a frequent and popular speaker at Council workshops and webinars. “His presentations are thoughtful and substantive, and he’s one of our highest-rated speakers,” she said.
Mason is also active with neighborhood groups far removed from K Street. He has been co-chair of the Leadership Council of Miriam’s Kitchen, a Washington, D.C.-based program that helps alleviate homelessness and provides meals throughout the city. He has also served on the board of the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum.
Anacostia, a community of color just across the Potomac River from Capitol Hill, is just beginning to undergo the gentrification that the rest of the city has experienced. “There are a lot of positive aspects that go with gentrification, but some downside as well,” Mason says. “It is important to me that people of color who have lived their entire lives in Anacostia be able to stay there and not get pushed out as the neighborhood changes.”
Just ‘Giving Back’
For all his generous involvement in worthy causes, Mason says he never thinks of it as volunteering. “As far as I’m concerned, it is an honor to be able to participate with the Council at this level and to be to be able to ‘give back,’ as they say, and help other people from backgrounds like mine to grow and thrive and make their own contribution within the public affairs profession. I also see it as supporting the profession that has helped me achieve my personal and professional goals and continues to do so.”
Something the poet and activist Maya Angelou wrote continues to inspire him. Angelou learned, Mason says, “that you ‘shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back.’ That’s how I think of my own ‘volunteering.’ I’m just trying to throw something back.”
For all his generous involvement in worthy causes, Mason says he never thinks of it as volunteering. “As far as I’m concerned, it is an honor to be able to participate with the Council at this level and to be to be able to ‘give back,’ as they say, and help other people from backgrounds like mine to grow and thrive and make their own contribution within the public affairs profession.”