Hull Fellows Highlight: Meredith Sullivan Benton
Meredith Sullivan Benton has been everywhere, setting foot on all seven continents before she was 30. She’s worked for many well-known figures, including two governors, a U.S. senator and a former President of the United States.
Yet in order to take her career in philanthropy to the next level, she had to do one more thing: become an SECF Hull Fellow. Meredith, the vice president of programs and advocacy at The Healing Trust in Nashville, said she joined the leadership development program to further not only her work, but that of the foundation.
“My two co-workers at The Trust, CEO Kristen Keely-Dinger and Communications Director Jennifer Oldham, are both alumni. They encouraged me to apply to delve deeper into Southern philanthropy and build friendships in the sector,” Meredith said. “They both maintain the relationships they made almost a decade ago and I wanted to have a network to call on in building and advancing the work of The Trust.”
Moving her work forward has become even more important in 2020 – along with the pandemic and community calls for racial justice, Nashville has also had to rebuild and recover from devastating tornadoes that hit only days before COVID-19 forced much of the city to shut down.
“Middle Tennessee experienced tremendous disparities in the impact of COVID and in response to the tornado that devastated Middle Tennessee two weeks prior to the pandemic,” she said. “So we are experiencing first-hand how our unjust systems are affecting health disparities.”
A health legacy foundation, The Healing Trust maintains a strong focus on access to health care, though it increasingly looks at the issue through the lens of equity. The foundation began its own equity journey 18 months ago – while that is still ongoing, it has already affected The Healing Trust’s approach to pandemic response and, Meredith said, her own work, in which she engages nonprofits and philanthropy in systems change advocacy work, helping to build and refine systems and policies to create better communities.
“As a health funder, all of our grantees are affected and we’ve worked to support them,” she said. “We signed on to the Council on Foundations COVID Response Pledge and implemented changes as outlined there, including unrestricting grants, postponing or eliminating requirements, increasing communications with partners, and advocating for systemic change alongside our grantees.”
During this eventful year, Meredith said she’s benefited from the guidance of her Hull Mentor: Susan Shumaker, president of the Cone Health Foundation in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“Our foundations have similar missions but different approaches. We are both evolving and have shared resources with each other to support our work,” Meredith said. “Personally, Susan helped me blend my responsibilities as a professional and single mom more seamlessly.”
In addition to her work and family, Meredith also describes herself as an avid traveler and hiker, having done both in Peru, New Zealand and Spain, among other places. Meredith’s political work has followed an unconventional path, as well – she’s worked for an equal number of Democrats and Republicans
“Regardless of the party or position in government, I saw the need for powerful and persuasive advocacy from the nonprofit sector to influence change,” Meredith said.