Dana Graves

“Be who you needed when you were younger.”

When I first heard these eight words more than a decade ago, they stopped me in my tracks. 

  • Who had I needed as a child growing up on the northside of St. Louis, where the asthma I suffered merely validated the statistic that my community’s asthma rates were higher than the nation’s average? 
  • Who had I needed when I lived in a neighborhood with burned-out streetlights, broken sidewalks, increasing crime and a zip code that predicted a shorter lifespan than one just a few miles away?
  • Who had I needed as I began my career and moved through rooms without faces in leadership that looked like mine?

“Be who you needed when you were younger” was more than a catchy phrase — it became my personal challenge. 

Living out these eight words means using my voice as an advocate for historically disadvantaged populations who need access to the tools and resources that are at the foundation of health and success. In Virginia, Sentara Cares is an unprecedented initiative focused on advancing health equity, building grassroots engagement and ensuring that all members of our communities have what they need to live their healthiest and most fulfilling lives. As a Sentara hospital president, I get to partner in this work that provided over $16 million in community grants and $23 million in health education and prevention programs. 

Living out these eight words also means that I show up. I am grateful for organizations like the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE) that exposed me to powerful Black women in health care leadership. I saw myself reflected in them and I began to dream bigger. Now, I get to do that for others. From reading to elementary school kids to mentoring early careerists to serving on boards — I show up. It is critical that those of us from underrepresented communities allow those coming after us the chance to see themselves and dream big. I will never forget when a young girl came up to me after a panel that I participated in and said, “Your hair is curly like mine. I think I’ll be a CEO too one day.” I smiled and told her that I couldn’t wait to see it happen. 

How can you live out these eight words?

  • Find a community organization that you believe in and join the board to give your time, talent and treasure.
  • Set a S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound) goal to diversify your organization or team at all levels by removing unconscious bias in your hiring practices and requiring a diverse applicant pool.
  • Get familiar with your organization’s health equity efforts and identify two ways that you can amplify the work.
  • Ensure your daily rounds include all levels and all roles within your organization.
  • Commit to mentorship for underrepresented emerging leaders.

There are countless ways that you can be who you needed when you were younger. I hope you join me in the challenge. 


Dana Weston Graves is the president of Sentara Princess Anne Hospital.

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