White-Hammond recalls both the boldness and humility Mason showed in Darfur, where they, along with former Boston TV news anchor Liz Walker, aimed to draw attention to the rapes, murders, and torture committed by government troops and allied militias. It was a delicate situation, and some Mercy Corps officials — ostensibly there for humanitarian, not political, purposes — were leery of the interviews Mason and the others planned to conduct with local women. Mason appreciated the sensitivity, but she wouldn’t back down, White-Hammond says. “She said: ‘Look, you don’t think we came all the way here just to hold women’s hands? There’s a story to be told.’ ” That trip helped publicize the crisis in Darfur.
More recently, Mason has been working in the Middle East, helping chart courses to democracy and stability. She will soon return to the West Bank and Gaza, where Mercy Corps is trying to spark the Palestinian technology industry. Fostering business relationships among Israeli and Palestinian IT firms, she hopes, will build “an economic bridge to peace.” After Moammar Khadafy’s government fell in Libya, Mercy Corps began training tribal leaders in negotiation and mediation and opened “civil society resource centers,” to help establish a new class of nonprofit and social service leaders. “There’s this thirst to build the country from the bottom up,” Mason says. She will also travel to Myanmar soon and is hopeful of getting back into Syria, which has been ravaged by civil war.
Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer marvels at Mason’s versatility — how she can assist a grandmother in a refugee camp one day and meet with the first lady of a country the next. “She has this amazing ability to be present, to be real, across the socioeconomic strata,” says Keny-Guyer, who worked with Mason and Brown in Southeast Asia years ago. Susan Whitehead, a friend who serves on the Horizons for Homeless Children board, adds, “I’ve never seen anybody occupy their space in quite the same way.”
Those who have known or worked with Mason attribute her success in business and aid work to her pairing of two impulses: a deep empathy for people, especially women and children, and a strong belief in private-sector values: efficiency, professional management, and empowering solutions that work. Indeed, Mercy Corps often seeks out what’s proved successful on the ground and builds from there. It is a departure from the traditional top-down approach to relief: collect resources and dump them into a disaster zone. That, Mason says, can backfire by gutting local markets and dampening people’s impetus to help themselves. “Where we get most excited is where we see these incredible pockets of initiative,” Mason says.
In their book on Cambodia, Mason and Brown wrote, “Relief organizations have no armies, no large staffs, no resources on a grand scale, and very little formal political power.” What humanitarian efforts must do, they said, is “capitalize upon the few sources of strength that are theirs.” Mason insists that no success has been hers alone, but it’s evident she has long been a wellspring of strength for so many.
How is she not overwhelmed by the persistence of need, the vast and stubborn crises? First, she’s an optimist; she says she couldn’t do the work otherwise. Mason also keeps in mind something she heard decades ago from Mother Teresa, with whom she volunteered at homes in Calcutta that each served 90 destitute and dying people. A journalist said to Mother Teresa: Great for the 90, but what about the millions dying in misery outside your doors? Her reply, Mason says, was this: “Son, one by one by one.”
These days, Mason travels abroad every two or three months. When she returns, her refuge is a community of friends and family in Belmont. She treasures the restorative walks with her girlfriends through Mass Audubon’s Habitat sanctuary. She also treasures exposing her three children to the world, transcending what her own father did with her. Each of them — 16- and 23-year-old daughters and a 21-year-old son — has accompanied Mason on relief trips. Her oldest daughter spent a year before college volunteering with Mercy Corps in Jordan. They are all humanitarians-in-training. It’s hard to imagine Mason having it any other way.