Written by Sue Wasserman Tuesday, October 23 2012
Timing is everything. Just ask Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk. By all accounts, she was destined to grow up an orphan in Mexico. Serendipity, however, had other plans. Her 7:11 a.m. entry into the world came on the heels of a request by John Thompson, Jr., then CEO of 7-Eleven, to adopt a child from her future orphanage. The priest, who initially informed Thompson that the orphanage didn’t make adoptions, believed the timing was a sign and called Thompson to take his future daughter home.
Growing up Thompson, Thompson-Frenk was introduced to the world, both through her father’s business and through her family’s travels abroad.
“My parents took me to diverse places such as the pyramids in Teotihuacan and fashion designers’ homes,” she says. “I got to listen in on my father’s business meetings where they introduced me to leaders from all walks of life.”
While she understood the privilege her life afforded, she just as clearly recognized she was meant to share her gifts with others.
“When you are adopted, you lose any sense of entitlement you might have. You realize that everything you have is the result of the generosity of others,” says Thompson-Frenk.
She was moved by her father’s continuous philanthropic efforts.
“Since I was a little girl,” Thompson-Frenk says, “I heard my father say ‘The easiest job in the world is to be a critic. Anyone can criticize. Anyone can say someone ought to do something about that. But if you recognize a problem, you should ask yourself, 'What solution do I have to offer?”
The Memnosyne Foundation, named after the Greek goddess of knowledge and memory, is one of Thompson-Frenk’s solutions. The mission of the Dallas, Texas-based nonprofit that she co-founded with her husband is “to provide mankind with the means to encourage positive, peaceful, global collaboration in all areas of knowledge.” In short, they serve as the catalyst for collaboration among different parties across the globe.
Her passion and commitment are clearly producing results. She quickly offers the story of Harvey Lacey, a retiree who came to Memnosyne with the idea of creating building blocks from recycled Styrofoam and plastic bags for use in building homes in Haiti.
“Harvey is a natural born engineer who created this system to turn trash into building blocks,” Thompson-Frenk says. “Not only did he see the blocks as a way to provide affordable housing, he also saw it as a means to provide women with jobs and help clean up the community.”
He applied to Memnosyne’s Hamster Wheel Program, which is dedicated to developing holistic solutions for communities in need. Memnosyne provided Lacey with $10,000 to build the first house and test it to ensure the home could withstand nature’s harshest conditions. He was also able to access support through Memnosyne’s Green Source DFW, a website that shares environmental news happening in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Lacey’s Ubunto Blox survived Category 1 hurricane winds as well as a 7.0 earthquake.
“Suddenly trash had value,” Thompson-Frenk says. “People wanted to clean it up.”
Lacey’s first Haitian home, erected by the local women he trained, stands proudly as a symbol of hope and possibility. Both Lacey and Memnosyne look forward to continued collaboration.
Helping indigenous cultures retain their heritage, particularly if that knowledge can benefit the community, is another of Memnosyne’s lofty goals. Thompson-Frenk couldn’t be more pleased with the collaborative efforts the organization recently cultivated between New Zealand’s Maori Tribe and Houston’s Menil Collection.
“When we hosted the Summit of Indigenous Environmental Philosophy two years ago, we invited the Maori elders to join us in viewing some of their artifacts at the Menil,” she remembers. “We were astounded to discover that the museum had two birthing flutes, which their ancestors designed to reduce the pain of childbirth. Colonialists, who believed such pain was God’s will, burned the flutes and murdered those who played them.”
“We brought elders, sculptors, musicians, photographers and teachers to record the sounds and study the instruments in order to reintroduce them to their people,” Thompson-Frenk smiles.
A sound bank has since been created by the Maori representatives in order to help replicate the correct sounds. Local medical practitioners have approached the organization about how the music might present a viable alternative to pain medication for women in labor.
“This is the first time a museum has worked with an indigenous group to help them reclaim their knowledge. We are hopeful this will become a model for other such collaborations,” she explains.
While the bulk of Thompson-Frenk’s time is consumed by Memnosyne endeavors, she somehow manages to carve out time for her work as an artist at Thompson Fine Arts, Inc. Over the years, Thompson-Frenk’s sculptural prowess has earned accolades from organizations ranging from the Texas Visual Arts Association to the Buckminster Fuller Institute.
“I’ve been a sculptor ever since my mother gave me Play-Doh as a child,” she says.
Even now, she still believes in letting the work flow through her as she did when she was a child. These days, though, she’s inspired by geodesics, quantum physics, sacred geometry, and the people of diverse cultures and communities she serves.
Of course, with her passion for philanthropy and penchant for art, it’s only natural that the two would ultimately converge for the achievement of some greater good. That greater good is Memnosyne’s Mural Empowerment Project, designed to inspire African-American children to believe in themselves and reach for their dreams.
“I remembered when I first saw the pyramids in Mexico,” she says. “My parents told me my ancestors had been astronomers, biologists, mathematicians. They told me I could be anything I chose. I wanted to provide that revelation for African-American children who so often only hear a narrative that says they started as slaves.”
Her solution was to design a coloring book that shows how these children have come from the likes of mathematicians and statesmen.
She goes on, “I want them to see that what’s in their DNA as African-American children is no less than anyone else’s DNA. I want them to believe that they have it in themselves to be whatever they want.”
The book is being distributed, along with an educational documentary, to schools and other outreach organizations in and beyond Dallas with the request that it be painted in. The winning entry will be announced at Memnosyne’s annual Juneteenth Festival in Dallas, which celebrates the country’s African-American history and culture.
“We will turn the winning entry into a mosaic, which we will then gift to the city of Dallas and encourage other cities to do the same,” she says.
The list of her credits and activities is as seemingly endless as the energy she possesses to make things happen. The organization sends scientists and spiritual leaders across the globe to empower communities. Their first international chapter in Japan has celebrated its second anniversary. They’ve brought several groups together to empower midwives in Yucatan to teach other young women to birth babies, take care of the sick and grow their own medicines. It should come as no surprise that Thompson-Frenk will be receiving Southern Methodist University’s 2013 Profiles in Leadership Award.
“While the current focus on globalization is on how it will affect the world economy, few are discussing how else it will continue to affect the global culture of humanity. It will affect the arts, the sciences, spirituality and the very ecology of our planet,” she offers.
“Today, we are at a point between countries and cultures where we will either bump into each other, walk over each other, or instead we can choose to collaborate with each other consciously and evolve our common humanity.”
She may not know what that next collaboration may be or where it will send her. She just knows she will be there to do her part, helping people move forward when the time is right.
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Sue Wasserman is a freelance writer, publicist and nature photographer living near Asheville, N.C. Her passion is writing about people who are passionate about what they do. Most recently, she was the public relations manager for Heery International, a large architectural/engineering firm headquartered in Atlanta, Ga. Her freelance articles have appeared in Southern Living, The New York Times, American Style, Mountain Living, Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Atlanta Business Chronicle and more.