Paula Means (formerly Paula Parker-Sawyers) has dedicated her life to making health a priority in Indianapolis. Throughout her career, she’s championed for increasing health standards and reducing infant mortality rates.
Means credits her parents and grandparents for inspiring her to get involved in community service. Her father was a professional musician who knew the community well. He eventually went into politics, which opened Means’ eyes to “the community and its needs and wants.” Her mother was a champion in the community with the Girl Scouts, while her grandmother raised more than 100 children through babysitting. “I had wonderful role models who taught me the importance of giving back even when you feel you have nothing to give back,” she said.
While growing up during the Civil Rights Era, Means became one of the first African Americans to graduate from Northwest High School and was also an Indianapolis 500 Festival Princess. During this time, she was incredibly influenced by the work of Marvella Bayh and Esther Bray – women who gave of themselves through political service from different sides of the aisle. “They realized the goal is the same even if we may be on different sides,” she said.
Inspired by these dynamic women, Means dedicated herself to political service. She has spent decades focusing on health in Indianapolis; first in her role of city-county councilwoman and later as the first female deputy mayor of Indianapolis and leader of the Indiana Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Her charge as deputy mayor was to reduce the infant mortality rate, something she is still passionate about today. “We continue to have babies die before they reach the age of one. As a community we fail in our efforts to keep that from happening. Infant mortality is a measure of the community’s overall health. We aren’t there yet.”
Means is also concerned about the disparate impact of infant mortality in minority communities. “African American children are two times as likely to die as opposed to their Caucasian counterparts. For us to be strong as a community we must make health a priority.”
Means embodies what it means to be an unsung hero, advocate and engaged citizen, and she encourages others to do the same. “Identify your own personal passion and have a love for that passion that goes beyond everyday activities. This is what keeps you going even when you are tired. Passion is key.”