When a woman moves forward, the entire community moves with her
Melanie Bridgeforth is quick to tell you she knows little about farming—at least relative to other family members.
The Bridgeforths are fifth-generation Alabama farmers. George Bridgeforth, a former slave, began buying land in Limestone County before Reconstruction, with a little surreptitious support perhaps from his former master, who may have acted a front man for some purchases because white landowners steadfastly refused to sell to blacks.
Today, Darden Bridgeforth and Sons, based in Tanner, covers 9,300 acres about 30 miles west of Huntsville and grows “anything that grows in a row,” Melanie says. Operated by two uncles and a host of cousins, the farm produces everything from wheat, soybeans, cotton, and peanuts to canola, which, with its striking yellow flowers, produces seeds used to make heart-healthy vegetable oil, as well as chocolate, candles and even diesel fuel.
In 2014, Bill Bridgforth was among 15 farmers nationwide recognized as an agricultural “Champion of Change” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then-president Barack Obama.
The Bridgeforths, every generation of them, “fought tooth and nail for everything we have,” Melanie says, “everything we now own.”
“It’s part of our legacy,” she adds at a local coffee shop one recent afternoon. “We were taught as young folks that we were to fight the status quo and create some unique stamp in the world. Do something very meaningful because we come from a legacy of people who did something very, very meaningful.”
Melanie is planting seeds. Just of a different sort. Seeds she believes, to the depths of her excitable spirit, will—as she once confidently declared to a grad school policy professor—”change the world”.
Bridgeforth is the newest president and CEO of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, a 22-year-old, $1.4-million non-profit whose mission is “create change” for women.
Her mission is to do so by eliminating poverty for them and their families. She calls that “real change.”
“Not the kind of short-term change that just makes you feel good,” she says, “but systemic, sustainable change.”
The fund pursues its mission in five counties through philanthropy (awarding grants to deserving organizations and programs), facilitating collaboration among non-profits servicing families, advocating for significant policy change and conducting research to support and validate its efforts.
“If you want to disrupt the cycle of poverty, the way to do that, in part, is to think of the family as a unit,” Bridgeforth says. “Not just one part of a whole, but as a whole.”
Philanthropy is a bit of a lane-change for Bridgeforth. She has long been a policy advocate, most recently as executive director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children and before representing the state as government relations director for the American Heart Association. (She helped pass several smoke-free laws throughout Alabama.) After earning a master’s in social work from the University of Alabama a decade ago, she served as a policy intern for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
She calls philanthropy “another form of activism.”
“It is programming, she says, excitedly, as she says almost everything. “It is another tool of activism. I absolutely see philanthropy as a convergence of my life’s work—policy and programs all under one roof.”
If you know John Henry, Melanie’s father, you may call him Henry. Otherwise, she says, “You call him Mr. Bridgeforth.”
Father and daughter—she also has two older brothers—were always “negotiating,” Melanie recalls. His goal may not have always been to win, but to feed and nurture his daughter’s audacity.
“He was a huge driving force in my fearlessness,” Melanie says. “[I was told] I had extreme power—even if the world told me something different. I don’t think he knew he was raising someone who was going to be outspoken on issues. It was important for him for me to know I had a voice.”
If Mr. Bridgeforth taught his only daughter to roar, Catherine, Melanie’s mother, seeded within her to always show humility and use her voice for service.
“Whatever talents you have, use them in a way that helps others,” Catherine told her daughter. “That’s when you become great—not when you are in service to self…[That’s] when you become all those things your Daddy wanted.”
Melanie wanted to be a cheerleader. Her family lived in Athens, about six miles north of Tanner, which she recalls being “relatively mixed” demographically, compared to Athens. (African Americans comprise 17.5% of the city’s population, according to the 2016 American Community Survey 5-year estimates.)
Although the barrier was subtle and unspoken, the absence of black girls on the middle-school cheer squad screamed high-pitched volumes. Not loud enough, though, to prevent Melanie from trying out each year, although she was not called.
“It was probably one of the first times I realized what it was going to be like to be in this skin moving forward,” she says.
Like many children whose parents are upstanding, successful beacons in the community, Melanie wanted John Henry—excuse me, Mr. Bridgeforth—and Catherine to do something.
“Just make a call,” she recalls pleading.
Didn’t happen. Instead, the Bridgeforths challenged their daughter to get stronger, to get better. They put her in gymnastics and track. And altered her thinking.
“Do you know why you didn’t make it?” her mother asked one day.
“Uh, ’cause I’m not good?” Melanie shrugged.
“No,” Catherine responded. “It was because you were competing against other people. You need to compete against yourself.”
“I apply that broadly,” Bridgeforth says. “It’s not about competing against other people. Are we [at The Women’s Fund] being the best we can be? That’s when you win.”
Fitter and focused, Melanie eventually made the cheer squad, as a high-school freshman.
In the pursuit, she learned another valuable lesson: while racial barriers exist, they are not to be accepted, embraced, or utilized as an excuse.
“It was understood life would be harder for you,” Bridgeforth says. “So, it’s not about living in that, or being rooted in it, but thinking strategically about how you outmaneuver it.”
She’s “fascinated’ by Birmingham native Condoleeza Rice, who is also African American and often shares that she was told by her parents that she must be “twice as good” to succeed.
“That became my motto, the fuel I needed,” Bridgeforth says. It was why she’s always, for instance, shown up for work at 6 a.m., when others arrived two hours later, and why did often didn’t leave until 7 p.m. when co-workers bolted when the clock struck 5 p.m.
“I just had to always be the best me I could be,” she says. “That was the one tool I could control. Nobody can control how much effort, how much sacrifice, how much grit I put into anything.”
Bridgeforth thought she wanted to be a psychologist when she arrived for college in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama and ultimately obtained her undergraduate degree in that area. After graduation, she worked for a program in Clanton for “at-risk” youth who had been habitually absent from school.
The experience offered Bridgeforth an epiphany—two, in fact: one regarding the youth and their families, the other about herself.
“We treated children I thought were going to come in completely broken,” she recalls. “But these kids were not broken. They were just being treated as if they were criminals as if there was no hope for them because they missed school. But you have to unpack the why: when you stay in a trailer with ten other people and no running water it’s kind of hard to get ready so you’re probably going to be late for school—if you make it at all. Or maybe there are transportation issues.”
One of her most troubling memories involves a child who finally shared with her, after several extensive conversations, that he missed school because his shoes were uncomfortably tight, and he had trouble seeing.
“Shoes that fit and glasses: these were practical reasons,” Bridgeforth says. “And solvable.”
“It was really being one-on-one with families, with those children, and understanding I wasn’t treating them. I was treating their environment,” she adds. “I was treating things they couldn’t see, that I couldn’t see.”
What Bridgeforth did see was that effectively changing that environment required her to step away from the children and their families and focus on policies that would impact children and families not just in Clanton but throughout the state.
“I could see quickly that this isn’t where I wanted to be,” she says. “Although it is valuable to be with families one-on-one, where could I position myself to be able to ensure they have transportation, that they don’t lose Medicaid? Where could I break down barriers causing what we see as the symptoms?”
And do it quickly.
“Given my personality, working at the micro level was a little slow going for me,” Bridgeforth admits. “At a micro level, you’re helping people once they get in that door. I want to stop them from getting to that door.”
Almost two years later, Bridgeforth, during her final year of obtaining her graduate degree in social work, was sitting in a classroom when the policy professor asked each student: what are you going to do?
When their turn came, most of the students offered something like which government department they’d work for, yada, yada.
Bridgeforth, meanwhile, was chomping at the bit. “I was used to sitting in these rooms with people of like minds, pontificating about all these social theories and all the world’s problems; what, if I were president for a day, I’d do blah, blah, blah,” she recalls with a laugh.
The essence of the question: how are you going to make your passion for policy applicable to people?
In other words: “Get out of the sky,” Bridgeforth says, “and what are you actually going to do?”
Change the world.
Her classmates laughed, of course. But the professor did not flinch.
“If you want to change the world, Melanie, you have to change policy,” she said.
“It’s in that moment that everything that had been cultivated in me peaked and I hit a stride,” she says. “I knew then I wanted to attack systems that create barriers for the families I was working with and I wanted to attack them head-on. I wanted to get to the decision makers. Hence, my path was formed around social justice.”
We all pretty much know our state is at or near the bottom of the proverbial barrel when it comes to more quality-of-life indicators than we can count. We’re consistently one of the poorest states in the nation, perennially in the bottom 10 regarding the percentage of ourcitizens living below the poverty line— 17.1% according to the latest data. Our infant mortality rate (nine out of every 1,000 children born in the state fail to reach their first birthday) is higher than some so-called developing nations.
The list of failings is long.
Yet we just shrug our shoulders, shout, “Roll Tide!” or “War Eagle!”, and fret over our favorite team’s fortunes, all while too many of our neighbors are enduring symptoms of systemic poverty every day.
Bridgeforth is exhausted with the misplaced priorities.
“If [the University of] Alabama was ranked forty-eighth or forty-ninth in anything [in sports], it would be an outrage,” she says. “Coaches would be fired. We’d dismantle the entire university. Yet we’re comfortable accepting forty-eighth, forty-ninth and even fiftieth in indicators of well-being and quality of life.”
Bridgeforth isn’t quite four months at The Women’s Fund, but now that her policy path has diverted into philanthropy, she is clear about the destination: disrupting generational poverty.
“I absolutely see philanthropy as a convergence of my life’s work,” she says, “of policy and programs all under one roof.”
Among the fund’s areas of emphasis are workforce development/training, child care and economic support (such as housing)—each overseen by separate entities but working collaboratively with financial support, guidance, and expertise from the Women’s Fund and its donors and partners.
“We’re going to all come together,” she says. “That is unnatural, but we’re doing it.”
In a rare moment of pause, Bridgeforth had to gather herself to dry tears as she recalled an incident that occurred while working in Clanton.
It was raining, and a parent was coming to get her son. I was standing in the doorway. She was trying to get out of the rain and accidentally stepped on my shoe. She kneeled down to rub off my shoe. I’ll never forget how inferior she must have felt that she had to kneel to wipe off my shoe. It started me thinking about the inferiority so many parents like her have. These very complex systems are taking their children and putting them in boot camps simply because they miss school. But their parents feel so inadequate in advocating for their own children. I thought to myself: never will that woman or anyone like her kneel down again; always will you fight and have a voice.
Just as Mr. Bridgeforth told her.
This article originally appeared in the June 17, 2018 issue of The Birmingham News and al.com.