As a graduate student in social work at The University of Alabama, Melanie R. Bridgeforth was asked what she wanted to do after she finished school. Her answer was simple: “I want to change the world,” she said. She’s been working on this goal her entire career. She once served as Executive Director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children and as Alabama’s Government Relations Director for the American Heart Association. She’s also worked with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C., and has served on several national boards. This year, Melanie took a new role as President and CEO of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, a grant-making foundation that supports programs, organizations and initiatives that connect women and their families to resources necessary for economic security, such as post-secondary education, quality childcare and safe housing. We had a talk with Melanie about her work with The Women’s Fund and how you can support this organization by attending its annual fundraiser, Smart Party, on October 11 at Iron City. We’re honored to introduce you to this week’s FACE of Birmingham, Melanie R. Bridgeforth.
For people unfamiliar with your organization, tell us more about The Women’s Fund.
The Women’s Fund was founded more than 20 years ago with 20 women giving $20,000 with a vision of inspiring women’s philanthropy. The Women’s Fund is the state’s only philanthropy that is investing with a gender lens. We’re obviously giving through information and resources to organizations that are doing incredible work on the front lines that are changing the lives and advancing economic security of women and children, but we’re also researching the conditions that impact women and advocating for policy and system changes that also eradicate the ills.
What are some of the policy issues The Women’s Fund is focusing on right now?
Access and affordability to childcare are incredibly important to keep women in the workplace. The Women’s Fund and several organizations have been at the table really working at ground zero to look at what the critical issues around Alabama’s childcare system are and have identified that affordability and accessibility are certainly an issue but also our state was operating a system that was in large part unregulated. So this year, after two years of advocacy work, legislation was passed to make a dent in that issue and require some, especially those who receive public dollars, to be licensed. So that is a very tangible opportunity that will better the lives of women and better the lives of children.
As the leader of The Women’s Fund, that is my job — to really think through, “What are opportunities like that?” — whether it is living wages or whether it is fighting to protect women from losing their health care coverage, which is an imminent threat. Ninety percent of the population who stands to lose Medicaid under the proposed work requirements are women. The Women’s Fund can play a role in and shine a light on policy opportunities that impact women.
What are some of the organizations The Women’s Fund has supported in the past?
We have, for the past five years, been on a really interesting and innovative trajectory of investment strategy. As you think about advancing women’s economic security, one of the keys to that is obviously connecting women to opportunities that provide living wages. So we’re investing in Jefferson State Community College, Wallace State and Lawson State to create unique opportunities for job training for women in in-demand fields such as manufacturing, IT and production.
We are investing in organizations that are coming together through what we call a two-generation approach, serving the whole family. Envision Jefferson State Community College partnering with a local Head Start so that the children are in a high-quality early-learning setting, and the mothers are in a high-quality job training opportunity. That is going to transform the life of the woman and the child as well. Every dollar we invest has to have a ripple effect.
What role does Smart Party play in all of this?
Smart Party is The Women’s Fund annual fundraiser to inspire women’s philanthropy and to celebrate women community leaders, and certainly, it is chic and fun and tech savvy, but for a great cause. The most important part about Smart Party is it gives The Women’s Fund the resources needed to continue a core strategy of our work, which is philanthropy.
Why is it smart to invest in women?
In Birmingham, in the state of Alabama and across this country, women are the face of poverty. Women are also the heads of households for many American families and also many families in our region and in our state. So when you are thinking about the target audience and the target population for how you want to advance a community, in my personal and professional opinion, that is women. When women move forward, communities move with them.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I exercise. I love to read. I love to hike at Oak Mountain, and I love going to Red Mountain Park for ziplining — anything that gets me outdoors is exciting and freeing. And spending time with my family is something I really work hard to do.
I’m relatively new to the Birmingham area. I moved here from Montgomery. I’ve been a Birmingham resident for two years and must say that I absolutely love it. I have embarked upon a journey of eating my way through the city.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Birmingham?
Bamboo on 2nd and Jinsei — I love sushi. Yo Mama’s — Catfish Friday has really got it going on. Bottega and Highlands — those are incredible. Jake’s Soul Food Cafe in Hoover. I love Perry’s and Flemings. The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar. I love eating local at places like Urban Standard, and The Essential has an incredible brunch on the weekends.
Do you have any personality quirks?
As people get to know me, they learn that I am obsessed with time, because there’s so little of it. And I just don’t like to waste it, so every minute of every day I like to know what I’m doing and when. I truly believe that to be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late and to be late is out of the question. Tardiness to meetings or tardiness on deadlines — they send me into a quick downward spiral. Being in control of my time is something that’s really important to me.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
You are responsible for your own journey. External forces are always at play, but no one can control how hard I work, how much knowledge I gain, how I perfect my craft, how I hone my talent and sharpen my skills. I make those determinations. Living that truth makes one unstoppable.
Other than faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Lip gloss, my cell phone and my 3-year-old French bulldog, Winston.
The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham Smart Party 7.0 is set to be held Thursday, October 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Iron City. Get your tickets at womensfund.smartparty.org.
Thank you, Melanie, for your dedication to women in Birmingham! To learn more about The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, visit womensfundbirmingham.org.
And thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for these beautiful photos.
For more inspiring women of the South, click here.