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New Bedford native Melanie Edwards-Tavares’ mission to improve the lives of others has circled back to where it began.

The SouthCoast Community Foundation chose Edwards-Tavares as its fifth president and CEO. While her appointment was announced July 25, she will take up her post and meet the public Sept. 8 at the foundation’s annual fundraiser, Summer’s Last Blast.

She comes to her new position from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and succeeds Leonard M. Lee, who served as president and CEO of the SouthCoast Community Foundation for a year, from April 2022 to this spring.

The nonprofit foundation matches donors and resources with community needs in the South Coast. Since 1995, the organization has disbursed more than $50 million from nearly 200 funds to humanitarian, educational, and cultural organizations, with the aim of improving the region’s quality of life.

Edwards-Tavares shared the inspiring story of her path from being a teenage mother to the philanthropy professional she is today. The seeds of her career were planted when, as a teen growing up in the United Front Homes project in New Bedford, she and her mother, Louan Tavares, founded a grassroots organization, Positive Influence Peer Leadership Program, to teach young adults about social and civic responsibility.

“Melanie is uniquely equipped to lead the SouthCoast Community Foundation — she has extensive experience in building a philanthropic program, exhibits deep dedication to racial justice, and is passionate about advancing the South Coast. I could not imagine a better person to lead the organization in its next phase of growth,” Gail Fortes, chair of the foundation board, said in a press release.

During her 30-year career, Edwards-Tavares has been a leader at nonprofits that include the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, Child and Family Services in New Bedford, PACE YouthBuild New Bedford, and the Massachusetts Service Alliance.

While Edwards-Tavares was a struggling student in the New Bedford schools’ pregnant and parenting teen program, an adult counseled her to take a low-wage job instead of pursuing culinary arts studies. Stung by that advice, she summoned the determination to continue her education, and eventually earned an associate’s degree at Bristol Community College, a bachelor of science degree in counseling psychology from Lesley University, and a master’s in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University.

In 2019, she received her doctor of education leadership degree with a focus on system-level leadership, strategic partnerships, and nonprofit sustainability from the Harvard University School of Education.

Edwards-Tavares was a Dean’s Fellow at Harvard University (2016-19) and a Gordon M. Ambach Public Service Fellow (2017). In 2009, she received the Distinguished African-American Alumnus Award from Bristol Community College, and in 2001 was recognized with the New Bedford Heritage Award.

The Fairhaven resident champions learner-centered education by volunteering as vice chair of the board of Big Picture Learning, an international nonprofit, and as an advisory council member at Education Reimagined.

In this conversation with The Light, Edwards-Tavares spoke about her passion for philanthropy and why community partnerships are key to its effectiveness.

New Bedford Light: At the Hartford Foundation, you were director of capacity building and nonprofit support. Can you explain what capacity building is?

Melanie Edwards-Tavares: I think at the heart of it, capacity building is learning. It’s an opportunity for folks, especially in philanthropy … to sit in a space where nonprofit leaders can come together, learn from each other, and learn about what’s happening in the sector, what’s changing. It’s been wonderful to see small organizations that are just starting out, that are early in their development, have the opportunity to think about the functional areas that they need to grow [or] whether they want to grow, because some small organizations want to stay small, and that’s fine.

[Capacity building] gives us the opportunity to provide some learning and development, and at the Hartford Foundation, they were very unique in that capacity building has been a part of their grant-making strategy for over 20 years. They actually invest a good portion of their dollars to ensure that organizations can access … training or even have grants to hire their own consultants to work on whatever issues are rearing up, whether that’s board development or financial management issues, and now, cybersecurity is a big [issue] for many of our nonprofits.

As a teen growing up in the United Front Homes project in New Bedford, Melanie Edwards-Tavares and her mother founded a grassroots organization, Positive Influence Peer Leadership Program, to teach young adults about social and civic responsibility. Credit: Joanna McQuillan Weeks / The New Bedford Light

NBL: It appears that your professional experiences built one upon the next to make you ideally suited for this position. Did you ever envision coming full circle to serve the South Coast community?

ME-T: The further I got along in my career, the more I recognized just how important philanthropy was to the nonprofit sector, and how important it was that you’re building those partnerships and those relationships. After spending time doing that at [the Hartford Foundation], a wonderful foundation with a lot of resources, that’s one of the oldest in the country and one of the 30 largest community foundations in the country, I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I had the opportunity to do this in my own region, where I grew up, and where where my family is growing up, where my children and grandchildren are growing?” And so, when I saw the opportunity, it just — it was almost serendipitous.

NBL: Former foundation President John Vasconcellos said that you demonstrate “innovative thinking around philanthropy.” Can you give me an example?

ME-T: I came into philanthropy at a time where the sector was kind of going through a reckoning. It’s kind of like how did we start? Where does equity fit in with all of this? Where are there points where we can be more inclusive in the way we’re thinking about the work that we’re doing? How do we operationalize equity? How do we think about racial justice as a result of the work that we’re charged with at a foundation level?

There have been some wonderful, wonderful new ways to think about how we’re coming together. One of the things that I feel is that this is a partnership that has to work between folks with resources, folks with expertise, and folks with lived experience, and you can’t have one of those without having the others. It just doesn’t work, because we’ve seen if there are resources and dollars, but there is no expertise, and you don’t have folks with lived experience, those dollars are gonna get directed in all the wrong places, right? And they’re not going to make the impact that you want. …

I do believe that it has to be a partnership, and it’s an equal partnership. There isn’t any one entity that should have more sway than anybody else. And I think too, as we start to think about what constitutes community, well, all of those parts constitute community — the resources, the expertise, the lived experience are all part of the community.

So when I think about what’s to come in philanthropy, I think about things that are actually not so new. I look back at cultures around the world, since the dawn of time, who have been practicing philanthropy, who have come together to work collectively to ensure that everybody had something, and if change was going to take place, they knew that folks would have to pool their resources together, and their wisdom and insight, in order to make that happen. …

It’s just a wonderful time. I think about [how] community foundations can be advocates, they can be catalysts, they can be thought partners and thought leaders, and also, we’re keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the sector, across the country and across the globe. How is philanthropy changing and shifting, and what needs to continue to change and shift to keep it equitable? …

As I’m thinking about the future of philanthropy, I’m thinking about how community is much more at the center of it.

NBL: As a role model, how would you encourage struggling New Bedford teens to find a path forward?

ME-T: Boy, I wish I could say there was one answer to this. I think you’ve got to find your people. One of the things that my mom always told me was, “Mel, you march to the beat of your own drum.” I never understood what that meant until I became an adult. But [I’d say] if you’re interested in something that not everybody else is interested in, don’t be afraid to pursue it.

I think of all the young people now, including myself growing up, where there may have been things that I was interested in pursuing. Maybe I was interested in what was happening in the after-school arts program … but I didn’t do it because I was so concerned about what other people were going to think. Then you become an adult and you realize [that] all of those different opportunities shape you and give you an opportunity to see yourself in a different light.

I also think a big part of what we used to do with the peer leadership program [she and her mom established] was to get young people together and give them the space to just be. Set the intention and facilitate conversations where they could be in a safe space to be able to talk about what was important to them, what they were afraid of, where they felt challenged, what their dreams were.

We don’t do that for young people. We’re kind of — it’s such an ageist way to think — we kind of think “I’m the sage on the stage. I’m going to tell you what it is that you need to be doing,” and we’re not listening. …

I think about myself, what if I would have taken that woman’s advice, who said “Go and wash dishes,” right? Not to say that washing dishes isn’t noble, but that’s all she saw for me. I had to find the strength inside myself to fight back and say, “No, I’m sorry, I’d rather leave this [school] environment altogether and take my chances of figuring this out.” When I got to Johnson and Wales, I did find people who actually were interested in who I was as a young person and what I might want to do.

So, I wish I could say it’s one thing. I think it’s a number of things, but I think the biggest thing is to find adults who actually want to listen to you.

Melanie Edwards-Tavares: “I do have a love for this work, from every angle. … I love the ability to be able to share the power of this work and to share the power of community with those who have resources, who want to understand, and want to say, ‘Where and how can I be of service in the community?’ Credit: Joanna McQuillan Weeks / The New Bedford Light

NBL: I know that the staff of the Community Foundation underwent some DEI training within the last year, and you personally have an interest in social justice. Do you foresee a broadening of the beneficiary base of funds from the Community Foundation?

ME-T: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think the important thing when we’re considering racial justice, equity, and inclusion is, it’s not only what we’re saying, but it’s how we’re operationalizing it in everything that we do. So it isn’t just about who we’re identifying to receive funds, but it’s also how are we making access to our funds more equitable? What is it we’re thinking about when we’re considering racial justice? Who has been historically left out of funding? Who has been historically left out of the conversations about where funding should go? And it’s also to think about, as we talked about a little earlier, how can we do this collectively? How can we bring community in to talk about how we want to fund, who we want to fund? What do we think is going to have the best and biggest impact with the little dollars that we have available to us, and who else needs to be at the table? So, yeah, I do think it’s going to expand for sure.

NBL: You have said that a quote from Khalil Gibran, “Work is love made visible,” shaped your personal philosophy. What is most satisfying about working in the philanthropy sector?

ME-T: Well, the root word of philanthropy is love of humankind, right? And so, everything about it. I don’t know that there’s anything about working in philanthropy that I’ve been like, “Hmmm, I don’t know if I would do this too much longer.” … just to go back to the quote, my mother was a die-hard Gibran fan, and we always had “The Prophet” in the house. So, it was no surprise to me that I was going to find something that really spoke to what my work meant to me.

But I think the love of it comes from my proximity to all aspects of it. I’ve been on the side where I needed services. I’ve been somebody who was working in organizations providing services, and now to get to be on the other side, thinking about those who are looking for the resources in order to provide the services — I think that proximity has just given me a sense of love and understanding at each one of those levels. I have a huge heart for nonprofit leaders. I know what it’s like to sit in those positions and not have enough money to do what you need to do. …

I do have a love for this work, from every angle, I guess you could say. I love the ability to be able to share the power of this work and to share the power of community with those who have resources, who want to understand, and want to say “Where and how can I be of service in the community?”

So, what’s not to love?

Editor’s note: SouthCoast Community Foundation is among the sponsors of the New Bedford Light. The Light’s newsroom is scrupulously independent. Only the editors decide what to cover and what to publish. Founders, funders, and board members have no influence over editorial content.

 Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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