Born into a historic Alabama farm family, UA Social Work alumna Melanie Bridgeforth is focused on planting her own seeds to fight poverty as the new Women’s Fund CEO .
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”.
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.”
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.”
This article is by Roy S. Johnson with Al.com.