Creative, Entrepreneur and Arts Advocate
Conversation with and photograph by Tiffany Manning
The Jacksonville community is lucky to have you advocating for change. In your volunteer efforts, you have witnessed the power of generosity first hand through your ties with the American Lung Association, Peace Child Foundation, Second Harvest Heartland and the United Way to name a few. Having such close ties to the people who most need help navigating the world is an important role to fill. What have your experiences taught you about life?
First, thank you for saying I have a huge heart. I don’t ever feel like I’m doing anything more than what anyone else is doing. I say that because I see lots of people people giving in so many ways, and I just want to be part of being the change we all want to see happen here in Jacksonville.
What my experiences have taught me about life is that by reaching out and connecting with the community not only are you helping others, but it leads you on a path to your own personal growth and learning. One of my earliest experiences volunteering helped me define my “why” for getting involved with nonprofit organizations. On day two of a hundred-mile bike ride for the American Lung Association, the sky grew dark and a torrential downpour followed. Our clothes were drenched and it was hard to see ahead. I remember at one point thinking, “What in the world am I doing out here in the pouring rain when I could be warm and dry at the hotel?” Then, the little voice inside of me said loudly and clearly, “NO WAY!” We had to finish. There were people counting on us to stick it out because given their health conditions, they couldn’t. We had a purpose beyond our own comfort, and by finishing the course I learned more about my ability to persevere in challenging situations. Volunteering became my commitment to a purpose greater than serving my own needs and wants.
I’ve witnessed that same power of generosity my entire life. I grew up in a small house with a big family, including each grandmother at different times. My parents struggled to make ends meet and they sacrificed a lot to provide for us all. I was very fortunate that although we didn’t have a lot of money, we always had an abundance of love and I knew my home was a place to feel safe, comfortable and secure.
Seeing my parents work hard to take care of our family and sometimes being set back by an unexpected expense taught me empathy. We all know life has a way of throwing curveballs at you when you least expect them, and sometimes when we are at our most vulnerable. As my adult life circumstances changed, it became most important for me to “share the wealth” as they say to honor my parents’ example and be there for support when others need me to help them navigate their struggles.
One of my first experiences, as co-chair of the United Way of Northeast Florida ReadingPals program, reinforced for me that there is a tremendous need for people to have compassion for families living in poverty. I was assigned to the Northside of Jacksonville and what I discovered within the school was a community of loving families who experience incredible hardships and lack the resources and mental health care to process their pain and suffering. I witnessed the transformation of one of my four year old students from a sweet child with a ready smile to a sullen, withdrawn little boy when his life sadly and dramatically changed after his older cousin was killed in a shooting incident. Seeing poverty take its toll on these children and their families made me more determined and convinced of how important volunteering and funding programs are to the communities who depend on them and the power of generosity as their only resources.
Jacksonville is growing into a better version of itself, and I feel that it is largely being propelled by the arts. Can you feel the shift, and what is your vision for a Jacksonville of the future?
I feel the shift toward a better version of Jacksonville is happening on all fronts. I agree it’s being propelled in large part by the arts, because artists are fueled by a passion to create beauty in all forms and have historically been the first to begin neighborhood transformations all over the country. I know firsthand that many local artists are literally giving all they have and doing the same to make Jacksonville thrive. Since my relocation here in 2011, I’ve also had the opportunity to interact with many business people and philanthropists who are working equally hard to move Jacksonville forward.
My vision for a Jacksonville of the future is to see all the circles I’ve traveled within – the arts, business, and philanthropic communities – come together committed to work and support one another. There are so many talented individuals who don’t have access to the circles of influence and power in our city. My focus would be to create opportunities to amplify all their voices. We can always see and say what others are not doing but I’m much more interested in a productive approach to learn and recognize each of our strengths and use them to work together to rebuild this magnificent city. JaMario Stills, Tim Driscoll and I recently launched the Essential Culture Podcast Network (ECPN) to do just that — amplify all the voices in Jacksonville and share our strengths by featuring guests who are leading the way for a Jacksonville of the future. The podcasts allow subscribers to listen to conversations they might never have been able to hear before. ECPN is working to bring us all together through greater insight and attention to multiple perspectives.
I know it will take time, patience, fortitude and resources but I’ve seen this vision for Jacksonville of the future in other places from New York to Atlanta to Minneapolis. We can surely make it happen here, too. The factors at play that drew me to live near these other cities were their investments in education, arts and culture and access to it all and for all citizens. We’re slowly moving closer to that ideal, with a few setbacks along the way, but transformation is taking form. It’s my hope that through the work I do and support, and with more collaboration between the arts, business, and philanthropists, we can all capitalize on the progress we’ve made and bring people together to share the same vision for a Jacksonville of the future.