by Sabie Crowder
If you can get on her schedule, Mary Edwards goes into my must-meet-Chattanoogans category. The adjectives committed, vibrant, and hard-working come to mind after sitting with her for an hour. Her furrowed brow complements her wide-open smile as we talk through her past, her fears, her kids, and her impact on our town.
Mary grew up in rural Camden, Alabama, about 40 miles southeast of Selma. How rural you ask? The roads were not paved until 2011. We often forget about how recent technology like water and electricity is for some communities. Raised by a single mother and the oldest of two brothers and one sister, she says she had no option but to be a leader.
A first generation college graduate, Mary attended Alabama A&M on a full ride academic scholarship.
“I hitched a ride with a friend going to college. I had no other way of getting there.”
She transferred to Adrian College in Michigan, where she had family who had moved to work at the General Motors plants. Mary quickly realized she was the minority, where she hadn’t been before. Majored in biology and pre-medicine
“I immediately felt segregated. I was brought up being told stories of white men abusing their ‘power’ and I was afraid. I learned to be more comfortable, but you can never fully ignore your skin color.”
After graduation, Mary moved with her college-sweetheart husband to a small Indiana town where she taught and mothered her three kids full time.
“Childcare was so expensive that my paychecks would just cover that expense, so I decided to stay home with my kids.”
Mary didn’t just “stay home”. She enrolled the kids in every extracurricular and lesson she could find. It was important to her that the kids be well-rounded and educated in all facets of life.
She too kept herself busy by taking graduate classes with the Keller Graduate School hybrid program.
“I wanted to be ready for a career once the kids were in school. Since I wasn’t going to become a doctor, I needed some business classes to prepare me for a career.”
She received her master’s degree in business a few years later.
The Edwards moved to Chattanooga in 2009 and have made it their home. Her oldest is a Brock Scholar at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and received a classical piano scholarship. Her two sons attend Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and excel in academics and athletics. Both National Junior Olympic runners and all-district basketball players, her youngest was awarded Most Valuable Player on the district basketball team.
Mary taught at Brown Academy and was the Director of Education at the Urban League, where she helped develop programs and education for young minorities.
“There were others like me that needed opportunities and needed to be told about the opportunities available to them. They didn’t know it was an option to go to college and I could help find them programs and scholarships.”
After completing her time at the Urban League, Mary joined the team at Chambliss Center for Children. Chambliss is a Chattanooga-based 24-hour, 7-day, 365-days-a-year community center providing sliding-scale child care, financial classes, meals, and workshops for parents.
“The families at Chambliss want to do better. 89% are in poverty. With the sliding pay scale of child care, parents are able to pay what they can if they work or are in school.”
Mary manages the W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant which has allowed Chambliss to research and poll their families on issues faced living in poverty and finding ways to provide assistance to them. After gathering and providing the information to the Foundation, they were awarded another two years of funding to continue Chambliss and Mary’s work to enhance the lives of those in our community who need it most.
“One thing I’m most proud of is that we’ve asked the families what they need. We think we know what they need, but when asked what their struggles are, sometimes we’re surprised by the answers. We’ve been able to tailor our programs to what the families actually need, instead of guessing or assuming.”
Mary recently added “jazz performer” to her list of talents. She had her first church solo at 17, but in the past year joined a jazz group
“The kids have their own activities and lives, and now that they are growing up, I wanted to have my own hobby. Music is my refuge.”
A member of the diversity and inclusion committee, Mary wants to see CWLI’s membership diversify among race and age. She’s passionate–and rightfully so–about inclusion in our organization, our schools, workforce, and community.
“I work with families in poverty every day. I work with minorities every day. They are just like me, but they haven’t been given or made aware of all the opportunities I have. We have to ask the questions. Ask what’s needed and then we can help.”
There’s a larger (albeit hushed) conversation about race, the explosion of downtown development and what growth means for Chattanoogans of all classes. I’d encourage you to talk with Mary and get a teeny tiny glimpse into what it’s like to be a minority. You’ll leave with a different perspective that will shift your thoughts and challenge your assumptions.
When asked if she’d ever considered running for office, she laughs and responds, “They couldn’t handle the truth.”
To learn more about Mary in her own words, click here.