Growing up in Benton Harbor, Nadia Brigham ’99, ’01, & ‘02 experienced first-hand a level of poverty that has crippled so much of America’s youth. But instead of letting it defeat her, she has used her past experiences as a source of inspiration to break the cycle of poverty and help to put the communities of West Michigan back on track.
Brigham’s high school was part of a desegregation program in the 1990s. She calls the experience a “blessing” that allowed her to see the extremes that occur in society.
“The drive from my house to school was a demonstration in the disparities that exist in relatively short distances,” she said. “I learned, from my experience and education, that those disparities are often exacerbated and perpetuated by policies in a way that don’t allow people to escape poverty.”
Brigham knew she could make a difference. Although she already had the passion and the concepts, she needed the know-how to carry out her strategy, so she enrolled in the undergraduate social work program at Grand Valley and let her ideas thrive. In graduate school, Brigham was the President of the Master of Social Work Student Organization and helped it raise awareness of the issues concerning class, race, and injustice. Her professional goals grew with her academic ambitions. While in undergrad, Brigham worked with Wedgewood Christian Services as the assistant supervisor in resident treatment. From there, she shifted to the Hope Network and then to Heart of West Michigan United Way where she succeeded at becoming their senior community investment associate. What began as a desire to help the individuals quickly evolved into a growing project to correct the inequalities that prevent people from living meaningful and productive life.
Now, as Program Officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Brigham has the ability to sway unjust conditions by investing in initiatives that will promote the organizations place-based strategies: Educated Kids, Healthy Kids, Secure Families using Racial Equality, and Civic Engagement as embedded. Through these investments, Brigham strives to bring the attention a capacity back to the community, thus changing conditions so that the individual won’t slip through the cracks.
The work at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation allows me to look at how to create conditions to improve the quality of life for vulnerable children,” she said.
Her work also extends to the New Options Project, a $45 million project that creates pathways toward meaningful employment for young adults. Through this project, Brigham serves as a conductor for the development of innovative tools and approaches that will solve workforce pain point for employers and illuminated employment pathways for disconnected young adults. Locally, she also serves on the steering committee of the Collective Impact Initiative, the Kent County Family and Children Coordinating Council, the executive committee of the Great Start Initiative, the Talent 2025 advisory committee, and the Kent School Services leadership team.
This year, Brigham was awarded with the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Grant-Making Guru Award for her dedication to community investment and the creation of important partnerships between neighborhood-based nonprofit organizations and foundations of West Michigan. She hopes to see more of these relationships develop in the coming years.
“I love philanthropy and hope to enjoy a long career in philanthropy, leveraging dollars to improve the quality of life of vulnerable people,” she said. “Whatever I’m doing, I know it will be about serving people and probably those who are vulnerable.”
Updated January 2013.