For Shelby Marie Edwards, serving her community comes naturally. Edwards grew up watching her mother, Holly Edwards, advocate for low-income residents as a parish nurse for the Jefferson Area Board for Aging and as program coordinator for the Public Housing Association of Residents. Now the younger Edwards is following in those footsteps as PHAR’s new executive director.
“Especially over the past few months, with all that’s going on in the social justice arena, I felt compelled to shift my work to focus more to what was speaking to me,” says Edwards. At PHAR, “I can continue the work of my mom, but in a way that’s true to me.”
Holly Edwards was an institution in Charlottesville, serving as vice mayor and a city councilor. She helped to spark the city’s Dialogue on Race, which led to the Office of Human Rights, while remaining involved in a string of other community organizations, from the NAACP to PACEM.
Following her mother’s passing in 2017, Shelby Edwards felt drawn back to Charlottesville, where she was born and raised. She’d been teaching theater and writing in Chicago, and when she returned, she began offering performance art classes through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia, while embarking on new projects, like writing and performing the one-person storytelling show, Holly’s Ivy.
“I certainly will not be the person inside of the Westhaven clinic where she used to work, taking temperatures,” Edwards says. “But what I can be is someone who continues to amplify the voices of residents, be a listening ear, and make sure we are looking at what makes the most sense in the short and long-term for all of the folks who live in public housing sites.”
While this is Edwards’ first time working in the public housing sector, she plans to draw heavily on her years of teaching performance art and fundraising for theater nonprofits in Chicago. She will also tap into her degrees in business and theater from Virginia Commonwealth University, which she received in 2017, as well as the masters in humanities she earned last year from the University of Chicago.
In addition, Edwards will continue to lean on her many community mentors for support and advice, including PHAR board president Joy Johnson, who will be helping with the transition.
“[Johnson] is a powerful force in the community, and I am humbled and honored to be stepping into this role, especially so under her guidance,” says Edwards. “I look forward to learning so much in this position. I wouldn’t have taken [it] if I didn’t already know the community had my back.”
Once her term begins, Edwards will oversee all of PHAR’s programs, including emergency food distribution. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the nonprofit has focused on providing food assistance to the city’s most vulnerable residents. Staff and volunteers currently bring groceries to 40 people each month. Almost all the recipients have COVID-19 risk factors, like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.
Though the program is unfortunately at capacity and has a waitlist, PHAR has also given out $50 gift cards to every public housing resident twice during the pandemic, and plans to do that two more times before the end of February, when program funding is expected to run out.
In the new year, PHAR will also welcome its new class of interns. The nonprofit’s six-month paid internship program, open to all public housing residents, teaches participants about the city’s public housing policies and organizations, and how to get involved in community organizing and advocacy. “They’re ultimately becoming involved in the decisions that affect their lives,” Edwards says.
However, running the program during a pandemic has its challenges, says Edwards. Because PHAR has not been able to do face-to-face outreach, it has only received eight applications so far, slightly less than in previous years.
“Most public housing residents do not have laptops or iPads, and they often have challenges with limited minutes on their phones,” she says. “We got a grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, which allowed us to purchase devices, but there will be a lot of learning for most of the interns to feel comfortable using them.”
As the city pushes forward with the long-awaited redevelopment of the public housing complexes Crescent Halls, South First Street, and Friendship Court, Edwards believes it is necessary for low-income residents to be involved in housing decisions. Affordable housing remains a crucial issue in Charlottesville, and adequate solutions cannot be created without residents’ voices, she says.
Looking forward, Edwards’ biggest goal for PHAR is to expand its outreach and membership, while building up existing community partnerships and forging new ones.
“I welcome any and everybody who supports PHAR’s mission, and wants to make sure that our housing sites are safe and equitable…and that our residents are heard all of the time,” she says.
Edwards first official day of work is December 7.