Alumni and Friends

Heather McMann, MBA’12 | 2020 Recipient of the Florence G. Heller Alumni Award

Heather McMann, MBA'12
Heather McMann, MBA'12

Heather McMann, MBA'12, is one of 15 alumni to receive a 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award. She is the executive director of Groundwork Lawrence (GWL), a public health and environmental organization based in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and has worked for 25 years in the nonprofit sector. In addition to her role at GWL, she is a senior fellow with the Institute for Nonprofit Practice and serves as a board member of the Lawrence Partnership, Groundwork USA, Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce and the MA Public Health Association. She spoke to Brian Kibler, MPP/MBA'22, about her Heller connections, her passion for creating a more equitable community in Lawrence, and what social justice means to her.

Brian Kibler: How did you come to study at the Heller School?

Heather McMann: Another awardee, Bill Traynor, MMHS’84, actually flagged Heller to my husband and I as we were looking at MBA programs. The more I looked, I realized Heller was really the only place with such a major focus on nonprofit and social justice and it was the right fit for me. 

The most important lesson I learned is that we know more than we think we do. There's theory and learning from others, but having that confidence to trust yourself and to take a chance, as long as you  put the time in as well to get the background. I think that was the big thing and it really helped me get Groundwork Lawrence to a new level as we grew.

BK: How would you describe Groundwork Lawrence?

HM: When I joined over 15 years ago, it was known as the environmental group, the parks people. We really started looking at our holistic approach, moving towards community development. But we realized there were so many things that we do that instead fall under public health: education, food, open space, mental and physical health. So while Groundwork does focus more on what you can see outside your window, it is all about improving the public health of a community.

BK: What is the one big problem you are trying to solve?

HM: How do we make sure there's equity and everyone has the same access to resources? I was just looking at the numbers in Lawrence yesterday as we look at our food access programs: 43% of the community in Lawrence is on SNAP, on food stamps. How we got there as a society that lets that many people experience hunger—that's what we're trying to solve.

BK: How has your work changed in response to COVID?

HM: I think it's been incredible how the team's been able to pivot. We can’t be in the schools, but we can do videos. We can't plant trees, but we can have tree talks with the tree guys. And the biggest thing that I'm proud of is partnering with MassDevelopment and jumping on the opportunity to both support small business as well as food security. We helped launch a program that reopened eight restaurants and over 10 weeks, serving over 16,000 meals to families.

I think the big thing about COVID or anything unexpected is to really take a breath, and as much as you're rushing forward to meet the need, to take the chance to look around and see where the gaps are and filling that. We've got between 50 and 80 people coming on biweekly calls about responding. It's really about sharing information and supporting each other. The whole thing about social justice is anything like this, be it a gas explosion, COVID, a recession, it’s going to hit our minority or Black and brown communities even harder. What role can we play to try to change the systems to prevent that from happening?

BK: How do you see your work contributing to an ongoing pursuit for social and racial justice?

HM: I try to integrate it in everything we do. It's the pipeline we create for the youth we work with, for them to come back to do AmeriCorps and seasonal jobs and then come to the organization to work or join the board. It's from building partnerships and looking at assets in a city like Lawrence and realizing we all have something to contribute.

I'm a white girl who grew up in southern New Hampshire, so I’m learning how I can be an ally and advocate. I think my journey has been more about building patience, learning the value and the timing for my voice, and really gaining the confidence of what I can bring to a conversation. That has been really important in working in a place like Lawrence, which is majority Latinx. It’s about building that trust and listening and being willing to be uncomfortable and learn from that. It took some years, and I also need to make sure I don't ever take that for granted, because Lawrence is a city that's always had its resources extracted from it and we're all in this moment to change that, where those resources can stay for the community.

BK: What are some highlights of your work at GWL?

HM: I think it's weird to point to emergencies for high points, but with the Columbia Gas explosions [a 2018 incident that forced 30,000 people to evacuate their homes in Lawrence and surrounding communities], the fact that the partners that we work with everyday knew exactly what to do the next morning—we knew where to be, what to do, and we had each other’s cell phone numbers. I went from helping to accept donations to getting donations out within a couple days to setting up a shelter. It is not something I knew how to do, but I knew I could ask people and figure it out. Then after that, taking the step back to say, “How do we avoid having that happen again, or how do we make sure everyone is better prepared?”

BK: What is your proudest career achievement or accomplishment—other than hiring me?

HM: Of course, Brian, it’s hiring you and ensuring and encouraging you to get to Heller!

It changes. I think, before  I got to Groundwork, I did what a lot of people have to do in the nonprofit sector with small organizations. I moved around a lot. I helped open a 24-hour drop-in center for women and their families in San Francisco. That was huge. I had to learn everything I needed to do. Now at Groundwork for 15 years, going from such a small organization to becoming a backbone organization in Lawrence and to grow the people that come to Groundwork as well, I think that's huge. My biggest legacy will be the success of Groundwork. And whether that's a new greenway, a new park, or a student that got to go to the Grand Canyon who had hardly left the city and then studies environmental science—there's so much to choose from, but it's all building on that.

BK: What advice do you have for Heller students today?

HM: The whole thing about MBA programs is how you work with your team and with your partners. Enjoy it. I don't know how I managed to get through it while becoming executive director at the same time, but I did. And the fact that I was able, it's a different part of your brain. I could have major ideas from just reading and conversations in the classroom—it's just a different atmosphere and it allows you to think more broadly.

I'm very grateful to the faculty of Heller for enabling me to do so much work for Groundwork. I would not have been able to do the program if I hadn't been able to figure out a way to balance the two. I wrote Groundwork’s first full fundraising plan with Professor David Whalen, I redid our budgeting process with Professor Tom McLaughlin. Even with the Team Consulting Project, we did a project for Groundwork USA, which is still being used now.

Keep in touch with your classmates. Being able to tap other alumni is great. The biggest thing is realizing that these relationships can be supportive for the long term and know that it's okay to have those quiet periods and you can always reach out.

BK: What does social justice mean for you?

HM: I was the first to graduate high school, go to college, and actually graduate in my family. I recognize how hard my parents worked to get me through there, but at the same time knowing how much opportunity my father had, even coming from a very small town in northern New Hampshire. Social justice is really pushing back on this whole “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” thing. It’s the real belief that we all should have the opportunity to be the best we can, whatever that means. And to have the opportunity to choose to live like we want to live—so many folks don't have that real choice. There's too many layers and barriers put in place.

That’s what Heller’s about. That's one of the reasons that really brought me there, going back to school after 15 years. It's a safe place to push for change, a place where you can get energy from others and learn from and make those changes. And I think that's where this award is incredible, to say that in my role in Lawrence is as big of a role as someone who's doing work in D.C., in Boston, or in Africa, right? I think this is pretty incredible, how Heller supports social justice locally and internationally.

About the 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Awards

To honor our 60th anniversary, the community chose to honor 15 awardees for living a life that exemplifies the mission and vision of the Heller School and honors the legacy of our namesake, Florence G. Heller. Award recipients have produced positive and impactful change through the rigor, creativity, and innovation of their work. Additional selection criteria included the national, global, local impact of accomplishments, identification with the Brandeis community, and/or sustained impact and leadership over time.