tawanna . tibbsTawana M. Tibbs hardly considers herself a philanthropist. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in the community,” says Tibbs, whose passion for having a positive impact on the lives of young people fuels her service to her community.

President of the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, one of the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer-supported mentoring organizations, Tibbs says her former employer, Verizon Communications Inc., was instrumental in helping her to become more involved in philanthropic work. Verizon is a socially responsible corporation, she explains, and was engaged in various programs that afforded her the opportunity to mentor young women on a regular basis.

She was first asked to join the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters when she retired from Verizon in 2003. She assumed the role of president after serving as the chair of the development committee then executive vice president. In addition to being board president, she is active in several other organizations, including God’s Love We Deliver, which delivers hot meals to homebound individuals throughout New York City, and AileyCamp, whose mission is to enhance the lives of children through dance as part of the Ailey Arts in Education & Community Programs.

Tibbs has been giving of herself for most of her adult life. Prior to moving to New York City in 1998, she mentored young girls in Washington, D.C., and immersed herself in the fight against HIV/AIDS. She volunteered her time to the cause and helped to raise funds for Food and Friends, an organization that delivers food to people living with life-altering illnesses like HIV/AIDS and cancer, as well as for the Whitman-Walker Health Clinic, a community center that provides health-care services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.  “It‘s one thing to give money and be on the board to guide the direction of the organization, but there’s nothing like being with the people you’re trying to serve and see the experiences of these people and your impact on them. It’s eye-opening,” she says. 

Tibbs can recall many rewarding moments since she entered the world of philanthropy, but she cites a visit to Rwanda last year with husband Bruce Gordon, former president and CEO of the NAACP and former president
of retail markets in Verizon Communications Inc.’s Domestic Telecom Unit, as a life-altering experience. The couple had the pleasure of being able to witness, firsthand, the work that UNICEF was doing to help rebuild the country, she says.

In 1994, close to a million Rwandese were slaughtered over a period of 100 days. Hundreds of thousands of adults were murdered, leaving their children to fend for themselves. In horrendous living conditions, children had to walk for miles to fill jars and cans with clean water. Today, nearly 50 percent of the population is under the age of 18. Despite the horrific circumstances they endured less than a generation ago, the Rwandese welcomed Tibbs and her group with smiles, dancing and singing. “There were thousands of kids and they were happy. They had so much hope in the midst of their circumstance. It was my first time in Africa and I came back different,” she says.

Tibbs surmises that African-Americans are deeply engaged in philanthropic endeavors,  but their work is not being recognized. As more African-Americans are coming into wealth they can begin to make even larger financial investments in the causes they care about, she says. She contends that those who are in senior positions and serve on the boards of charitable organizations can effectively direct their efforts toward causes that affect the community at large. “They have the ability to influence resources and I would hope that’s what they are doing. Be the champion of the cause. With all of the organizations out here, there’s still much to be done,” says Tibbs.