Actively participating in positive change in the Waco community is one of Melli Wickliff’s passions. She’s been here a little more than three years, and she is working to improve public schools, public housing and instilling the importance of service in young people as well as being mom to four girls under the age of five and wife of a local physician.
WACOAN: How would you describe yourself — in three words?
Wickliff: Driven. Candid. Attentive.
WACOAN: Your first word was ‘driven.’ What drives you?
Wickliff: Being involved in my community is one of my main passions, whether it’s for personal or professional edification. Right now I have been spending a lot of time focusing on improvements to public education in Waco, seeing East Waco be revitalized while preserving its rich history and watching Waco expand through entrepreneurship while maintaining its beautiful and inviting small-town feel.
WACOAN: How long have you lived in Waco, and what brought you here?
Wickliff: We moved here about 3 1/2 years ago, literally right when the Silos opened. So we always joke that the Silo-versary is our Waco-versary.
My husband is from Houston, and I’m from Wisconsin, born and raised just outside of Milwaukee. We moved from Wisconsin, and he works at Providence, so his work brought us here. Eliot is a physician and heads up the pain management clinic at Providence.
WACOAN: You’re an attorney.
Wickliff: That’s right. But I’m not practicing right now. I’m using my degree alternatively.
WACOAN: And what exactly does that look like?
Wickliff: Well, let me just dive right in! I went to undergrad and law school in Minnesota. After law school I completed a judicial clerkship and then moved to Chicago to begin my professional legal career with the Chicago Housing Authority. There I managed the research and reporting arm of the agency, which had me developing public and affordable housing policies, tenant selection plans, as well as overseeing the public comment process for all board items requiring public review.
When it was time for my husband to complete his anesthesiology residency and pain management fellowship, we moved back to Wisconsin. While we lived in Wisconsin I worked for the Milwaukee public school district as the constituent ombudsman, and there I wore a lot of different hats.
I served as the front line of contact for all constituent concerns. So if a parent had an issue with whatever was going on with their student or their teacher or they aren’t getting what they need from the central office, they would come to me, and I would serve as a mediator to see how we could resolve things for both the district and the families. I also served as the board’s designee for all charter school relations including negotiating all the charter school contracts and ensuring contract compliance in the charter realm.
WACOAN: That work probably led you to Transformation Waco.
Wickliff: It did. I believe I was selected to sit on the board because of my experience with the charter schools.
WACOAN: Explain the mission of Transformation Waco, for those who might not know. What is the mission of this organization and how is it transforming lives in our city?
Wickliff: Through a unique partnership with Waco ISD, students across five designated schools — Alta Vista [Elementary], Brook Avenue [Elementary], G.W. Carver [Middle School], Indian Spring [Middle School] and J.H. Hines [Elementary] — are receiving a transformative education. Specifically, using a charter school platform, the TW Zone has flexibility from some of the otherwise required laws and regulations that may, at times, constrain the rise of successful educational programming.
WACOAN: What does that mean for students?
Wickliff: The goal is to create alternative avenues or creative avenues for success for students who aren’t a good fit for the kinds of constraints that a traditional public school would have. With a charter comes flexibility in the types of programs you can create for the students, as well as how you can implement them. The reprieve from some of the statutory framework usually assigned to public schools allows for greater community resources to flow through and creative programming to be implemented in the TW Zone in furtherance of improved student outcomes.
WACOAN: What are some examples of that?
Wickliff: Dr. Robin McDurham, [the CEO for Transformation Waco], has such a history of positive success with the district, and she has been instrumental in pushing some really creative programs forward. With our ‘Hidden Figures’ project, we were able to get young women from our five different schools involved in learning more about STEM. It was a huge success, and it looks like we want to make it even bigger next year. A lot of the young women who participated were so excited; they wanted to be sure they would get to be involved again, and others saw what they were doing and want to be a part of it too.
WACOAN: So you’re making more room at the table?
Wickliff: Yes! Just last week, we had Vision Fest, which was an opportunity for all of the students to get their eyes checked and get glasses ordered if they need them. This is huge. If you can’t see the board or read the books, those are huge setbacks.
A lot of times, students may not know that they need glasses. And unfortunately, many times, families may not have the resources to get them the remedy, those glasses. We were excited to get the grant and be able to put on this event for the students.
WACOAN: What’s most rewarding about all of this for you?
Wickliff: I’ve always worked. And when we came here I had a 6-week-old baby. Now we have four children who are 5 years old and under. So being on the board allows me to be able to still flex my work muscle. It makes me really feel a part of this community. I feel like I’m giving something back to the community, and it gives me a sense of self-worth as well.
Working with the schools has given me an opportunity to create building blocks here in Waco. And when the time comes and I’m ready to transition back into the workforce, this community won’t be brand new to me. I’m already invested in it.
WACOAN: Did you ever imagine you’d be living in Waco and feeling invested in its school district?
Wickliff: I don’t think we had initially planned to end up here as we both were from larger cities, but landing in Waco was the best accident that ever happened us. It’s funny how God laughs at our plans.
When my husband was just doing a Google job search, the job announcement didn’t even say this job was in Waco. It just said, ‘Conveniently situated 90 miles south of Dallas and [north of] Austin.’ It mentioned all these great things, like a university, but it didn’t say Baylor. And you know what, it is conveniently situated. And it is small enough that you always see someone you know when you are out and about but large enough that there is one of everything that you might need and want.
WACOAN: And you love it?
Wickliff: We love Waco and what it has to offer, both personally and professionally. We are building roots here. We have developed a great connection to our city through church, both St. Louis and St. John the Baptist Catholic churches, as well as through the school and organizations that we are a part of.
I love what Waco is as well as the direction it is headed in. Waco has been really good to us. People are always reaching out to you here. I didn’t know anything about a Meal Train until I moved to Waco, and it’s unbelievable, the support and the caring. People have gone above and beyond to make us feel welcome here.
WACOAN: Tell me about your family.
Wickliff: My husband, Eliot, and I have four children: Savannah, 5; Hope, 3; Holly, 2; and Juliette, 2 months. So there’s lots of pink, purple and sparkle in our house.
WACOAN: You have four kids, yet you’re still kind of a new mom because they are all so young. What’s that like?
Wickliff: It’s a fine balance. It’s organized chaos. Once you reach No. 4, it’s a little chaotic, but you run a tight ship and you’ve got to stay organized.
WACOAN: Being a physician, is your husband able to be super involved in the daily life of your family?
Wickliff: Fortunately, in the pain field, it’s kind of an 8-5 job. He is on call for anesthesiology, but a lot less than the traditional anesthesiologist. So he’s very hands on. I lucked out. Great husband, great dad.
WACOAN: What do you do to recharge and restore yourself throughout the week?
Wickliff: I run. My husband likes to run on the treadmill, but I like to get outside and run in the fresh air, either in my neighborhood or downtown or in Cameron Park on the river trail. It’s so peaceful and that’s how I de-stress. I’ve run one marathon. And I’d like to maybe do a half-marathon in the next year.
WACOAN: Where do your girls go to school and how did you choose?
Wickliff: There are a lot of really great schools in Waco, public and private. My mom was a Montessori teacher and I went to Montessori school, so I thought, naturally, my kids would too.
We visited Live Oak [Classical School], which seemed a little more structured, and Waco Montessori [School], which seemed more independent. St. Paul’s Episcopal Day School was kind of right down the middle. It’s like a big family. You really get to know the teachers on a personal level, and it’s nice to know that I’m leaving my child with someone I really trust.
WACOAN: As a board member overseeing five public schools, would you consider sending your children to public school?
Wickliff: Absolutely! We currently live in Woodway but also own a parcel of land in Waco for a future build. Right now three of our four children are students at St. Paul’s, where I am also a trustee on the school board. That said, both my husband and I are byproducts of public and parochial schools. Both of our moms were teachers across the public and Montessori realm. So for our family, finding the right educational platform for each of our children, whether public or private, is highly important. Since St. Paul’s only goes to sixth grade, we’ll definitely be having conversations about where they will attend.
WACOAN: Besides education, what are your other passions?
Wickliff: Community development and housing is something that is important to me. That kind of stems from my days with the Chicago Housing Authority. Here in Waco, this past November, I went with a team to an empowerment conference called Forward Cities. We are working to start thinking strategically about East Waco, as well as the [proposed La Salle Corridor] District. Being a part of those conversations is one of my passions.
Even though I live in Woodway, I’m always in Waco. My kids go to school in Waco, my favorite spots are in Waco, my church is in Waco. I see so much potential.
I’m really good friends with Andrea Barefield, who happens to be the city council member for East Waco. She has done a phenomenal job just in the past year, getting East Waco back on the map, really, by working collaboratively with the business owners. We want to see how we can revitalize the area in a way that preserves the history, while also welcoming a new generation.
WACOAN: So, what’s new on Elm Avenue?
Wickliff: There’s Brotherwell [Brewing], which is going in across the street from Lula Jane’s. There’s a woman who is creating her own cheese shop where she makes her own cheese, and that’s going in over there. There’s a whole team of people working to bring businesses to the area. I feel very fortunate to be an itty-bitty part of those conversations, and it’s one of my passions.
WACOAN: And what’s happening on the public housing front?
Wickliff: I know they are overhauling the public housing in Waco, so I hope to maybe be a part of some of those conversations. I want to make sure that as Waco develops, we are making things accessible for everyone but not displacing anyone either. It’s my understanding that they are going to do away with all traditional public housing in Waco and replace it with what’s called housing choice vouchers. Vouchers are great because you can create mobility and choice, which leads to personal empowerment for families.
WACOAN: You’re on the board of our local chapter of Jack and Jill of America. Talk a little about that organization and what you do within it.
Wickliff: The main focus is for mothers and their children to do service work together and to develop young community service leaders. It starts at the age of 2 and continues on through high school graduation. Clearly, I’m on the beginning end of this train.
For my family, really my husband’s side, his mother grew up in Jack and Jill, and he did too. So it was really important for us to continue that tradition with our kids. The kids get an opportunity to meet new friends from all over Central Texas because our chapter extends to the Temple and Belton areas.
WACOAN: In what ways does Jack and Jill serve the community?
Wickliff: We do a lot of fundraising. We recently had a March of Dimes walk. We raise money for the [American] Red Cross, and in February we held ‘Jazzing for a Healthy Heart,’ where our families created baskets to be auctioned off.
The idea is to work collaboratively with our children to train our young people to get involved in the community at a very young age. They are learning at an age-appropriate level, whether it’s about voting or Black History Month or heart health awareness. We are always learning something at every single meeting.
WACOAN: Essentially, they never know life without that community service element.
Wickliff: Right. It’s just something that’s part of us. We are also involved in Portraits, which is a program sponsored by the Baylor Office of Multicultural Affairs. It’s an opportunity for kids to learn about leadership through the arts. College students come each Wednesday evening, and they sing and dance and teach skills like etiquette and art appreciation.
WACOAN: What other activities take up your time?
Wickliff: As a wife and a mom of four children 5 and under, I am constantly trying to find balance with my own missions. I’m also involved in Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. AKA has five rolling targets, which currently focus on women’s health care, wellness, money management, the arts and our global impact.
WACOAN: You’re clearly a strong woman who is concerned with the world around her. What do you want your children to learn from you about being a strong African-American woman in today’s world?
Wickliff: We come from a very multicultural background. My mom is Caucasian and Native American, and my dad was African-American and Native American, so we are just a very blended family.
Instead of focusing on our cultural background, I want to instill in my girls that no matter who they are, they can be whatever they want to be. I want them to know they don’t have to fit any molds. I don’t want them to fall into any traps where they feel constraints of any kind.
They are fortunate that they have a lot of leaders in their family who are doing really great things — teachers, doctors, lawyers. I want them to know that they can be any of those things, but I also want them to know that they can be anything that we’re not. We’re just trying to give them exposure to lots of things, like soccer, for instance. We put all three in a soccer program to see if they like it, and it turns out, some of them just want to dance. We’re going to let them choose their path.
WACOAN: What character traits do you believe are most important to pass on to your girls?
Wickliff: First and foremost, I want them to be God-fearing. It’s really important that they understand that God’s plan for them is the best. God gives us all these ingredients for our lives. At the end of the day, we have to lay our worries down and let the Lord guide us.
WACOAN: It’s hard to remember at times, but it’s true.
Wickliff: Definitely. But, it’s fundamental. If you do that, everything seems to fall in place. Case in point: We’re here in Waco. If we had gone with our own plan, I feel quite sure my husband’s practice wouldn’t have been as successful and I would not be enjoying my work in the community. So, thank you, Lord.
WACOAN: What’s something that people might not know about you?
Wickliff: I was a foster parent for seven years, serving as the legal guardian for my niece, prior to getting married and moving to Waco.
WACOAN: What do you hope can be your impact on Waco?
Wickliff: There are so many great change-agents in Waco, and I can only hope to be one of the seeds of improvement. Even though I hold Juris Doctorate in law and License Legal Master designation, I have never practiced law in the traditional sense. I have always aimed to use my professional degrees to be a part of the change in my community. Since 2015 I have called Waco home and have strived to listen intently to the community as to what the desires are and then figure out how I can use my skills and experiences to be of service in meeting those goals.
FIVE THINGS MELLI CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT:
1. My running shoes. I keep them in my car, but my purse is big enough that they fit there as well. Brand: Saucony Style: Hurricane Color: Pink and gray
2. Aquaphor. I keep a travel size on me at all times. Aquaphor is really great because you can use it as your diaper cream, your lip balm, anything.
3. Black Chanel double-fold sunglasses. I love the sun and the heat, but I’m not used to this. Compared to Wisconsin, there are a lot more beautiful, sunshiny days, so I keep them on me at all times.
4. A diaper. I have one on me always because I have 2 1/2 kids in diapers right now.
5. Small hot Caballero from Common Grounds. It’s coffee, half-and-half and their ‘secret sauce.’ I can’t quite put my finger on what spice is in that sauce. I faithfully went to the Baylor Common Grounds for my Caballero until they built one near me.