Tiffany Tavarez, Vice President of Community Relations at Wells Fargo, discusses the importance of corporate social responsibility and shares how the adversities she faced as a young person led her to a mission of service and giving back to others. Discover the importance of mentorship in becoming a leader and how to ask questions at networking events that create deeper and more authentic connections. Tiffany also shares how her background in the arts informs and enriches her current work.
Crew: Yeah, good to go.
Kelly: Test, test, test, test, test. Tiffany, will you just-
Tiffany Tavarez: Hey girl, hey girl, hey girl, hey girl.
Kelly: Yep, we got it.
Crew: Start recording. Awesome.
Kelly: So, we’re good. This is the space where we reveal our personal humanity to reconnect with our shared humanity. I’m always excited for guests, but I am elated this morning to introduce to you, Tiffany Tavarez, Vice President, Community Relations for the northeast region, for Wells Fargo. Welcome, I am so excited to talk to you. How are you?
Tiffany Tavarez: Well, you know what? I’m elated.
Kelly: You are?
Tiffany Tavarez: I am.
Kelly: I can see, and you’re-
Tiffany Tavarez: I’m only going to mirror your emotions, Kelly, this is amazing.
Kelly: Well, you know, I mean, we’re all a reflection of each other. So, okay. That’s a big title, what does that mean? Like, if I was a six year old child and you were in my classroom explaining to me what you do, what do you do?
Tiffany Tavarez: Sure, sure. No, no, no, I appreciate the question. So, as Vice President of Community Relations for the northeast team here at Wells Fargo, there serves a couple of capacities. One, as you can imagine with Wells Fargo, we have over 220,000 employees. It’s a massive company. And we have some fantastic corporate social responsibility initiatives. We are the foot soldiers, if you will, in the communities, on the ground.
And, essentially, I am one of those foot soldiers in the northeast. Really helping align what’s going on in the community, with regards to our team members and volunteer engagements to our philanthropic focus areas. And that’s what I do, I help the northeast team achieve the CSR goals for the company.
Kelly: Wow, I mean, that’s a huge job.
Tiffany Tavarez: It’s a huge job but it’s a very, very impactful one and one that all of us, not just myself, but the entire team takes very seriously.
Kelly: Okay, so if we were to step out of your role at Wells, and from a personal perspective, I mean, I know it’s just in you, just inherently in your DNA to be a steward of the world and to-
Tiffany Tavarez: I appreciate that.
Kelly: … promote social responsibility. I mean, that’s what I know of you. So, why do you think it’s so important for Wells to be that steward or have foot soldiers to create social impact?
Tiffany Tavarez: Sure, no, I think that’s fantastic. There are few ways I would answer that question. One, I think with the kind of temperature of what’s going on, whether it be political, social, economic, in our society, in our country, I think people are really starting to question. Okay, not just what’s my individual responsibility or what’s my family’s individual responsibility in the community, but what about the products that I buy? What about the services that I use? And they’re starting to look a little bit more, I think, in a weird way, holistically, even at significant corporations. To say, “Are they valuing the things that I value?”
And, oftentimes, that’s what you want to do, right? That’s even how you think, when you think about, you find your friends. It’s people that align with things that you truly believe in. That are, whether it be ethically right or just morally sound. And I think people are starting to have that set of expectations and responsibilities for the organizations that they somehow either work with, work for, and work alongside.
Kelly: Got you.
Tiffany Tavarez: And I think that’s really important. The second way I would answer that question is that, additionally, there is more of a responsibility for companies to hire those individuals that are going to serve as really fantastic brand ambassadors and advocates. Not just for themselves, but for the organizations they work for. So, I think it’s a two-way relationship.
Kelly: Yeah. I mean, you and I share a passion for mentorship, and we both have millennials that we mentor. What I’m finding, and tell me your opinion of this, but they are not just requiring it, they’re demanding it. I mean, and if they don’t think they’re making a positive impact on the world, they’re going to go to somewhere else.
Tiffany Tavarez: No, absolutely-
Kelly: Do you agree with that?
Tiffany Tavarez: No, I totally agree with that. But the funny thing is, and maybe you’ll agree with me, is that I don’t even think they realize that they demand it. I think it’s inherently built in, so they don’t even realize that it’s a requirement for them, it’s an expectation for them. And that’s what gets a little bit tricky, right?
Tiffany Tavarez: Because the company or, again, an organization, whether it be, again, non-profit sector, government sector, what have you, they’re out there saying, “How come we can’t get young people engaged, how come we can’t find the right hire?” And on the flip side, they’re thinking, “Well, how could you not have this possibly already built in?” Because it’s something that I have not thought about. So, it’s a very interesting dynamic to have these expectations without the other group knowing of the demand, if that makes sense.
Kelly: Exactly. No, it’s so fascinating to watch. So, how young were you when this responsibility to better the world came into your life? And I’m looking between the ages of like eight and 14.
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh my goodness.
Kelly: So, go back.
Tiffany Tavarez: Better the world. I mean that’s, you know, the world. That depends what the world is, right? It’s better your block, better your home, not just the world. Well, actually, mine goes, I could say even earlier than that. It was at the age of six.
Kelly: Okay, tell me about that.
Tiffany Tavarez: Sure. So, my father was killed when I was six years old, and so my mother, bless her heart, my hero, she … Let’s see, at the time, she was 24. And she became a widow with a six year old, that’s me, and a four year old, that’s my brother. I remember her turning to me, at a particular moment, and essentially saying, “Okay, we have to take care of your brother now.”
What was interesting, at that moment, I was just thinking, “Okay, that’s it. I’m going to help my mom, we’re going to do this. It’s just the three of us now, right? The three amigos.” But, of course, in retrospect, looking back, she was essentially saying, “I gave birth to two children, but in this household there’s one child-
Kelly: Got you.
Tiffany Tavarez: … and that’s your younger brother.” So, when you talk about … I don’t know if it was necessarily bettering the world, because I think people have to accept the responsibility of survival before they can think about betterment. So, that age, for me, at six, was when I accepted the role of, “Okay, I’m responsible for us to survive now.” And then after a certain point, there was a different point. Matter of fact, it’s when I hit high school when I realized, “You know what? We’ve been surviving pretty well, but how do I make this better?”
Kelly: Yeah. Do you mind if I ask how your father was killed? Are you okay with that?
Tiffany Tavarez: It was just through a very unfortunate gun violence, I’ll just say.
Kelly: Got you.
Tiffany Tavarez: Yeah.
Kelly: Got you. Well, knowing you now as a friend and a colleague, you have this playful nature about you. I follow you, of course, on social media. And she’s got these mischievous little posts, which I absolutely love. Because I have that way about me, I can be really serious. But do you think that because your childhood was cut short, that sometimes you live it out now?
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh, that’s a really good question. I know that I am both the most serious person and the most ridiculous person that my friends know. I mean, I always get that kind of interesting opposite end of the spectrum. And people, I know I shouldn’t even say opposite end of the spectrum, because if you look closely, those things always align with one another. They’re always, as a matter of fact, you can’t have one without the other, in a weird way.
Kelly: Right, exactly.
Tiffany Tavarez: Actually, I wouldn’t even say that my childhood was cut short. I think it’s more of trying to really get the joy that I probably … Probably what people would judge to say that I missed in childhood. And to say, I didn’t miss it, I’m just extending it throughout my life instead.
Kelly: Yeah, I mean, you have this beautiful sense of wonder about you that’s just really, it’s just-
Tiffany Tavarez: You’ve got to save these quotes for me, Kelly, this is amazing.
Kelly: I mean, it’s, you can’t … watching you, it’s one of those things where you’re like, you can’t take your eyes off of her.
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh, I appreciate that.
Kelly: Because she has this energetic kind of sparkle. But it’s because of that sense of wonder and play, but also, I’ve seen Tiffany get serious, and I don’t ever want her to direct that seriousness at me. Because, it can be pretty intense. I mean, she’s just amazing leader but it’s like, “Oh, wait a second, we’re playing. Oh, okay, we’re in the serious hat now. All right.”
So, tell me about high school. Did you have community service built in or was it something you just actively sought out yourself?
Tiffany Tavarez: So, I actually have a very specific story-
Kelly: Okay, tell me.
Tiffany Tavarez: … in terms of giving back and how it aligns with, to be honest, the beginning of my career, and me not even knowing it. There was a specific teacher, talk about mentors, there was a woman named Ms. Coss. Her name is Charlene Coss, but, to be honest, I never will call her Charlene and she knows this. And I hope she hears this now and confirms it.
Kelly: What grade was she teaching you in?
Tiffany Tavarez: Let’s see, she started teaching me freshman year of high school, and I’ve had her all four years. And that may not be accurate, but I’ll just say I harassed her all four years, so I didn’t know the difference.
Kelly: When you say harassed, what do you mean?
Tiffany Tavarez: Meaning, I actually would go into her classroom, check on her, I would check on her students. I would drive her crazy by asking the students whether or not she’s been a really good teacher to them. And she’d yell at me, “Get out of the class.” I mean, the whole thing. Then I’d say, “Thanks guys, I’m just checking.” “The principle sent me,” I’d say, “to make sure that she’s doing her job.”
Kelly: And did the principle really send you?
Tiffany Tavarez: No, no, not at all. Not even a little bit. But I did this to her all the time and, of course, she went along with it. And, actually, her husband was my math teacher, oddly enough, from the school. So, the art and the math, they were both driving me crazy, I drove them crazy. It was just one lovely big love triangle there.
But she was the first adult, outside of my mother, to be honest, to serve as a mentor to me and me not even know it, right? Because, oftentimes, you end up building this relationship, you realize that you are relying on them socially, intellectually, just a number of different ways. And then all of a sudden you have this grown up moment of saying, “Oh, I think that’s a mentor, right? I think that person cares about my well-being and they’re not a blood relative. I don’t understand this.” And that was really eye opening for me, and really touching.
And one particular story that I like to share. I was 17 years old and I was walking down the hallway of the high school, and I see everybody eating cupcakes. And if anyone knows me, I can eat a cupcake, no problem, anytime. And so, right away, I start asking around, like, “Hey guys, what’s going on with the cupcakes?” Like, “Where are you getting this cupcake from?” So, then, of course, my greedy behind, right?
They said, “Oh, all the teachers are having a bake sale.” I’m thinking, “That’s weird, teachers having a bake sale? I must check it out.” So, I walk to the end of the hall and I see all of my favorite teachers. There’s like Mr. Lions, Ms. Lotnick, and, of course, Mr. Coss, and, of course, the ring leader, right? Mrs. Coss. And like normal, “Mrs. Coss what are you doing? How come you’re selling cupcakes? What’s going on over here?” She said in her very normal answer to me, no matter what question I ask, like, “Didn’t your mother tell you to mind your own business? Get out of here.” So, I gave her a bad look, stole a cupcake, whatever. Called it a day.
A few weeks later, I go into her classroom to say hello, I’m in between classes. And she hands me an envelope, and she says, “Don’t open this till you get home, I don’t want any problems.” I’m thinking, “Okay, we had a really good relationship.” Like, “Am I in trouble? What’s going on?” Sure enough, I get home and I open the envelope, and that’s actually a check. It said, “To Tiffany Tavarez.” The memo line said, “Senior year of high school,” or something like that. She knew that I couldn’t partake in any senior year festivities, right? Because it gets expensive. There’s class rings, college application fees, your cap and gown, even. I mean, all these, I mean, bless your heart if you’re a parent and you have to pay for these things, it’s insane.
And so, I didn’t partake in any of it because I couldn’t afford it. She knew that I was working and had been working since I was 14, 15 years old, to help our family. But that was not an option for me. And so, the teachers came together, under her leadership, to fundraise for me. And I was able to participate in a lot of these things. That was my first time experiencing giving back. The idea of someone giving back. It honestly, it blew my mind. It’s probably very apropos that I work for a bank, because I just assume everything’s a loan, right? I couldn’t understand that this was a gift.
I remember I was … I would go into her classroom and I’d say, “Are you sure?” Like, “Do I have to pay this back? I can pay you back.” And she’d just would point at the door, and she’d just say, “Get out.” And I just, I honestly couldn’t believe it. I remember saying to my mom, at one point, I said, “She’s just not giving us something, right?” Because it was us, not just me, “She was investing in us.” And I made a promise to myself, that every time someone made an investment in me, I would pay them back by investing in someone else. And that’s when the whole concept, if you will, of paying it forward wasn’t a concept but rather a way of living life.
Kelly: I mean, it’s been rare when I’m choked up, where I don’t have the words. But I wish there was video here, because that is one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever heard. I mean, is Mrs. Coss still in your life?
Tiffany Tavarez: She is. As a matter of fact, we keep in touch, I would like to see her as much as possible. But it’s really tough, because she retired not too long ago, and her and her husband literally travel the world all the time. But we do keep in touch. They normally do a nice weekend in Philly, once a year, where I get to spend some time with them and-
Kelly: Is she proud of you?
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh, beyond any words that her or my mother could describe, yes.
Kelly: I mean, how do you know?
Tiffany Tavarez: That’s a good question. You know what? I will say this, this is something I always really … I’m at a loss of words even when I think about it. She and her husband don’t have any children, and she said, “You know, I never thought that I needed children because I was a teacher for so many years, or we were teachers for so many years and we came in contact with so many students. So, for us, that was our parenting. That was our love and our care, and that was our giving to another human soul, or another human being.” And she said, “But, you made me think that if I ever wanted a daughter, I would want her to be just like you.”
Kelly: Oh my gosh. Wow, what an impact. That’s unbelievable.
Tiffany Tavarez: And then she’d be like, “All right, get out my face.” That’s probably why we got along so well. It’s like, “Okay, I can only take this stuff for so long and then move on to the next thing.”
Kelly: There was a quote that keeps popping in my mind about you. Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved him and I set him free.” And Tiffany is so, she’s not only an artist, but I find that she’s a life artist. Because she can see the potential in people and just really bring out the best and turn up the volume on their magnificence. So, how does being an actual artist, like painting and all of that, and being a life artist, the way you are, how do you marry those in the beautiful way that you do?
Tiffany Tavarez: Sure, no, I appreciate that. So, a lot of people don’t know that my background is in the arts and that’s, to be honest, what allowed me the opportunity to obtain a higher education, go to college and such. So, it’s something that, for me, I’ve never wanted to be a quote unquote artist, and have that necessarily as a way of life. It’s something that I really enjoy doing. But more importantly, I guess, in terms of how does it align with my day to day, and for that matter even my career, and my relationship to other people.
When people talk about leadership principles, oftentimes, you hear good, solid, but very repetitive words. There’s integrity, right? There’s honesty, trust, and by no means am I diminishing the value of those, not just the words obviously, but the meaning behind it. But, oftentimes, I think we glide over very specific words that hit on exactly the thing that moves you and that drives you. And sometimes, just keeps you centered.
For me, I have for a long time, I felt that word was creativity, naturally, right? Because of my love for the arts. No matter what sector you’re in, I think it just, it stimulates the brain. It marries the left and right side, I think. It marries your relationships to people inside and outside the home, inside and outside the workplace.
And then, even going a level deeper, I realized that, in my core, if not one of the core leadership principles, for me, is curiosity. That, at the end of the day, is what drives an artist. It’s what drives a CEO. It’s what drives a leadership coach, like yourself. It’s the curiosity of, what if. Or, let’s see.
Kelly: Or what’s possible.
Tiffany Tavarez: Or what’s possible. And that, for me, is how I marry the two. It’s an ongoing curiosity. I’ve been very fortunate enough to travel different places, inside and outside the U.S.. And you know this, I’ve told you many of story, I love meeting new people. I love hearing about them. It’s not just because that I have a way to connect with them or not just so I can say that I’ve done these things. But, I have a genuine curiosity for the human mind. I mean, its just, I don’t even know how else to put that.
Kelly: No, you don’t have to, because that’s the exact reason why I started this podcast. Is because I’m so curious about the human beyond the title. Because there’s such a richness there. I mean, even like talking to you.
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh, I appreciate it, yeah.
Kelly: You’ve got a huge title, but that doesn’t say who you are. And it’s just one facet of what you do in your life. I think there’s so many other things that play in and define the human as a holistic being.
Tiffany Tavarez: No, absolutely. I think many people, unfortunately, are programmed to talk about what they do and not who they are. Even when I think about events where you meet people and there’s opportunity for networking. The moment I hear, “What do you do?” And I know people generally don’t like answering that question, but I actually will let them know I don’t like answering that question. And many times, they’re taken aback.
Just like, “Oh, well …” I said, “Look, if you can ask me any question on this planet that you would want to know about me, that has nothing to do with my title or where I work, I invite you to ask me any question.” And I wait, and often time, that person cannot come up with a question.
Tiffany Tavarez: They cannot come up … It’s almost like I’ve just hit them over the head or I surprised them. Which, and that’s fine, but eventually, I just suspect someone like, “Oh, do you have a pet?” I don’t even care how mundane it is, like, “What’s your sign?” I mean, there’s so many ways that someone can go with a conversation.
And, oftentimes, if I sense that they’re having sincere difficulty coming up with a question, sincere difficulty at the concept of curiosity, I will say to them, “Okay, then I’ll start. Lets talk about why you can’t come up with a question that has nothing to do with my job.”
Kelly: Oh, so you’re digging in the question behind the question. I love that.
Tiffany Tavarez: And, right away, they just are like, “Well, I’m not used to people asking me that.” Or, “I’m only used to people talking about their job, that I don’t think about, necessarily, who they are as a person, what got them there.” And I say, “That’s fine, so let’s talk about that.” I think, to me, aside from the fact that they won’t forget me, right? Because they’re like, “I had this crazy conversation with this crazy girl with curly hair.”
Besides that, there’s also an authentic connection. Because, right? Because every time, later on, when I see that person or we end up working in a project together, attend an event together, what have you, we’ll refer back to the moment that we bonded and not just when we exchange cards.
Kelly: Exactly. I mean-
Tiffany Tavarez: And that’s a very different transaction.
Kelly: It is. Because, sometimes … And you and I are on the same page with that.
Tiffany Tavarez: Yeah.
Kelly: And you’re a lot more gentle than I am. Because I’m like, “I hate that question.” So, but my favorite question to ask at networking events is, what’s your favorite hobby? Because-
Tiffany Tavarez: Yes, I’ve heard you ask that, many of people.
Kelly: Yeah, because I think it sheds more light on to who they are. I mean, how are you spending your free time. And if it’s going to museums or travel or … I mean, I had one guy tell me he loves to play Quidditch, which I didn’t think was a thing. But it is.
Tiffany Tavarez: I have a lot of questions for that guy.
Kelly: It is. And I stood there for 45 minutes listening to him. I was like, “Wow, the fact that you’re brave enough to admit that out loud, especially to a stranger, is very telling of your character.”
Tiffany Tavarez: Yeah, but do you find it tricky that when you say hobby, and it implies free time, even the concept of free time, right?
Tiffany Tavarez: Even to move away from that. Because I think even sometimes people make me feel guilty, like, “Oh, I don’t have free time. I’m just too busy.” I think, sometimes, people don’t know what their hobby is. Or they’re ashamed to just say, “I really enjoy sleeping when I can.”
Kelly: Well, yeah and that’s-
Tiffany Tavarez: And I’m like, “That’s cannot be a hobby.”
Kelly: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s funny, because a colleague of mine tried to tweet that question, to say, “It’s better to ask them what they do with their free time.” But the response I get is, “What free time?” So, “What’s your hobby?” Now, it’s tennis or cricket or Quidditch, I mean, who knew? It’s very telling about who they are as a person, and what their choices are, beyond what they do.
So, I love that you’re engaging and pushing people to connect that way. Because I think that’s a lost art nowadays. You and I need to be the stewards of that. Because if we lose conversation, I mean, where are we, really?
Tiffany Tavarez: No, absolutely. And by no means, I’m really honored and fortunate and very lucky to have had the career that I have, to be in the position that I am with the great company I’m with. At the same time, with my own personal life, I’m fully aware that change is the only thing that’s constant. And so, I know that exactly what I think my schedule is today, what my commitments are, and my either expectations or responsibilities to other people.
I also am fully aware that that can change at any moment. And if I marry my identity to only one version that people know, then, to me, that’s what creates a sense of loss and confusion. And if there’s anything I dislike, it’s not being on solid ground. Which means I’m going to have to deal with all versions of Tiffany.
Kelly: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Tiffany Tavarez: And make sure that they are all happy.
Kelly: And grounded.
Tiffany Tavarez: And grounded, yeah.
Kelly: I mean, that’s just amazing. So, take me back to the moment when you first experienced art? So, the very first museum you ever visited. And go in your mind’s eye, and you’re looking at the artwork, what was-
Tiffany Tavarez: I already got it for you.
Kelly: Okay, tell me, what was it, and tell me what the emotions and physical sensations that came out?
Tiffany Tavarez: So, my mother, when we were growing up, she had a multitude of jobs. And so, as you can imagine with little children, she did not want us to go home and be by ourselves for very long. And there was about, I want to say, two, two and a half hour time period where we got out of school, but she was not available yet to be home.
Kelly: Got you.
Tiffany Tavarez: So, she said, “Go to the library after school, spend time there. And I will pick you up from the library, so you can be around other people.” Little did she know, at the time, that not that many people attended the library. And we went to this library, I … And you have to forgive me, because like I said, I was very young and so I have the image in my head. But, essentially, the library had two floors. So, there was a good amount of people, mostly senior citizens on the first floor. And so, they didn’t notice this little kid and her little brother with gigantic book bags, gigantic coats.
And we would sneak upstairs to the second floor, so that way people wouldn’t notice that, “Who are these two kids sitting by themselves,” or what have you. So, we went up to the second floor where there was no one there. My brother and I used to act like it was our apartment. We would just throw our stuff down, we eat snacks on the floor, do homework. I mean, literally, no one went upstairs, so we did this for a good solid year and a half.
Kelly: You don’t have to tell me which library, where it was, this library?
Tiffany Tavarez: This library, I’m trying to remember. This library might have been in New Jersey, in North Jersey, somewhere at this point.
Tiffany Tavarez: I remember walking through the aisles and just looking at all the books, and mostly it’d be the subjects, right? That are listed on each aisle, the way that it does in a supermarket. The reason why, for me, that was a kind of a catalyst, in terms of my thinking, is because you realize that if something is a subject, that means it’s a thing not everyone has in common, right?
Tiffany Tavarez: So, I happened to find an aisle that said Art. I got confused, because I’m thinking, “Does everybody not do art?” Like, “Why is this a separate thing that people have to learn about?” I just assumed that it was inherent in everybody. I went up to the shelf that only my height could reach. So, whatever books were in front of me were essentially the first artist I learned about. I remember the three books I picked up. It was Peter Paul Rubens, Pablo Picasso, and Paula Rego. And, again, that was the moment I experienced art. I looked at their pictures.
For those that don’t know, Peter Paul Rubens, famous artist. I mean, he painted these very beautiful voluptuous, luscious figures and beautiful scenes. Picasso, I mean, that’s like saying George Washington or like Lincoln. These kind of common names. No one may know art, but they’ll recognize the name Picasso, there was that. And then the third is Paula Rego. Now, what’s interesting about that book in particular, that especially that I picked that one up, almost my entire lifetime, no one has ever heard of Paula Rego.
So, for years, I thought I must be misremembering this artist’s name. Because even when I went to art school, in the middle of my art history class, I said, “Can you tell me information about Paula Rego? We’ve learned about Picasso, we’ve learned about Peter Paul Rubens.” I remember the instructor saying, “Yeah, I’ve never heard of that.” And I’m thinking, “Tiffany, you are losing your damn mind. You’re making up this artist.” Sure enough, I end up working for a foundation, years later … And mind you, I’m still following Paula Rego. Whatever little bit I could, there’s not … This is an artist whose work is not shown a lot in the U.S. There’s not a ton of books on her, but there are some. This was before, really, people can google anything, everywhere all the time.
And so, I’m thinking like, “I know I saw this artist’s name, I’m not going crazy.” Again, fast forward, working for a foundation. We’re having this big fancy dinner, meeting all these different curators and those that work in the museum and arts industry. I happen to be talking to a curator named Marco. And he said to me, “Who’s your favorite artist?” I get very passionate when people start asking me that question. I said, “I can’t choose one artist, there are multitude of artist that have impacted me and who I love following.” I said, “But what I will tell you is, I’ll tell you the first three artists I learned about.”
He said, “Who’s that?” Naturally, “Peter Paul Rubens, Pablo Picasso, and Paula Rego.” And he said, “Oh, I’ll be sure to tell her when I see her.” And in the middle of this dinner, I may have dropped a curse word that silenced everybody. My boss looked at me, and she was really upset. I was like, “I’m so sorry, I just have never heard anyone acknowledge that who I said is a real person.” And I said, “I’m sorry, what the hell did you just say?” I’m like in my early 20s, it’s my first formal dinner. He said, “Yeah, I was chosen to curate her first retrospective in the U.S.”
Kelly: Are you kidding me?
Tiffany Tavarez: I kid you not.
Kelly: You can’t write this stuff. I mean, I love it.
Tiffany Tavarez: You cannot write this tuff.
Kelly: Okay, so, what happened?
Tiffany Tavarez: So, we kept in touch, he lives in London. And it’s an amazing, just gentle amazing heart, I don’t even know how else to describe him. Sure enough, years later, I get an invitation to the opening of this exhibition. I rush like a bat out of hell, from Philadelphia to Washington D.C., during rush hour. And I get to the museum at 8:00 PM, when the event ends. Mind you, again, early in my career, I had no idea this was a formal affair. I’m literally showing up in my jeans and a hood sweatshirt.
Kelly: Oh my god.
Tiffany Tavarez: Okay, so, there are so many factors about this whole story that are just messed up, but also meant to be.
Kelly: Right, exactly.
Tiffany Tavarez: I’m walking around the museum, we bump into each other. When you talk about expressing gratitude, the tough part about expressing gratitude is because when you really feel it, the expression that you may choose is never going to feel like enough.
Kelly: Right, we have such a limited vocabulary. Because it’s just-
Tiffany Tavarez: It’s just-
Kelly: … so experiential, right?
Tiffany Tavarez: It’s so experient, you cannot do it. But I told them, “Whatever you need me to do, in terms of my body, my voice, I’ll paint you a damn … However gratitude means the most for you, just tell me and I will give that to you. Because that’s essentially how I feel right now.”
Kelly: Oh my gosh!
Tiffany Tavarez: He said, “I know how much you appreciate her, I’m just glad that someone in the U.S. just loves her work that much.” So, anyways, he says, “Enjoy, walk around.” And I say, “I’m really sorry for the sweatshirt as well.” And I keep walking around the museum, and I find him in this, actually, a darker room. Oftentimes, they do that to protect the material, if it’s a week, let’s say drawing, and then it’s light exposure, yada, yada. I go to this room, I see this drawing. And I’m looking at the year, and I realize that the artist is approximately, I want to say 16 or 17 years old when she did this drawing.
Kelly: Oh my gosh!
Tiffany Tavarez: Which I have, again, this is the first time I’m also seeing this woman’s work in person, after years of essentially thinking she’s like a figment of my imagination. I see this work, I see this drawing in particular, and it just … I move to the point where I essentially want to cry, almost. I hear a woman’s voice say-
Kelly: Are you kidding me right now?
Tiffany Tavarez: I’m going-
Kelly: Keep going, keep going.
Tiffany Tavarez: I hear a woman’s voice say, “That is still one of my favorite drawings.”
Kelly: Oh my god!
Tiffany Tavarez: I turn around, and it’s Paula Rego. Here is this woman I have been essentially obsessed over, whose work spoke to me when I was that little kid in the library. Thinking that that whole entire floor was my apartment. I couldn’t speak, I just started bawling. I just recall crying with her … or I should say crying on her, while she’s walking me around and showing me her work. Probably for a straight 15 minutes. I’m not kidding, it was that dramatic.
Kelly: I mean, I can’t. I just can’t even. It’s-
Tiffany Tavarez: Then this is really going to push you over the edge. I sent her a letter, probably a week later, to express how much her work has impacted me. And, especially, because you don’t see a lot of artists who are female get the recognition that she had received and still receives to this day. And she said that what prompted her to really express herself through art is because her father had passed.
Kelly: Oh, you are kidding me. I just can’t. I knew this interview was going to be special, but I had no idea it was going to be this special.
Tiffany Tavarez: Yeah, so, it still blows my mind to this day.
Kelly: I mean, I’m in tears as I just-
Tiffany Tavarez: It’s crazy.
Kelly: But knowing Tiffany is to love her. So that I would want that for you over and over and over and over again.
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh, no, I appreciate. I mean, that means a lot.
Kelly: But I know what you mean about trying to express what you’re feeling. Because as I was listening to you, I could feel my heart squeezing. How do you describe that? How do you describe that feeling when you’re just overwhelmed and taken over by this emotion? Where you just want to, not gosh on somebody, but be like, “Oh my god,” you know what I mean?
Tiffany Tavarez: No.
Kelly: Do you know what I’m saying now?
Tiffany Tavarez: I think the beauty of a moment like that, is that you don’t have to describe it, right?
Tiffany Tavarez: Because if someone is asking you to describe it, normally, my response to something like that is, “I’m not going to describe it, only because I want to put my energy into wishing that you’re able to feel it one day.”
Kelly: Oh, that’s perfect. What a perfect response.
Tiffany Tavarez: Because if no one has heard that yet, they need to focus on, instead of, “Tiffany, you can’t find the words, how do I find that too?”
Kelly: How do I find that myself?
Tiffany Tavarez: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kelly: Exactly. Okay. Well, I don’t want this interview to end, but I always end with four rapid fire questions.
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh boy!
Kelly: They’re all real easy, I mean-
Tiffany Tavarez: I’m a Scorpio.
Kelly: Okay. Well-
Tiffany Tavarez: One down.
Kelly: And that’s why Tiffany and I get along so well, because my husband is a Scorpion too. So, I know exactly how to handle you. Okay, so, what’s your favorite comfort food?
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh, it’s so funny. Again, I’m a visual person, so I have to describe what just popped into my head.
Tiffany Tavarez: I’m Dominican American, and the first meal that popped into my head, essentially, is a Dominican dish that my mom makes. And it’s so funny, because she gets so much, she’s like, “This is the most boring meal I’ve ever had.” Because it’s such a traditional meal that, oftentimes, Dominicans have for breakfast. It’s actually associated, the families that eat that, it’s because they have zero money. They can’t afford anything else.
But I have my mom make it for me every time I see her, and I will never get tired of it. It’s essentially something called mangu. Which is boiled green plantains with this traditional Dominican salami and this cheese. And it’s, again, it sounds weird with eggs.
Kelly: No, it sounds delicious.
Tiffany Tavarez: That meal, it brings me so much joy.
Kelly: I mean, I grew up in South Florida, so Dominican Republic is a huge influence down there.
Tiffany Tavarez: 100%.
Kelly: One of my best friends in Grammar School, taught me how to make platanos for the first time. Where you’re like, fry them and then smash, and then fry them again. I’m like, “That is just …” I’m visualizing this meal and just thinking, “That’s like a warm inside hug for you.”
Tiffany Tavarez: Correct.
Kelly: Because it’s rooted in who you are-
Tiffany Tavarez: Correct.
Kelly: … and your family. Okay. What books do you have on your nightstand?
Tiffany Tavarez: Right now, I am reading … Oh my goodness, why can I not remember? I’m blanking out on the name of this book, it’s just driving me crazy. I hate this. I took a picture of it recently, to send it as a thank you, of like, “Oh, I just started my book, thank you so much.” So, I’m looking for the image right now. This is awful. Here we go, The Wretched of the Earth, by-
Kelly: The Wretched of the Earth.
Tiffany Tavarez: The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon. It is not, at least not for me, a necessarily easy breezy read. It talks a lot about, essentially … I’m trying to even think of the right words, systemic challenges in our society, as it relates to race. And economic disparities between different groups of people.
Kelly: Which you and I talk about a lot.
Tiffany Tavarez: Yes, we do talk a lot about. And it’s a really fantastic book, especially in a historical context. It’s amazing. It’s quite amazing.
Kelly: I’m sure it’s amazing, especially considering today’s climate.
Tiffany Tavarez: Yes.
Kelly: We won’t go into that, we’ll stay on a positive note.
Tiffany Tavarez: That’s a whole other episode.
Kelly: That’s right. Okay. So, what’s on your playlist right now?
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh my goodness, you’re killing me. A lot of people might be surprised. So, I love Niger pop. Yeah, you know. So, it’s essentially Nigerian popular music.
Kelly: That’s what I thought you were going to say.
Tiffany Tavarez: Yeah, it’s fantastic. It’s very actually similar to the Caribbean version of essentially like reggaeton. I love it, and I just follow a lot of different Nigerian artists. So, that’s the first one that popped into my head. So, the two things I would say I listen to everyday is Niger pop and jazz. I’m a huge jazz head. I listen to at least one song by Nina Simone and one song by Charles Mingus, everyday. Yeah.
Kelly: I love those artists. One of my new clients is Nigerian, so I have to pick your brain about that.
Tiffany Tavarez: Oh, yeah.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. Because now-
Tiffany Tavarez: Yeah, talk about, those that also love the plantain family. I mean, you can’t go wrong.
Kelly: I mean, it’s should be a staple in everybody’s diet, as far as I’m concerned. Okay. Last question-
Tiffany Tavarez: Not everyone, there’s only enough plantain for me, the amount I consume.
Kelly: What are you most grateful for in this moment right now?
Tiffany Tavarez: Having the voice to tell my story and the mental capacity to remember them.
Kelly: Oh, I love that. I love that. Thank you so much.
Tiffany Tavarez: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you and to share my story with all those lovely people who are listening.
Kelly: Yes. Well, and thank you for gifting us your time, because we know it’s so precious. And, you know, much like Tiffany and I really got real and connected, we encourage you, and it’s our intention at this show, to really go out and seek those authentic conversations. And discover your shared humanity, because that’s what makes us human. Thanks so much, and we’ll talk to you soon.