Tag Archives: regional

Time for our future to be seen and heard

hanging baskets downtownHow often are you heard, I mean really heard?

I was driving along 20th Street North last night after attending the third ever YP Expo and I noticed the hanging plants at the intersections. They’ve been hung every spring for at least the past four years, adding a bit of color to the hustle and bustle of the city’s central business district. It took getting a chance to stop at the light and be confronted by them to realize they were back and appreciate them.

The Expo holds a special place in my heart and I’ve long hoped for it to serve as a way to bring the city’s young professional community together under one roof to make it easier for individuals to learn about what’s available to them and about all of the good things going on in the city (I guess anticipating my hopes for accentuated positivity).

Despite arriving after comments had been made, there were several discussions taking place at tables throughout Rosewood Hall in downtown Homewood. Courtney Bascom Truss of the Birmingham Business Alliance and the organizations that took part in this year’s event should be commended. The conversations with people interested in getting involved were taking place.

So what’s next?

There have recently been some folks wondering aloud about the perpetual promise of our young professional class here in Alabama’s largest city (check out the comments to get a feel of how the conversation’s developing).

I actually spoke with two young ladies yesterday morning at one of the coffee shops I currently frequent after hearing them say that they felt limited in what they could do here in Birmingham. They did not know about the Expo. Once I told them about it they agreed that while it would be interesting to attend they weren’t really sure it was for them.

Young professionals have been viewed for a long time much in the same way that those hanging plants are – they are there and occasionally we are reminded of their existence and their significance. But they don’t necessarily announce their existence as loudly or with as much detail as we’d like them to.

As the push to engage more people in the future of the city continues, the idea of sharing information about what these organizations do with each other and those that may want to become a part of them becomes more important than ever.

The YP Roundtable is already making strides to improve that communication between organizations so the next logical step is to investigate how to share the missions and activities that the various organizations undertake with those on the outside. Focusing specifically on the YP organizations, using YP Now as a platform for their message to get out is one part of the solution, but so is focusing on the individual stories and the “hidden” efforts of the organization. People need to be shown why raising the funds are important and exactly what people are getting out of it.

I sort of came from the George Steinbrenner school of charity – do it but don’t necessarily let everyone else know you’re doing it. You’re supposed to be doing it for yourself and not for the praise or recognition of others. I’ve had to resign myself to the fact that it only lives in my idealogical world (though I’m hopeful that it is still possible to be that way one day).

It falls to the Young Professionals, young professionals, the creative class and all of the other groups that make up the city to find ways to expand the sphere of those who know what they’re accomplishing outside of the networking events and fundraisers.

It is easy to assume that YPs have failed us, but when you get a chance to speak to those who don’t always attend those events and hear what they’re actually contributing, it gives you a reason to express hope and see true progress in our region.

Does that mean that media outlets should give these groups a little more coverage? Maybe. Does it mean that maybe some of these groups need to take the on the broadcasting of efforts and achievements themselves to ensure that the message gets out to those who need to hear it? Definitely.

Part of changing that attitude involves becoming truly engaged in the conversation wherever it happens and not to be afraid of having conversations that truly need to be public and not behind closed doors or in hushed tones.

I believe the region’s best days are ahead of it and that there are many people who consider themselves YPs or creatives taking an active role in the process.

What do you think?

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com

THE TEXT: Where do we go from here?

Editor’s note: The following remarks were written and presented by Ed LaMonte at this year’s MLK Unity Breakfast here in Birmingham, AL on January 18, 2010. We felt the need to provide the text here as well as a link to a piece published in Sunday’s Birmingham News by current city schools interim superintendent Barbara Allen. We try to provide some context on our site’s front page . – ACN

JANUARY, 18, 2010

Old professors may retire, but they rarely stop giving assignments. I will be giving you two assignments this morning.

Many of you probably know that I am a back-up speaker, and I am proud and grateful to be in that role. The breakfast planners had hoped to have Dr. Regina Benjamin, recently sworn in as Surgeon General of the United States, with us, but her overwhelming schedule prevented her from attending. We can all be proud that this native Alabamian occupies such an influential position in the health care arena. Her life, her values, and the remarkable contributions she has made to health care place her squarely in the tradition of Dr. King and what he stood for. For those of you who are not familiar with Dr. Benjamin’s story, my first assignment for you is to learn about this exemplary public servant and be grateful for her leadership at this critical moment in health care.

As we reflect today on the meaning of Dr. King to our own city, to the nation, to the world, and to us as individuals, I want to assess critical aspects of our community in 2010 to see where we stand in meeting some of the challenges he issued us.

In 1937, Harper’s Magazine published a lengthy commentary on Birmingham, regarded by local residents as “The Magic City”, a unique American city poised on the edge of municipal greatness. But to the chagrin of most locals, correspondent George R. Leighton entitled his article, “Birmingham, Alabama: The City of Perpetual Promise.” Instead of documenting the city’s undeniably impressive physical development, he emphasized its equally undeniable short comings and the causes of the unfulfillment of the perpetual promise.
Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Birmingham in 1963 to assist the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and others in achieving a portion of that perpetual promise. One year later, Dr. King published an account of Birmingham and the challenges that urgently needed to be addressed in our city and throughout the nation; he entitled his book, “Why We Can’t Wait.” In 1967, he again addressed the future of America, and our city, and asked, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

Today Birmingham stands at another crossroads at this beginning of a new year and a new decade. Tomorrow many of us will go to the voting booth to elect a new mayor for our city – the fourth person to occupy that office in as many months. The new mayor will face a municipal financial crisis which is, I fear, not well understood by the public at large and which will set severe limits on his ability to lead us forward.

But at least we can expect both some stability in that office after a prolonged period of turmoil and blessed relief from the present campaign. Soon we expect to have a new superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools.

At this time of new beginnings, I hope to issue a clarion call to a faltering community, arguing that in critical areas our promise remains unfulfilled, that we do not have the luxury of time to wait, and that the question is an open one as to where we go from here. I will focus on only two topics this morning: our ability to function as a community in addressing regional topics that affect the lives and well being of all our citizens and the challenges confronting us in meeting the education needs of our city’s children.

When Dr. King led the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham in 1963, there were 31 municipalities in Jefferson County; local leaders had by that date identified political fragmentation in the metropolitan area as a pressing issue which, if unaddressed, would thwart our progress. Today, there are not 31 but 38 municipalities in the county; moreover the metropolitan area – in fundamental ways a single economic community – is now defined as including 7 counties and 94 municipalities. The question is, do we have any stable, predictable means for defining regional problems and developing responses, including the necessary funding to address these problems. Sadly, the answer is no. The next question then becomes, does this political fragmentation have a negative impact on the lives of citizens, and especially those for whom Dr. King was a strong advocate? In the now famous words of Sarah Palin, the answer is, “You betcha!”

A prime example of this problem is the much discussed reality of our deplorable public transit system. I well recall the first meeting of the Community Affairs Committee of Operation New Birmingham that I attended in the fall of 1969, shortly after I began my career with the Center for Urban Studies at UAB. The CAC then had 27 members: 9 representing local governments, 9 the private sector, and 9 the African American community. The two topics at the top of CAC’s agenda over 40 years ago were adequate housing for low income families and adequate public transportation. Illustrative of the cost of our failure is the fact that most of the $87.5 million for a Birmingham Transit Corridor, secured by Senator Shelby in 1998, has been left on the table because of the inability of local leaders to secure the required 20% match or to establish an ongoing, reliable, annual operating source of funds. As a result, the transportation options for all of us are limited, with the heaviest burden born by those who have no regular alternative to public transit; and our environment is unnecessarily polluted in the process.

Turning to education: when Dr. King led the Movement here in 1963, the latest census recorded a population for the city of Birmingham of over 340,000; more than 70,000 students attended the Birmingham Public Schools. The latest Census Bureau estimate of the city’s population was 228,798 in 2008, with about 28,000 students enrolled in the city school system. The city is steadily moving down a path toward having a population under 200,000; several hundred students leave the Birmingham schools each year to pursue other educational options, or perhaps none.

The Birmingham News reported on December 21, 2009 that the high school graduation rate for the Birmingham Public Schools is 83%. Statistics are often very unreliable, given the differing ways that data can be organized and presented. The venerable and highly respected Southern Education Foundation has conducted studies of high school drop outs in Alabama, defining a drop out as a student who begins ninth grade but does not graduate – a definition now uniformly required by the U.S. Department of Education. The Foundation’s study, after adjusting for students physically leaving the city or transferring to private schools, establishes Birmingham’s dropout rate in 2008 as 50%.

Dropping out clearly limits any young person’s ability to achieve his or her full potential in many areas of life, with income a clear indicator of this fact. The Southern Education Foundation documented that in 2008, the adult mean annual earnings for a Birmingham dropout were $15,803; for high school graduates with no further education, the mean was $21,991. Therefore, high school graduation accounts for, or at least
correlates with, an income that exceeds that for a dropout by nearly $6,200 per year, almost 40% higher. With heart-breaking sadness, we can assume that most high school dropouts in the 21st century will live severely stunted lives and be an economic drag on the local economy. And for some as yet unexplained reason, a Birmingham dropout’s income is nearly $3,000 per year less than the adult median annual earnings for high school dropouts for Alabama as a whole.

And so many look forward to the arrival of a new superintendent. Let me put the superintendency in the context of our city. First, the previous and present boards of education have pursued a search process that has prompted widespread local skepticism and unprecedented negative comments by two knowledgeable observers. Both are our own greatly admired Dr. Ethel Hall, Vice Chair of the Alabama State Board of Education, and Dr. Michael Casserly, Executive Director of the nationally respected Council of Great City Schools, have publicly stated that the ongoing search is so flawed that it should be abandoned and a new search begun.

Also sobering is the fact that research by the Council of Great City Schools has established that the average tenure of an urban school superintendent is now about 3.5 years; in the past 15 years, Birmingham has had six different leaders. I well remember when, as Interim Superintendent, I attended a meeting of the Council of Great City Schools in Wichita, Kansas. The mayor of Wichita welcomed us to his city, saying that he was happy to have in Wichita the highest paid group of migrant workers in America. We should not expect to be so fortunate as to have a new superintendent who will fix our system. I sadly conclude that we adults of this city have let down our children, and we must – in my view – assume much greater responsibility for their education. It was, after all, for the children of the future that Dr. King held such high hopes.

Let me assure you that it gives me absolutely no pleasure to stand before you and make such critical comments on the occasion of this Unity Breakfast celebrating and honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But I firmly believe that Dr. King would be deeply disappointed in the Birmingham of 2010. And I do not want to “beat up” on this city where I have chosen to live my adult life and raise a family without offering some specific suggestions – some modest food for your thought.
Regarding encouraging a regional way of thinking about and responding to common concerns, I want to point to two organizations that are already in place, staffed, and led by respected professionals: the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, led by Charles Ball, and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, Jim Williams, Executive Director. I have talked with both men, and they are prepared to discuss how their organizations can play larger roles in addressing the needs and opportunities of regionalism. I very strongly recommend engaging them in such discussions.

Regarding public education in the city, we clearly need to support the new
superintendent and current board when they have earned such support, as we must support principals, teachers, and especially children. A promising development in 2009 was establishing a local education foundation to secure needed financial support for the Birmingham Public Schools – an effort led by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, certainly a leading voice in our area for both regionalism and public education. However, I today want to urge that our community create or identify an organization with the single purpose of monitoring carefully our public education system as an advocate for the students – an ombudsman role in behalf of those for whom Dr. King voiced such high hopes and aspirations. My personal instinct is to turn initially to Greater Birmingham Ministries for leadership in this area.

My second assignment for you today is to act individually in some specific way to support at least one student in his or her education – by being part of the adopt-a-school program, tutoring, reading to, or perhaps simply writing or calling a young person to express your interest and encouragement.

To finish, I realize that I could have come before you this morning with comments about significant progress in Birmingham since 1963, especially in race relations, and marvelous programs and institutions in our midst. But, in my opinion, that is not the perspective called for at this critical moment. Birmingham remains a community of great but significantly unfulfilled potential. We can’t wait to take immediate and significant steps. The question is, where do we go from here?

My modest proposal for City Stages

It’s amazing when you get a chance to look back at what you’ve written on a particular topic over time.

I decided that before I sat down to share my thoughts about City Stages that I’d look back at some earlier pieces both here and over on Dre’s Ramblings. I figured I’d share links to some of the more editorial pieces with you here – just in case:

City Stages is here… well? | My Birmingham, June 13, 2007

City Stages 2007 – some thoughts for the future | My Birmingham, June 18, 2007

Birmingham’s largest block party | My Birmingham, June 20, 2008

Some of the attendees' thoughts on City StagesLast year I said I was looking forward to this year’s festival, assuming that they would build on last year’s critical success with the launch of a social media-influenced marketing campaign.

Then I learned on Tuesday morning that the corporate ticket sales had been budgeted to be close to the same levels as last year (in the midst of an economic recession), leading to the last minute $250,000 request to the City of Birmingham. That, coupled with the virtual nonexistence of money in the Natta household, led me to decide that I will be working on projects and enjoying the air conditioning at Shift WorkSpace this weekend (and hopefully taking in some of the Secret Stages show at Speakeasy on Saturday evening) instead of making the trek down to Linn Park.

I believe George McMillan when he says that there are no more sacred cows in terms of the festival and that he is not sure of its future. How far will they go to secure a future is still to be determined.

The town hall meeting coordinated by Catalyst in November 2006 provided some good ideas for build upon for City Stages in the future, especially when you consider other festivals (even though this is old in terms of reference points).

I’d argue that people need to bring suggestions for real solutions to the table before completely bashing the festival and saying it needs to go. Here’s mine:

City Stages gets moved to the Railroad Reservation Park starting next year. There would be four stages – two at each end of the park. The Cultural Furnace that folks would like to see housed in the current Alabama Power steam plant could be integrated into the planning in later years, including an office for the organization to work out of year round. It would  allow CS to consider approaching Alagasco for the use of their parking lots in the surrounding area as festival space – most likely for things like video game competitions, smaller local stages and an arts and crafts section. You might even be able to scare a spoken word/comedy and jazz stage around out there too.

The festival would be contained in a 12-block area between 14th and 20th Streets, allowing for folks to access downtown Birmingham by car using local streets and taking advantage of a large, open space and a pretty cool view of the city center skyline. No, currently there may not be enough shade for a June festival, but there are no sacred cows anymore. You could even move it to the same weekend as the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in September and make it into a huge event for the region.

We need to actually see what happens once folks get used to this new City Stages and not make another major change just because we are panicking

Now it’s only an idea and of course there would still be issues logistically, but it’s an idea.

I’m not necessarily ready to see City Stages go away and I’d love to hear what some of your ideas are.

You can post them in the comments section below. I’m also willing to invite a few folks over to Shift on Monday evening to share your thoughts about this year’s festival and what it could be in the future. If you’re interested, send an email to info@bhamterminal.com or comment below and if enough folks are interested, we’ll announce a time for Monday night.

If you’re going, enjoy the weekend and the music!

André Natta is the managing editor of bhamterminal.com.

Why pay the occupational tax? Maybe to support the arts…

I blame those years attending the Savannah College of Art and Design. Others may consider the years I spent growing up in The Bronx and being a short bus ride away from the zoo and our botanical gardens. No matter what the real reason is, I know that even when I’m struggling to make ends meet, I see access to the arts as an important piece of the puzzle.

The cultural opportunities that exist in metro Birmingham are numerous and sometimes we take them for granted. This is despite being one of the most generous cities in the country when it comes to supporting non profits. The case for support for many may be one that becomes harder this year as the people deal with the effects of the economic crisis. Enter the current situation involving the occupational tax in Jefferson County.

Many people who don’t live in the county see the tax as something that is not necessarily fair to them. They want to see tangible results of paying the extra money. Something I’ve realized in the years I’ve lived here is that no one does a really good job of explaining how monies are used (including us). A current grassroots campaign may provide some transparency and accountability for at least a portion of the funds as well as a warm and fuzzy feeling for those that pay the tax who live outside of the county.

The Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham is suggesting that a rewritten occupational tax that could stand up to legal challenges should have a portion of it set aside for allocation to culural organizations throughout Jefferson County. I think it becomes a lot harder for those not currently paying the tax to say that there is no value to doing so if the Alliance is successful in their efforts.

The money collected would have the potential to improve the quality of life for everyone in the region, providing institutions like the McWane Science Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute the chance to do more for those that live nearby and those that are visiting our city. Increased funding for these institutions have the potential to have a greater economic impact long term than the monies that we’re about to lose as a result of the Super 6 relocating to the new football capitols of the South.

That last sentence may be one that riles more than a few feathers here in Birmingham, maybe because we don’t necessarily pay attention to these other jewels in the region. As a baseball fan, I can think of a lot of people that will be venturing into The Magic City next year to catch a glimpse of America’s oldest ballpark as it turns 100. Hearing the Symphony perform Rhapsody in Blue doesn’t hurt either. Then there are those children benefitting from programs like Scrollworks… Maybe times have finally changed, and we need to be ready to embrace them.

Currently, it looks like this proposal is facing an uphill battle. State Representative Linda Coleman has introduced legislation that would re-instate the tax as is. I’m not really sure if that’s the best case scenario considering that the current tax has been under some legal scrutiny recently. This new version provides some transparency to a funding source that appears to be greatly needed, especially as our county contemplates bankruptcy as an option to deal with our sewer crisis.

As Birmingham prepares to potentially take its place in the New South, this proposal would provide a tool that enables it to reach its goal sooner rather than later.