What’s this black woman doing in the Junior League of Birmingham?

Alexis Barton
Alexis Barton

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a more prosperous Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Alexis Barton.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

I know you’ve seen it:

The Help. That movie another Southern girl (Kathryn Stockett) wrote, that shook up the publishing world and shone a light on a group of women’s audacity to use the written word to create change.

In it, the protagonist Skeeter Phelan’s headaches and moral dilemmas were mostly caused by a group of frenemies in a well-known, real-life organization of ladies: The Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi.

The young women of that League met for card games, chicken salad sandwiches and chocolate pies, hiding their insecurities behind coiffed hair and reinforcing racism in smart ensembles.  Their president Hilly Holbrook masked her brand of mean girl “leadership” behind a veneer of do-gooder initiatives for the poor, starving children in Africa.

So when I tell people that I’m a member of The Junior League, now, sometimes I get a… well, it can only be described as A LOOK, raised eyebrow and quizzical expression included.

You’re in the Junior League?” their eyes say.

Or they come right out and ask: “How’d YOU get in The Junior League?”

I fight the urge to respond like Elle Woods does in Legally Blonde: “What? Like it’s hard?”

Instead, I smile politely and reply in a manner intended to shatter every misconception a person might still have about The Junior League of Birmingham, an organization of over 2,000 women “committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women, and improving the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.”

Look, I get it: I’m African-American, I’m over 25, I’m unmarried and I’m not straight out of Mountain Brook.

I don’t fit the stereotype.

But most of our members don’t, either.

Whether we are stay-at-home moms, CEO’s, graduate students, teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs or still figuring out what we want to be when we grow up, we’re too busy working hard to impact Birmingham in the critical areas of education, health economic stability, and safety and crisis intervention to set up card tables and gossip. Our membership represents over 50 zip codes in the metro area and ninety percent of us work outside the home. We’re just as likely to arrive to meetings in gym clothes as we are in a doctor or nurse’s scrubs or business casual attire.

No matter how we’re dressed or where we live, we’re always ready to get our hands dirty on behalf of those who need it, to stretch ourselves beyond who we are into who we could be. For those of you who may think we sip tea and compare china patterns, think again.

Our members are teaching healthy eating habits in a neighborhood near you from Project Yummy’s mobile kitchen. We are collecting diapers and milk for our area’s babies. We are planning and executing Bargain Carousel, our city’s largest community garage sale, whose proceeds go right back into our community programs. We’re working to fight human trafficking, illiteracy, other educational disparities and domestic violence.

We’re thinking strategically about how to fund rape crisis centers through the Community of Lights Initiative, which supports One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center.  We’re handing out scholarships to local women seeking college educations. We’re helping women and children receive access to preventive healthcare and supporting them in times of crisis.

And we’re constantly thinking of ways to improve, of ways to effectively reach those who are vulnerable, of ways to push Birmingham forward by linking arms and moving in an organized, intentional fashion.

When I applied for membership in 2011, I did so at the invitation of a friend who knew I was looking for a meaningful opportunity to develop my leadership skills among like-minded women. And as a Birmingham transplant, I wanted to see the needs in the community up close. My first volunteer placement was in the NICU at UAB’s Women and Infants Center, in its Rockabye Babies program.

For several shifts over the course of the year, I showed up in sneakers to sit in a rocking chair and hold tiny, inconsolable babies born addicted to drugs, their bodies restless and their cries echoing off the hospital room’s walls. Often I wept while rocking them, finding it hard to fathom how such a problem existed and worrying what would happen to the little ones once they were released. Not a shift passed that I didn’t cry in the parking lot or on my way home.

This past year I delivered lunches with Meals on Wheels. And just as people have preconceived notions about who makes up the League’s membership, I admit I had some totally wrong ideas about who is hungry, or food insecure, in the Birmingham area. Delivering those carefully packaged hot meals each week forced me to check my assumptions and biases. It made me realize yet again how vulnerable ALL of us are, if ANY of us are.

I don’t have much time for tea parties or bridge games, but I’ve attended countless membership meetings, presentations, trainings and volunteer sessions (and one 5K to fight childhood obesity in the Magic City) in the League. The only time I’ve put on gloves is when I donned a pair of rubber ones to sort donated items for Bargain Carousel. When I initially signed my membership contract (yes, it’s that serious) I thought the ten-year commitment would be hard to live up to.

Now I find myself hoping it never ends, and I plan to continue serving proudly as long as I am able. The experiences I’ve had have changed my perspective on how best to create change in the community and world at large. What I have also found are friends who are there in a heartbeat when I myself am in need of a shoulder to lean on, career strategy or a good Chicken Tetrazzini recipe to get me over the hump.

I’m not sure the League I love is what the women who founded the Volunteer Relief Group at St. Mary’s Church or “Mrs. Shook’s Group” of volunteers of envisioned when they merged and held their first meeting in May 1922. I’m almost positive none of its members looked like me, for decades.

But I think what’s important to recognize is that The League evolved. It recognized that in order to meet and successfully address the issues in this community, its membership had to genuinely welcome and reflect the diversity around it – of education, of income, of race, of sexuality, of religious affiliation, of political ideology and beyond. We are no more a monolith than Birmingham itself is. But all of us are committed to making it a better Birmingham, for all.

And as we approach our 100th year in 2022, that’s something to celebrate.

Interested in joining The Junior League of Birmingham? Find out more by clicking here: https://www.jlbonline.com/join/

Alexis E. Barton is a Birmingham-based writer and communications strategist. She is a member of One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center’s board of directors and The Junior League of Birmingham.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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4 thoughts on “What’s this black woman doing in the Junior League of Birmingham?”

  1. Yes, the Junior League has come a long way. I am not a member but I have worked with them when I taught special education for the Birmingham School stem at Barrett. The Junior League was instrumental is helping us organize a countywide campaign to raise funds to provide tee shirts with the special education logo and each school’s name for all systems in Jefferson County so children whose parents who could not pay would not feel different, be included participate like other children.
    People should be judged on their individual merits not painted with abroad brush.

  2. This is a phenomenal post written by a phenomenal woman. I’ve never met Alexis, but I know I would love to. I feel like I have been enlightened and motivated. Thank you for sharing this!

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