What Birmingham can learn from a former Texan who came from the North

William J. Carl III, PhD, Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham
William J. Carl III, PhD, Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham

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

Today’s guest blogger is Dr.  William Carl .  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

I write this piece, not because I want to, but because I feel compelled to. What I offer here are my personal views as a citizen, not the random thoughts of a religious leader in this community.

I moved to Birmingham over 3 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA: two cities which have been compared to each other on lots of different levels. Two steel towns which have seen that 19th and 20th Century business decline in recent decades because of the changes in the steel industry. Two towns that have rebuilt themselves with “Eds and Meds” and done both quite successfully. And two communities land-locked with lots of boroughs competing with each other when they should all be working together to grow the “whole area” for the good of all by recruiting more companies to headquarter here, thereby increasing the well-being of all our citizens.

So what could I, a relative newcomer and former Texan who just came from the North have to say to folks in Birmingham?

Well the first thing I want to say is that I love this city! I’ll admit I do miss my NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB teams that I enjoyed in Dallas and Pittsburgh, although the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Auburn Tigers, the UAB Blazers, the Samford Bulldogs and other area university sports, come close with the excitement they create for the state.

The truth is…this place grows on you. The people are wonderful and very friendly. I’ve never heard “Yes Sir” and “Yes Ma’am” from so many in my whole life! Folks here are just trained to be nice from nursery school on. No wonder UAB and other colleges and universities here can recruit world class professors and administrators from prestigious schools. It’s just a great area for both families and singles.

When I lived in Richmond, VA years ago, folks were slow warming up to you if “your people” hadn’t come over on “the boat to Jamestown,” which made you part of the FFV (First Families of Virginia). But not so here. Maybe that’s because Birmingham is a relatively newer town.

There’s something this city has that I never saw in the same way in Dallas or Pittsburgh. And that’s a fresh-faced respect for creativity, whether in the culinary arts (great restaurants here! with an exciting “farm to table” concept) or local craft and culture (like Pepper Place, Red Mountain Theatre, Virginia Samford Theatre, a great symphony, an amazing museum and our world-class Birmingham Botanical Gardens!). Don’t get me wrong. Folks in North Texas and Western PA have some good chefs, some good craftsmen and plenty of culture too, but it’s different here somehow.

It’s Southern but not the Old South. It’s Tradition! (think of Tevye singing that song in Fiddler on the Roof) but not “too traditional.” And the philanthropy here (something I’m into as a long-time nonprofit fund-raiser) is amazing for a city this size! Add to these strengths the beauty of this area, the nice climate, the close proximity to lakes, mountains and the beach, and Birmingham has a lot going for it. I mean who wouldn’t want to live here?!

The good news is that folks here do want the city and the whole region to thrive; they want the best for everyone. There is a kind of “can do” spirit here that I saw in Dallas. You can feel it at Rotary and Kiwanis and in the way universities are collaborating with corporations and the way the mayors of the different municipalities are beginning to partner on some common goals. It seems everyone is just looking for the right way to move forward together.

Let me take a run at a few thoughts and reflections that have hit me since I arrived. Here are ten areas that I think need to be operative for Birmingham to grow and thrive:

  1. Don’t compare ourselves to other cities. The temptation is strong to do that, but each city and municipality is different, just as families are different. Athletes who compare themselves to others usually get in trouble because other athletes who perform better may have more natural gifts and better overall training than you do. Your goal at any given time, whatever your sport, is to play the best you can play. You really can’t do anything else. Leave nothing on the court, the field or the golf course. Birmingham needs to be “the best it can be.”

That being said, it’s important to remember that being your best includes good teamwork. John Wooden, one of my favorite coaches, had the highest number of Men’s NCAA Basketball championships in history. His rules were very simple. He believed in the Basics. His players would (1) be in better shape than others, (2) never miss free throws, (3) dribble and pass better, (4) avoid being prima donnas because (5) you should always work together as a team. He was so sure of these Basics that he never watched films of opposing teams surmising they would have to adjust to his team! Now, that’s a good model for Birmingham. Be the best we can be and let the chips fall where they will.

I see healthcare, academic and religious institutions comparing themselves to others all the time. Corporations do it too. Look for ‘best practices,’ yes, but don’t try to repeat everything others are doing. Remember the story of the farmer who decided he needed to sell his farm and buy another one. He hired the best realtor in the state who created a nifty and exciting description of the man’s farm. When the farmer read it, he said, “I changed my mind. I don’t want to sell after all. That’s exactly the kind of farm I’ve always wanted and I already have it!”

So, let’s start by celebrating the good things we already have and build on them!

2. The will to change. This may be the most challenging one of all. It’s always easier to ride along on the “we’ve never done it that way before” mentality. Just ask any pastor or rabbi. It’s hard getting communities to change and try new things. It’s not just that it pushes us out of our comfort zone and makes us “think outside the box.” It actually turns the box upside down! Initially there’s nothing comfortable about it at all. The feelings of disorientation and loss can be overwhelming until you realize there’s a brighter future ahead if you just stay the course through the topsy-turvy transition to a new era. And the light at the end of the tunnel really isn’t the Mack truck coming at you from the other direction, but something that will make you better than you have ever been before.

Think of the paradigm shift that Longstreet tried to get Lee to make in the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee wanted to stick with the old traditional, European approach of lining up the troops and marching them forward. Longstreet tried to get Lee to understand that the new paradigm was guerrilla warfare and that the Union sharpshooters and snipers were picking them apart. But Lee refused to listen and lost that battle, which became the turning point of the Civil War.

Think of companies that haven’t adapted in recent decades to new industry paradigms and have long since gone under. Look at what happened to great civilizations like Greece and Rome that didn’t adapt and change. Don’t forget the paradigm shift that occurred in healthcare a couple of decades ago when physicians had to adjust to the move from “fee for service” to “managed care.”

Change is messy and troubling at first. You break some eggs along the way until you realize sometimes scrambled eggs taste really good!

Let me put it bluntly. There needs to be the will to change in every area of our community or Birmingham will never grow and thrive.

  1. Leaders who listen. Fortunately, we have leaders listening now across Jefferson County. I’ve observed it personally after meeting recently with several of the area mayors and watching them interact in a social setting. Every one of them is interested in hearing what the others have to say while at the same time appreciating that each one has a responsibility to his/her own constituency.

I’m glad to hear they are meeting regularly and getting to know each other. In Pittsburgh, all the Presidents of academic institutions (Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Chatham, Carlow, etc., as well as the seminary I led) met quarterly to talk confidentially about common issues and common concerns. A lot was accomplished from those regular meetings. The same can happen here with the mayors of the different towns and cities, so it’s a good sign that they are talking candidly about ways to share services and reduce waste.

One good sign is the serious conversation occurring now about a non-compete agreement. Competing across city lines will never help Birmingham grow and thrive. Everyone knows that. It’s just figuring out how to get there in a way that helps us see how “a rising tide lifts all boats” mentality is crucial for our future. We have a common Library system. Why not a common center for dealing with the Drug problem in our area? Leaders who listen can move us beyond handshake agreements to real substantive change.

  1. A spirit of collaboration. Cautious baby steps are being taken here, and that’s good. I hope they will continue. Openness to more ways to give and take will make Birmingham more attractive to corporations and other large non-profit entities that would consider moving their headquarters here.

One good sign gives me hope. The seven county regional effort called “Building it Together” is communicating well the opportunities before us for collaborative decision-making between the corporate and academic worlds in our area. Their recent report concluded that we “need more skilled talent, need to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship, more information technology training because employers need employees who possess a variety of digital skills.” Also we need to “increase high school graduation rates ensuring that education and training align with the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

In short, companies need a pipeline of trained, skilled workers and the local public schools and universities can make a huge difference in this area if they work together with a common goal. We also need “to recruit executive talent that supports the risk taking necessary to change the local economy.” Fortunately, area universities are working creatively to re-engineer their undergraduate degree programs for the future, aligning their curricula and hiring faculty to teach the skill sets for tomorrow. Here are a few articles that highlight academic and industry collaboration in other places.

Keep in mind also possible university/government/corporate partnerships that are happening all over the US and could translate well to Birmingham as we all focus on workforce development for the region.

  1. An atmosphere of trust. Fortunately, trust between disparate groups in Birmingham is growing year after year. One of the most beautiful examples recently was the large gathering out in front of Temple Beth-El filling the street up and down Highland Avenue with Christians, Muslims and Jews showing joint support for the people who died in the awful Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.

That moment of reconciliation was palpable for everyone who came. You could feel it just looking around at the hopeful faces that filled the crowd that night. I saw something in that seminal moment that I hadn’t seen since moving here. In some ways religious communities on a night like that one can provide models for other Birmingham communities to trust each other as we work together for the common good of all.

  1. Some visible wins-wins

Here are a few examples:

  1. Some bold goals are being explored in economic development, health and education
  2. The Jefferson County Library Cooperative
  3. The Freshwater Land Trust
  4. Parks and Recreation including Red Mountain Park, Railroad Park and the Rotary Trail
  5. Public Safety including the Countywide Radio System, the Consolidated E-911 Center and the Metro Area Crime Center (MACC)
  6. Purchasing Association of Central Alabama (PACA)
  7. Thanks to the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau (GBCVB), Tourism is a major economic force that attracted 4.4 million overnight visitors who spent $1.8 billion generating $148 million in total taxes for the state by tourism in Jefferson County in 2017.

These are just a few. Fortunately, more are in the works!

  1. A practical strategic plan with widely diverse buy-in. The PARCA report (Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama funded by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham) has given us a blueprint for a practical strategic plan, but more needs to be done here with all the Mayors and the County Commissioners sharing in long-term strategy planning that far exceeds their own political tenures. To accomplish that goal, we need to respect what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, calls “The Dignity of Difference.” If we are listening actively with a spirit of collaboration in an atmosphere of trust, we have a better chance to build a viable strategy that will be sustainable for our children and our grandchildren. By the way, a huge note of thanks needs to be offered to The Community Foundation of Birmingham for the many ways it is “moving the ball forward” for our whole area. This is the way an area foundation should work. I’m very impressed with all the Foundation has done and continues to do for Birmingham.

8. We are only as strong as our weakest link. Philanthropic support for social services (as I mentioned earlier) here is second to none in the nation for a city of this size. Whether it be United Way, Rotary, Kiwanis, churches, synagogues and mosques, the spirit of generosity here staggers a newcomer like me. And it’s not just a “Bible Belt” mentality; it’s the realization that those at the bottom need a “step-up,” not just a “hand-out.” Most folks here understand that Education is the key to giving underprivileged children and youth even half a chance.

The recent “Filling the Gap” workforce event luncheon hosted by the Birmingham Business Journal (sponsored by “Building It Together” and Burning Glass Technologies) at the Florentine downtown was very educational. The CEO of PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, William S. Demchak, told the story of what Corporate/Educational partnerships in the Steel City are doing to build a viable, sustainable workforce. In Pittsburgh the best and the brightest don’t leave the area now as they were for decades, but instead stay and build families and homes once they graduate from some of the finest universities in the land. Well, we also have some of the finest universities in the land right here. So, civic and business leaders left that lunch meeting with lots of exciting ideas of what more could be done here to lift up those who need extra help while at the same time benefiting the whole region.

  1. A Growth-oriented mentality. This means achieving ‘smart growth’ by encouraging start-ups and teaming up with the area universities to do so. Carnegie Mellon and Pitt do this well with the city of Pittsburgh. Google especially has made great strides with CMU there. Samford, Birmingham Southern, UAB, Miles College, and Jefferson State Community College to name a few are real leaders of ‘smart growth’ in our area.

Smart growth comes from doing more with less and winning support for substantive change that lifts the whole area. It also takes into consideration all our citizens, especially those for whom life is a daily challenge. You can’t have financial growth for the “up and in” if you don’t keep in mind the “down and out.” We are all in this together.

Pete Saunders, commenting on Richard Florida’s new book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, And Failing The Middle Class — And What We Can Do About It, concludes, “Taken together, Florida finds that metros are simultaneously doing better than ever, but leaving more behind — and becoming ever more vulnerable to factors that could upend their success. Florida proposes seven policy strategies to address today’s crisis:

  • encouraging urban growth without creative class clustering;
  • investing in the infrastructure to support greater density and growth;
  • building more affordable rental housing that is more adaptable to today’s economy;
  • turning low-wage service jobs into middle class jobs;
  • getting serious about tackling poverty by investing in people and places;
  • using the American example as a template globally; and
  • bringing more political power back to the local level.”

(Pete Saunders, “The Evolution of the Creative Class,” Forbes, May 4, 2017)

Perhaps there are lessons in Richard Florida’s model that could be valuable for Birmingham’s long term growth in the 21st Century. It’s clear that the new urban landscape is much more complicated than it ever was in the last century. Fortunately, we are blessed with civic, corporate and governmental leaders who understand this difference and how to negotiate it.

  1. A “Greater Good” Geometry. What if we thought of Birmingham as “a new Florence,” in other words, a truly Renaissance city? Think of Athens for a moment. Maybe Athens is the model for Birmingham as well.

Listen to New York Times best-selling author Eric Weiner’s thoughts on the influence of that ancient city as an idea for us:

“For much of its history, Athens was either preparing for war, at war, or recovering from war. But in the window between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, from 454 to 430 B.C., the city was at peace, and it flourished. The Athenians were ‘not very numerous, not very powerful, not very organized,’ as the classicist Humphrey Kito noted, but they nevertheless ‘had a totally new conception of what human life was for, and showed for the first time what the human mind was for.’ Like Silicon Valley today, ancient Athens during this brief period became a talent magnet, attracting smart, ambitious people. A city with a population equivalent to that of Wichita, Kansas, it was an unlikely candidate for greatness: Other Greek city-states were larger (Syracuse) or wealthier (Corinth) or mightier (Sparta). Yet Athens produced more brilliant minds—from Socrates to Aristotle—than any other place the world has seen before or since. Only Renaissance Florence came close.” (Eric Weiner, “What Made Ancient Athens a City of Genius? Atlantic, February 10, 2016)

Birmingham, the new Florence or Athens? It’s not too far-fetched if we all challenge ourselves to be the best we can be.

Think about how we began and why we really are The Magic City. Early on Birmingham pulled together smaller farm towns and developed into a prominent steel town after the Civil War, eventually being known as “the Pittsburgh of the South.” People from these towns came together to focus on common goals for the success of the whole area. Out of nothing we became this large industrial city. It was like…Magic!

That was the first Renaissance. Now it’s time for the second one.

Ask yourself today, “What do I have to contribute that would help Birmingham realize this dream?” You have gifts, talents, and spheres of influence that can help us all achieve a greater good for the whole region. Isn’t it time to use them?

Conclusion

So, where do we go from here? It’s clear that political leaders are only too aware that their tenure will be limited. But if longer-term plans can be articulated effectively gaining popular support because of short-term successes, leaders can commence a virtuous cycle that encourages a new way of being community.

Great public places where people can gather like Railroad Park and Rotary Trail can proliferate and increase a good quality of life for all our citizens. Educational opportunities that lead to real jobs will keep the best and the brightest here to stay. Affordable housing for everyone reduces crime and incentivizes companies to move their headquarters here.

We can’t do it all quickly. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But we can take small steps to begin the journey to a brighter and more fulfilling future that will put Birmingham on the map as the place to live and thrive and build your business. It’s going to take all of us together and each one of us individually doing his/her part one step at a time.

We’re already living into that future with the bold steps being taken throughout our region. Maybe we just need to pick up the pace!

Imagine Birmingham as a team that started off well but has gotten a little behind in the game. Now we are mounting our come back and the whole team is “all in” as they say. We have to believe we can do it. I believe we can. Do you? Once we get there, we can truly earn the title of “comeback town!”

William J. Carl III, a former seminary professor, pastor and recently President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, is Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. With a PhD in Political Rhetoric, Dr. Carl is the author of eight books, serves as an ethics consultant to corporations, lectures on the brain at medical schools and medical conferences, and has spoken at Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and Boston University as well as academic institutions both here and around the world in China, Taiwan, Korea, Russia, India, Rwanda and South Africa.

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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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3 thoughts on “What Birmingham can learn from a former Texan who came from the North”

  1. Comparing culinary scenes to that of Dallas and Pittsburgh is laughable. Birmingham has a fine food scene for it’s size but it doesn’t compete with the depth and breadth of larger metros. There are hundreds of Highlands Bar & Grills in Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando, Dallas, Charlotte, Austin and even more other diver spots. Sounds to me like you’re making the best of your situation in a city that you have to try hard to justify.

    Your ideas are great, but there’s a problem. You’re still losing corporations. The latest is Energen. That is a huge chunk of the local economy and righting this ship will take decades. I’ll be dead and gone by then and I, for one and many, are not willing to suffer through it when I could just move.

  2. BJackson, your willingness to move is noted and appreciated. Now if you would just do it there might be an extra spot at the bar at Highland’s for me. That place is always packed. The Pastor’s comments, although lengthy, are spot on. The tide is turning for Birmingham and it seems to be coming in, not out. After living in Atlanta for thirty five years, I’m happy to be here and am looking forward to staying here and watching this town bloom. I do still keep up with Atlanta and noticed they are just getting over a week plus “boil water warning” for pretty much the whole town. Maybe you could move there??

  3. “Most folks here understand that Education is the key to giving underprivileged children and youth even half a chance”. But, very few realize that giving government a monopoly on education is just as bad as letting anyone else have a monopoly on anything.

    Try vouchers. They worked after World War II with the GI Bill, and they can’t be worse than what we have.

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