Battling a disturbing Birmingham ranking

J. W. Carpenter
J. W. Carpenter

Today’s guest columnist is J. W. Carpenter.

Birmingham has had its ups and downs—but in the 1950’s and ‘60’s racial strife set us reeling.

Now after 60 years we’re beginning to see a new Birmingham—a region with great potential.

Quality of life has come so far in the past ten years.

So much has changed for the better, for so many of us. And yet, the growth we’ve enjoyed has not benefited large segments of our community.

A disturbing Birmingham ranking

According to a 2018 Brooking Institute report, which was the catalyst for the organization I now serve, Birmingham ranks 52nd out of 53 major cities in the percentage of Black-owned businesses.

This is not acceptable for any city—much less a city with Birmingham’s worrisome history.

Why I believe in Birmingham

I was born into a happy Maryland home in 1979. I was the second child of two genuinely loving parents. And I was thirteen years old the day my father shared the news no son ever wants to hear: “We’re moving to Birmingham.” Birmingham, Alabama.

I’ll admit it took a while to realize this, but next to my family, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. That said, this city has a problem. One which, I believe, has its roots in a past we’ve largely (and thankfully) outgrown.

It’s easy to find that ranking discouraging, and it’s important to acknowledge the role our history played in holding us back. At the same time, our past cannot — and should not — prevent us from investing in the people, ideas and businesses who’ve been overlooked historically. That’s why I left my position as director of the Birmingham Education Foundation in June to help launch Prosper.

Prosper Birmingham

Prosper is a coalition of community, civic and business leaders committed to creating a more vibrant, racially- and gender-inclusive economy. Our board includes a virtual Who’s Who of Birmingham business — including the CEOs of Protective Life, Shipt and Alabama Power. Since opening our doors, Prosper has already launched the following initiatives:

  • We’re partnering with Made in Alabama, Gener8tor and Redhawk Consulting to launch a new Health Tech Accelerator; one which will support, over the next five years, 50-70 local and national early-state Health Tech startups.
  • In partnership with the Birmingham Business Alliance and Interise, we’re supporting a new program called Small Business Advisory Services to help a diverse group of young, growing Jefferson County businesses unlock first class consulting and support services to grow their revenue, create new jobs, and access opportunities within the Supplier Diversity framework led by the Alliance, the City of Birmingham and several corporate leaders.

What’s in it for the rest of us?

My work at Prosper is driven by the experiences I’ve had with so many students — most of whom were people of color, and came from low-income backgrounds — who confirmed my faith in their limitless potential.

I know it’s a cliché, but our people are the best natural resource we have in Birmingham and Jefferson County. Data from similar initiatives in other cities clearly demonstrates that investing in their potential can yield remarkable returns — for all of us.

I fully understand the skepticism that comes with new initiatives like Prosper. I also understand that our ambitions aren’t validated by what we say, but rather by what we do, and how we do it. Like any entity involving people, Prosper can’t promise every initiative will achieve perfect success. Which is why I’d encourage you to get involved. Reach out. And hold us accountable.

We recognize that, for our city and county’s challenges, there is no corporate solution. There is no government solution. There is no higher education solution. And there is no immediate solution.

The solution will come from a collective, sustained effort within our communities, years in the making.

We can grow our economy and grow it inclusively, proving to the rest of the country — once and for all — that Birmingham is a place where every citizen has the opportunity to thrive and contribute.

It’s the only path worthy of us.

J.W. Carpenter began his tenure as the inaugural president of Prosper Birmingham in February 2021. Previously, he led the Birmingham Education Foundation for eight years and prior to that was the inaugural executive director of Teach For America-Alabama, the same organization where he began his career as a classroom teacher in Helena, Arkansas. J.W. also practiced law for nearly four years in Birmingham. He is married to Becky and has two children (Jack and Kate) and Ellie the dog. Carpenter earned a B.A. in Political Science from Boston College and J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  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 for free about a better Birmingham region.. dsher@amsher.com.

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15 thoughts on “Battling a disturbing Birmingham ranking”

  1. Boy there were a lot of virtue signals in that article. I’m still not sure what it’s saying other than asking for us to support Propser. Ok I’ll support.

    But, what’s the problem here? Maybe Birmingham blacks don’t want to own businesses? They have the same opportunities to own/start businesses as any other black person anywhere right? Or are you saying other cities helped pave the way more effectively? Perhaps so, but that’s surprising given that Birmingham has a black mayor and city council and has been dominated by blacks for the past several decades.

    I guess my question is this. Why do you perceive this as a problem that you need to tackle? It kinda comes across condescending.

      1. I don’t agree. If people like him don’t step up and get the ball rolling things will never change. The question you need to ask yourself is do you really want things to continue to change for the better. People must change their attitudes toward each other. Until everyone no matter what color comes together with a “we can make our city great” it will never happen.
        If people just sit and complain about what happened in the past and do nothing positive about changing attitudes, the past will always be in Birmingham. I hope Birmingham can become a city of brotherly love and caring.

  2. Solving this problem starts at the beginning. Education is overall poor and crime in the predominately still “segregated” communities is at an all time high. Birmingham guarantees free college for Bham city school graduates with what I deem as very low gpa and grade requirements, yet few are making the grade. Every year we here about incentive programs to get Bham city kids to show up for the first day of school. You want more minority business owners? Help and support those organizations making a difference in young families in these areas.

  3. So ChristopherATL, what did D. Jones state that you think is racist? Come on now, please tell us. David, I think you have great intentions and want Birmingham to prosper. But what about moving off the black- white issues and including the Hispanic, Oriental and Indians in the forward push for making Birmingham a great city. These cultures have great work ethic’s and push education for their kids. Stop dwelling on the black issues vs whites and put ALL the residents under the big tent.

    1. It’s not worth it. I have spent countless time putting a lot of thought and effort into comments here. Birmingham is not ready to deal with its dirty water under the bridges it is trying to build.

      What’s shocking to me is that the answer and key specific to massive success for Birmingham actually lies within the work needed to change the national/international perception of both Birmingham and Alabama.

      So go on…keep denying the obvious to everyone outside of your city. But don’t blame Atlanta or the past. Don’t look to Nashville or Charlotte as they have passed you. Don’t look in the rear view mirror as Chattanooga, Augusta, Knoxville, Greensboro come up on Birmingham. Blame yourselves for not faving your past head on and using as a catalyst to start something bigger than attracting a few Fortune 500 companies. Birmingham is karma incarnate. It is paying for its past wrongs. Birmingham is choosing to stay where it is. It will take a leader with courage to lead you all out of this vicious cycle. I can see the path clearly. I honestly don’t know why you can’t.

  4. Thanks for the reply , Chris. I don’t disagree with Birmingham needing new leadership to move forward. The past is behind it . I don’t live in Birmingham. I live in Atlantic Metro . But on my visits to Birmingham, I find the citizens to be very helpful and knowledgeable. I really think the city will become a boom town eventually. Friends in Atlanta have visited Avondale and Southside and love the new restaurants and nightlife. New apartments everywhere. Plus Birmingham has a hometown bank that hasn’t fled to Charlotte. Hotlanta only has a ballpark named after the last bank that fled .

  5. Birmingham leaders do not want progress. To them, progress means equality — something they fear. They interpret equality to mean they’ll no longer have the privileges they now enjoy. I pray the grandchildren are learning differently.

  6. I think Birmingham is uniquely positioned to flip the script and make a world wide impression of redemption. I believe something bigger than GDP is waiting to be tapped into there. Those who have benefitted from stagnation and systemic bigotry there are holding all of you back. They are holding your state back. And yes, they are going to fight you tooth and nail if you upset their rule. But in all seriousness, WTF do any of you who are not benefitting from these things have to lose?

    I thank God for the civil rights leaders of Georgia, that led to the LGBT activists and women’s activists, setting the stage for Atlanta to create a New South. Otherwise, Georgia would be in exactly the same place. Birmingham will not change unless something changes it. The guy who set up this blog has the contacts and some degree of influence. If this blog has been going for 10 years, maybe it is time to change the tone, dig a little deeper and start taking some targeted chances with words and actions. Get your hands dirty. Make some noise.

  7. I respect Mr. Carpenter’s opinions & assessments expressed in his article. However, it is totally based on a ranking that is 4 years old. Much has happened to Birmingham in the last 4 years, Prosper Birmingham being one of them, serving to recognize & maximize the potential of those who either naively or intentionally felt bound by mistakes of prior generations.

    Those roots of generational shortcomings are and should be severed. No…we should never forget history & respect for those who lived it, but I teach my kids upon making a mistake, or about being wronged, that it shows their character in their ability to build upon it, not dwell upon it…that old saying that it’s not what happens to us but how we react to it that makes a difference.

    Minorities of today are not victims, but rather victors, and should view themselves as much. No one is entitled to anything, nor any exceptions, due to the color of their skin. And Birmingham has made great strides in progressing on topics on which opinions expressed by Mr. Carpenter seem to imply that we are still in the infancy of this journey.

    I am proud of Birmingham and love all of its races of which it is compiled, and strongly believe that those fueling radical hate that continue to focus on and publicly enthrone those mistakes of past generations are: 1) in the minority; and 2) if their themes of resent & hatred were not kept at bay, would only lead to repeated elements of past mistakes (becoming their own worst enemy).

    And in the case of the LGBTQ community, with individuals having made decisions of which I strongly disagree, I can still humanely love and respect them just as any other sexual or racial orientation. To some extent, in line with the above, I believe their ‘oppression’ has also been somewhat ‘self-promulgated’ by a radical few who portray them in their campaigns as unfortunate victims worthy of pity, which could not be further from the truth. Every individual has infinite worth…with some needing help to recognize it.

    Let’s continue those missions of Prosper Birmingham and other such agencies with which it partners, not with a spirit of entitlement, but one of compassion, respect, maximizing potential, unity and love toward each other . . . ultimately serving our almighty God to whom we will all be held accountable.

    1. Are you Black? Are you LGBTQ?

      If not, you don’t get to decide when those people “move on” from their struggle.

      And FYI, you need to learn what an apology for wrongdoings entails. It is not complete until measures have been taken to undo the damage.

      Finally, how dare you imply someone’s sexual orientation is a choice. First, even if it was, so what? Are we not a free society? And WTF would anyone intentionally choose something that makes life harder than it already is? But again, either way, loving someone of any gender should be celebrated. You are in no position to judge them in a pluralistic society. In your church….maybe….but this country is not governed by Evangelical Christian law. Attitudes like the above are why Birmingham is exactly where it deserves to be. Please do not bring God into this. If anything, God is giving you your answer day after day as Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Charleston, Augusta, Savannah and Huntsville thrive while Birmingham rusts. You choose not to see and therefore you will continue to feel around in the dark. Birmingham will sink further into irrelevancy nationally and statewide while your housing values follow. Even as I write this, third tier cities have passed you economically and population wise.

      I’m sorry. But nothing has changed there. Nothing. I stand firmly by my assertion. You can state it with nice words or hide behind God, talk a big game about African Americans having equal opportunity without any evidence…but bigotry dressed up is still bigotry. Denial of that bigotry is reprehensible. Telling people that bigotry affects to get over it is abhorrent.

  8. You know…I come to this blog primarily because I have always had an interest in sociological aspects of oppression, both historical and present day. I find it fascinating to hear otherwise good people justify horrific aspects of society. Over the years, I have popped in and out of here. I stand by my observations and statements. Overall, I have come to the conclusion that some change that needs to happen will not happen fast. It will take generations and generations for the stain of hatred to fade enough from some places in our country. Atlanta had the benefit of some great civil rights leaders who pioneered a New South, if not a new nation. And Atlanta is still benefitting from those who did that work. I live in Atlanta. I have started two successful businesses here. It could be any large city in the United States. There is a cosmopolitan drive and perpetual energy that has created a city separate from both the state and the region it is located. I rarely leave the city except to go to the airport to travel to another city of equal or greater size. This type of economic and cultural superpower could not have existed without the positive national/international perception spearheaded mid century.

    Birmingham seems to, at first, been left behind by the progress made during the civil rights movement of the last century. And now, it is being further surpassed by the cities that are following Atlanta’s path. I truly believe it is because the stench of hate is still strong in Birmingham. The lack of effort or poor PR has caused the city to stand still in time.

    At times I have offered my point of view to am audience I do not really know. As I said previously, I don’t spend time in Alabama or rural Southern places in general. My perspective is one educated about Birmingham in a history book. As an adult, it it further informed by the fact that out of all the places I travel for work (which is most months out of the year) I have yet to be sent anywhere in Alabama. The only people I have ever known from Alabama moved away to Atlanta. The perception of Birmingham from the outside is still one of chained dogs lunging toward Black people, fire hoses firing at unarmed protesters, or images of burned churches and klan robes. The headlines regarding your politicians continue to encase these perceptions. Until these images are replaced with something positive, people and businesses are not going to want to be there. And it really is that simple.

    I had hoped to bring something of value to this blog. But I don’t really see much of anything positive happening from my efforts. I understand people want to “be positive” or focus on the good. That’s nice on the surface. But prayer and hope and positivity are not a plan. It will be interesting to come back to this blog in 2030 to see if any a ha moments have taken place by then.

    Good luck to you all.

  9. ChristopherATL sure has a lot to say about a city he admits he doesn’t live in.

    As a recent transplant going on 2 years to BHAM from Florida, my suggestions are to hire more police and clean up downtown and lobby to get a professional sports team here that you can start building around.

    1. Birmingham’s and Alabama’s reputation precede getting anywhere close to them. I do read…I do pay attention to politics. I thought I might bring some perspective to the overarching goal stated by this blog.

      Admittedly…energy and time wasted.

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