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Alumni share the lessons of Leadership Birmingham 

From L to R: Damian Carson, Matthew Penfield, Nicole King, Robby Hayes

How can a community come together after experiencing widespread trauma fueled by injustice? As part of the September commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign in the civil rights movement, the Historic Bethel Baptist Church hosted a conference—titled There IS a Balm in Gilead: Healing From the Events of 1963—to explore avenues for recovery. Four Class of 2022 alumni led a session highlighting the connections and conversations that take place within Leadership Birmingham and the ways they use their knowledge to help bridge divides. Here are some insights they shared with attendees:


“The first step is to set aside your prejudices and give it a chance. Our small group provided a place to get outside of our routine and get invited into other folks’ lives. We learned the value of being vulnerable and humble. We could take off the mask we often wear at work or out in the community. We had real conversations that, if people are honest with themselves, they weren’t having with such a diverse group. I could talk about what it was like growing up with a single mom, and it broadened my perspective to know what it’s like for people who grew up over the mountain never hearing about Smithfield, for example.

“There are opportunities present in our daily lives to be intentional about spending time with people who don’t look and talk like us and who probably haven’t had the same experiences. In my neighborhood, which is pretty diverse, a classmate and I invited people to come out to our community park and start to build relationships.”

“We owe it to ourselves, our families, our community, those who came before us, and those coming after us to bridge the gap around racial reconciliation. It’s a big challenge, but you have to start somewhere and create momentum. For me, being in Leadership Birmingham was the beginning of that healing process.”

Damian Carson, Regional Vice President, Operation HOPE 


“Leadership Birmingham is not afraid to tackle difficult issues. In Birmingham there hasn’t been a time when an issue or challenge has not included some form of racial discrimination or reconciliation. After 40 years of Leadership Birmingham, we now have a group of community leaders with a better understanding of those systemic issues. And because of the small group experience, we have leaders who have learned to listen and to understand other people’s perspectives.

“My mom [Elise Penfield ’90] was executive director of Leadership Birmingham for many years, and my dad [Irvin Penfield Jr. ’86] was in the second class. I think that both of them going through the program helped shape them, and then that shaped the way they raised my brother and me. When you invite a diverse group of people into your home, you model for your kids what a community looks like. What happens is a generational change over time.

“It’s important to educate yourself and then converse with others so that you actually hear—and begin to be open to—their points of view. Those are things we need to do in the broader community if we’re truly going to continue the work of healing and reconciliation.”

Matthew Penfield, Attorney, Bressler, Amery, & Ross, P.C


“Leadership Birmingham challenged me to engage in meaningful introspection, to cast away preconceived notions, and to view the world and our city from a different lens. In addition, Leadership Birmingham encouraged us to explore and better understand the contours of our vulnerabilities. While it is often challenging to look honestly and constructively at oneself, the program almost intuitively provided us with a safe space to discuss hard, challenging, and sometimes taboo issues. It was within these conversations, however, that my classmates and I were able to bridge divides and grow.

“After completing the program, I look at everyday issues from a different vantage point, which has reaffirmed in me the importance of being the agent of change that I want to see in our city.

“Often I think back to the strategic tactics that I observed during our thought-provoking, program-centered conversations and use those same skills to handle conversations in the workplace. These conversations help bring cohesion, clarity, and camaraderie to my 45-member team. Leadership Birmingham is a good reminder of the importance of blending in the rich, innovative, and historically significant spirit of our city and how one can better serve our community.”

Nicole King, City Attorney, City of Birmingham


“One of the meaningful times with our small group was when they came to my house, and my children got to see people who look different, talk different, from different walks of life, all together in our home. And they saw us having fun and enjoying each other. For another gathering, we met at [civil rights leader] Arthur Shores’ office building. Sixty years ago, who would have thought that a group like ours, with Black and white members, would be together at his office, having good, heartfelt conversations with one another? Certainly there’s still more work to do, but it shows that we’ve come a long way. Our group still gets together.

“Obviously we learned and talked about race, but it wasn’t limited to that. We were exposed to different health care challenges, religious and ethnic diversity, education, government, and our prison system. It was a huge education about our metropolitan area with some things that I, having lived here my whole life, didn’t know.

“People kept their hearts and minds open. If someone in our group disagreed with someone else, they felt comfortable saying that. And the other person would want to hear why. No one got in a corner. There was no extremism like you see at the national level. We had a tremendous amount of respect for each other even though there was disagreement.”

Robby Hayes, Vice President & Division Manager, Brasfield & Gorrie