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What does it take to be an effective leader in Birmingham?


Odessa Woolfolk will tell you.


Odessa Woolfolk has lived history, taught history, and even helped make history in Birmingham, from the civil rights movement through the present day. She is best known for founding the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute—and cofounding Leadership Birmingham—but the community leader and former high-school teacher also has held important roles at UAB and in public-policy organizations.

Building upon her conversation with Mayor Randall Woodfin at this year’s opening session, Woolfolk has mined her experiences—and Birmingham’s past—to come up with four essential insights for anyone wanting to make a meaningful impact in our community. And one of them contains a challenge for all Leadership Birmingham alumni.

1. Be authentic.

Woolfolk: Leaders must be authentic. People must believe the cause that they are espousing if they expect others to follow. Otherwise, they will be exposed and will lose everyone’s confidence.

Authenticity also extends to having a knowledge base about the community. Think of the leaders who don’t get their names in the newspapers. You can find them in the barbershop, the beauty shop, and the pool hall. There are influencers in every community. People trust them because they believe those leaders are fair, honest, and open and would not recommend something that they wouldn’t do themselves.

There’s a difference between leadership and management. Running a company requires different qualities than encouraging others to make a difference in the community. Some of the values that are most important for effective leadership are things we all learned long ago. I sum it up this way: Hold hands, treat people right, believe in the equality of folks, and base your life on that.

Leadership Birmingham helps provide that authenticity. It immerses us in the community so that we understand the people who live here and what makes them tick—and why a solution that works in one setting may not work in another. It’s a study of a community and how you, wherever you are as a leader, can make a difference.

2. Break out of the silos.

Woolfolk: When you talk about leadership in Birmingham, you have to consider how Birmingham came to be. Our history is grounded in the industrial exploitation of minerals, and with that came a social system based on having a class of owners and a class of workers. The owners were the people—most of them residing in the North—with capital to invest in industry.

Where did the laborers come from? A lot of poor whites and poor Blacks came to Jefferson County from the rural southern part of Alabama, the Black Belt, to look for jobs. Another group of immigrants included first-generation Americans from places like Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Poland, and Russia.

The investors valued the return on investment, which meant spending as little as they could on the social welfare of workers. They also created a tension between Black and white workers by paying Black workers less. This exploitation continued from the 1870s through the civil rights movement, and all of that social dynamite led to the conflicts that occurred in Birmingham.

In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan grew as a force and was invested in controlling the local government. It was anti-immigrant, and they oppressed Jews and Catholics in equal measure. At the same time, Birmingham passed ordinances that zoned people according to race. So African Americans seemed to be in the worst parts of town, and the various ethnic groups clustered together. Each group had strong leaders and its own churches and social life, but with silo zoning, the leadership of the various groups didn’t interact much.

By the end of the 1970s, we hadn’t lived up to the promise of the 1960s. Desegregation progress was slow. The 1979 election, where Richard Arrington Jr. became the city’s first Black mayor, and the 1981 City Council election were contentious. In 1982, Jimmy Lee, then the head of Buffalo Rock and president of the Chamber of Commerce, talked about the resurgence of racism and the need to bring together our talented leaders to work on common problems. At that time only a few leaders spoke up about the lack of community that we had, and many of the people who owned the companies in Birmingham lived outside the city in places like Mountain Brook, Vestavia, and Hoover.

So Jimmy Lee and others persuaded Neal Berte, then president of Birmingham-Southern College, to get involved. They told him that a lot of people in leadership positions didn’t know each other and focused on doing their own work, and most of them didn’t grow up in Birmingham and didn’t know the history.

That was the beginning of Leadership Birmingham. Neal said that if we could get them together, we’ll have progress. If the people who already are leaders could lead on the major issues of education, housing, governance, the arts, and so on, then we could make the collective good serve the entire population, no matter their ethnic, religious, or geographic backgrounds.

3. Have conversations with all kinds of people.

Woolfolk: One thing that struck me in our first Leadership Birmingham class was the number of people who had never sat down, outside the work environment, in a social situation, with someone of a different race. That was how fragmented Birmingham was. There were many well-intended people doing good in the community, but they were isolated.

So Neal Berte set up a little committee within Leadership Birmingham. Members volunteered to participate, and we paired people together. And we wanted them to not just meet in restaurants, but to get to know each other and their families. A lot of friendships grew out of that.

We tried to pair people with different backgrounds—maybe a person who was the head of a poor neighborhood and the richest person in the group. We were surprised at the things people had in common that were not evident. Even now, what many people remember most from Leadership Birmingham are the opportunities to get to know people they might never have had a conversation with otherwise.

If you believe that equality, justice, and equity are values that determine whether a community is good or not, then getting together people of different backgrounds and views is essential. People throw off pretenses and masks and see each other as they are. But it cannot be an isolated conversation.

Bringing different kinds of people together doesn’t mean we should expect absolute consensus, but we should expect absolute understanding. You can disagree on religion, politics, or ways to solve problems, but you can understand one another. You can share the goal of a community that benefits everyone.

4. Never stop leading.

Woolfolk: From the beginning, the members of Leadership Birmingham have been interested in doing things of consequence. Many of them decided to attach themselves to ideas that grew up outside Leadership Birmingham, and they gave them their imprimatur and visibility.

For example, Neal Berte talked with a bunch of us about the importance of cooperation among local governments in the county. We had more than 30 municipalities, each with its own mayor and council, but they weren’t playing well together, and they could govern more efficiently if they consolidated certain basic things like buying heavy equipment together, or labor services. Out of that came Region 2020 [which later was merged into the Birmingham Business Alliance].

Members also helped create PARCA, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, which shares research and nonpartisan recommendations with municipal leaders and school systems. Others helped revolutionize the Jefferson County Personnel Board, which had been criticized for not delivering the services for screening people for public agencies that it was supposed to be doing. A lot of my Leadership Birmingham friends supported the creation of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute when some people didn’t think we needed it. There were even collaborations among conservative and liberal churches that grew out of conversations in Leadership Birmingham.

We weren’t an activist organization, but individuals who had gone through Leadership Birmingham were willing to stand up and speak on behalf of progressive causes—and not in the political sense of the word “progressive.” A lot of partnerships, projects, and ideas that define Birmingham today can be traced back to the involvement of members over the years.

Here is my challenge for the Members Council now: Does Leadership Birmingham have the critical mass to assess our community in the way that we did 40 years ago and make recommendations that are applicable now and in the future? What does our community need today?

Also, the small groups in every class have had some doggone good projects and ideas over the years. Wouldn’t it be interesting for the Members Council to take our program-day topics, line up all of the ideas from the small groups to match them, and see if all those little things add up to a big thing?

We have a lot of brainpower and experience in our 1,600 or so members. How can we use it?