Words with Friends
Alumni continue a conversation about Birmingham’s challenges and opportunities
A judge, a priest, a provost, a president, and a management consultant walk into a room. It sounds like the beginning of a funny story. But in reality, that moment sparked a yearlong conversation among five Leadership Birmingham members—an exchange that continues to explore tough topics and build strong friendships. Even the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t stop it.
Some of you had crossed paths prior to Leadership Birmingham. What brought you together during the program and inspired your conversation?
Hampton: It was evident that we felt the same way about a number of topics we discussed in Leadership Birmingham.
Grant: Probably more significant, though, are the cultural bonds we share as Black men.
Streety: Our many differences also brought us together. Our camaraderie is a genuine effort to know one another better.
Elder: I saw men who were sincere about matters that impact our community and not hesitant about sharing their thoughts. They balance that with a great sense of humor. We laugh a lot and don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Grant: On program days, we typically found a moment for a group huddle. We also kept a text chat dialogue going. Then three of us—Dr. Elder, Judge Streety, and I—met for dinner.
Watkins: I missed it due to crazy overbooking. I know I will never live it down.
Streety: We met after work at a downtown restaurant. It was casual. I can’t say the meeting had a serious tone, but serious topics came up.
Hampton: I missed the initial meeting due to working in St. Louis. I recall getting an email the next day letting me know that they had a good time. I was jealous that I couldn’t be there and was determined not to miss future connections.
Streety: COVID-19 halted any intent to continue in-person gatherings. Now we send an occasional shout-out via email to see how things are going.
Hampton: We connect via email and chat. I’m hoping that we can set up lunch or dinner for the group soon.
What do you discuss? Do you talk about Birmingham’s challenges?
Grant: Our discussions tend to be free flowing, but Leadership Birmingham topics typically spark follow-up conversation. One subject is the fact that as Black men and community leaders, we have some common values, but certain “leanings” are diverse—meaning that some of us are conservative on certain social topics, while others are more liberal. For instance, some of us have more faith in the criminal justice system than others.
Streety: We have discussed race as it relates to how Black men often are viewed as cast from a single mold when, in reality, we are different in personality and experiences.
Elder: We have discussed work, community, and politics, as well as the plight of Black men and the challenges we still face regardless of what we have achieved. We have talked about why Birmingham has not yet reached its fullest potential and why some Blacks feel disconnected. We also have discussed what we could do to improve our communities.
Grant: I recall worrying that the passion among our Leadership Birmingham classmates would quickly wane and fail to lead to action. We also wanted to hear more dissenting views from classmates. In terms of Birmingham, our inability to control our own destiny due to lack of home rule is an overarching and pervasive challenge. The fractured nature of the metro area, with its numerous distinct municipalities, is another impediment to driving substantive change for the region, and the gap between the haves and have-nots continuously widens.
Streety: There is a reluctance to accept the city of Birmingham as the nucleus of what could be a thriving center of growth that ultimately would benefit the entire region.
Hampton: There seems to be a negative perception of the city and state that goes back to the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement.
Watkins: We discussed how poverty, race, and gender seem to conspire to categorize Black men via uniforms: athletic, prison, or military. Seeing Black men in our disciplines and professions is unusual but necessary if the South is going to get unstuck.
How would you describe one another?
Grant: Judge Streety is conservative and patient. Joe is focused and driven. Tommie is expressive and a truth teller. Keith is an analytical, deep thinker.
Streety: Joe is charismatic, witty, and smart. Keith is the consummate professional, wise, and deliberate. Daryl is prudent, intellectual, and subtle. Rev. Tommie is scholarly, comedic, and thoughtful.
Elder: Daryl seeks to understand all points of view and build community. Michael gets to the core of matters with understanding.
Joe is all things good about Southern living. Tommie is hilarious and deliberate.
Watkins: Joe is practical and funny. Keith is the stoic professional thinker. Daryl is passionate and insightful.
Hampton: These are some of the sharpest guys in the city. Tommie has the
one-liners that make us all think.
How has Leadership Birmingham impacted your life and career?
Grant: Leadership Birmingham opened my eyes to many historical and pervasive challenges and provided clarity on some root causes. I walked away believing that someone like me, in partnership with a group like this, could step into the arena in a significant way to make a broader impact on this community.
Streety: Meeting many people from different cultures, backgrounds, ideologies, and professions has been invaluable. Leadership Birmingham has refined the way I consider others because it has dissolved, confirmed, and perhaps called into question thoughts or misconceptions that I had about others and their ideals.
Watkins: Leadership Birmingham has proved to be an awesome instrument to align myself with civic and political influencers who share a similar passion to create change through hard and sustainable work. Birmingham is fixable, or winnable, in that this city can change if folks will commit to do so.
Hampton: I learned so much about the place where I grew up. I had no idea about the history or work that goes on to make our city a better place. It was great to meet many individuals from different backgrounds who have a passion to make the region better for the generations that come after us.
All of you are leaders in different disciplines. What can we learn from your example about reaching out to one another and striking up conversations about challenging issues – even beyond Leadership Birmingham?
Hampton: If you care about where you live and about the well-being of others, then you can’t help but be fired up to make a change in yourself and in your community. Be open and honest with your peers, but also be empathetic and open to listening to others.
Elder: We can accomplish much more together and have fun while doing it.
Grant: I have a network of people who, while having differing backgrounds, experiences, and opinions, share some values that bind us together. More important, it’s a network that I can tap into anytime for support and to make things happen.
Watkins: Dialogue versus debate is the way forward to share congruency and passion on many issues, and thus work together for change. Leadership Birmingham facilitates so much of this kind of discussion that it proves priceless, especially given the overwhelmingly divisive nature of today’s sociopolitical culture.
Streety: We in the group seek to explore and understand our differences. Though we have things in common, understanding differences is beneficial to our friendship. For me, Leadership Birmingham was all about listening to others in a genuinely empathetic, nonjudgmental way. This experience solidified the truth that bridges are built via mutual respect and appreciation for those who don’t necessarily think the way I do. For any community to move forward, there must be an effort to build upon commonalities. Hopefully others can look at our friendship and extend a hand inviting camaraderie. You never know where it could lead.