Today was the official kick off day for the City of Birmingham Smarter Cities Challenge. Our day began with breakfast served by our hostess at the bed and breakfast where we are staying for our assignment. She really knows Southern cooking and it got us all off to a great start for the day. We headed out to City Hall around 8:30 for the initial kick off at 9:15 in the City Council Chambers. Here is a picture of us in the Council Chambers:
The City Council meeting came to order and the President of the City Council recognized the Mayor who made some introductory remarks and then we each introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about what this experience meant for us on a personal level. For me, Birmingham has long been a beacon of social justice in America. Last year they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the pivotal events that occurred in the City that led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr. Martin Luther King and others led a series of non-violent protests to seek an end to the segregation of business and public facilities. Their peaceful protests were met with water cannons and attack dogs. The images from that pivot year became seared in the conscience of America. We needed to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality and the citizen protesters of Birmingham set an example of grace under pressure and many were arrested including young children who participated in the marches with their parents. To me, this SCC is a small way that I can personally give back to the City of Birmingham for being that beacon of hope and changing America for the better.
After our introduction to the City Council, we met with our first set of stakeholders regarding the food desert issue, which is what we are here to address. For those that don’t know, a food desert is general regarded as an area that has limited access to healthy food choices and the primary source of food is either fast food establishments or convenience stores, which typically do not carry items such as meats, fish, poultry or produce. The stakeholders we met with were from a variety of private and public organizations. What struck me the most was the passion and commitment these individuals and their respective organizations had around addressing the problem. They helped us better understand some of the correlations between healthy food access and longer term health issues as well as connections to other challenges the city is trying to address such as economic development and blight mitigation. I think we came away from this session with a sense that we were starting to better understand what is going on, what has been tried, and what may need attention. We have a LOT more interviews to go, but these first interviews really lifted us all and we came away eager to hear more.
In the afternoon we went to the formal city kick off at Vulcan Park, which is located on a vista that gives a breathtaking view of Birmingham.
The kick off was a luncheon that gathered all of the stakeholders both public and private including representatives of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who have partnered with the City to address a range of issues around economic development, health, and smarter city initiatives. We were introduced by the mayor and we then got to mingle with audience and talk one on one with the different attendees. This was a real highlight and I learned several things that I had not understood before. I sat with a representative of a community garden and her young nephew and learned about the work she is doing to transform a vacant lot into a community garden that helps provide the neighborhood with locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. Other team members had similar experiences. We are all really delighted by the passion that these folks bring to this issue! If passion is any indication of success, the City of Birmingham has it in great measure!
The final part of the day was a tour of the city. We went all over the city and viewed many areas that are developed, being developed or are in need of investment. I was struck by the fact that while some of the homes were run down or boarded up, the neighborhoods gave off a sense of their great past and a promise of future renewal. There is a lot going on all across the city. There was one area that was completely devastated in 2011 by a deadly tornado that also caused a very large loss of life. Three years later the neighborhoods affected are well on their way back with a lot of new construction that works to retain the character and economic composition of the neighborhood. We stopped at a grocery store that has been a constant in one neighborhood for more than 60 years. The business is being run by 3rd and 4th generations of the family that started it and they are reinventing their business to meet the challenge of the times so that they can be there another 60 years from now. They are converting many systems to highly efficient energy saving and cost saving modern technology to drive as much unnecessary cost out of their business so that they can remain a cornerstone in the community for many years to come.
As we came back to City Hall, I was tired but also energized by the events of the day. We have a long three weeks ahead of us but today really helped us begin to focus on the challenge we’re here to address. I am very much looking forward to working with the other members of the team in the days ahead. Saturday we will be doing a team building exercise and will actually be trying to shop in a food desert and then prepare a meal from what we find. Walking a mile in the citizens’ shoes will really help us understand the direct impact of the food desert problem.