As the beer and conversation flowed freely at WorkPlay, the venue for the event, members of the panel repeatedly touched on the topic of how to get younger people involved in the political process. Randall Woodfin, president of the Birmingham Board of Education, said he believes young people are reluctant to get involved because of the dysfunctional nature of Birmingham’s political process.
“I think young people have been hesitant to be involved because of the way government has been running and the way that elected officials have behaved themselves with their colleagues and the way they have rendered their services to the public. It’s just not the best example,” Woodfin said. He hopes that the school board can be a positive example to younger generations of how local leadership should operate.
“I think the way to get young people involved is to lead by example. What we hope to do is that through our actions — how we interact with each other and how we present ourselves to the public — we can be that example,” Woodfin said.
Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos said that the challenges faced by leadership in Birmingham are brought about by divided communities. “When I was elected to the legislature in 1986, we had a divided community. Today we still have a divided community. … What we have to do is look back at our history over the last two decades and the problems that we’ve had. We have to elect people that we can trust — people that can make hard decisions,” Petelos said.
Jefferson County is expected to be out of bankruptcy in December according to Petelos. He believes that this will open the door for a more unified regional community, as well as attract businesses to Birmingham. “What we need to do as a community, whether you live in Birmingham or in Hoover, the big picture is that we have to support our region,” Petelos said.
People came and went throughout the evening, some of them questioning the panelists. One resident, originally from Ohio, asked how Birmingham could attract and retain younger generations of people who are not originally from Birmingham. Woodfin said the responsibility to do that falls on Birmingham’s business community.
“I came home from college 10 years ago. The worst part about it was I didn’t feel like there were any other like-minded individuals who were ready to embrace Birmingham and rip off the old scab and the old way of thinking and embrace a new way of doing things,” he said. “When I look at the schools we have here, students finish their program and start looking for job opportunities and like-minded people. If that doesn’t exist here, they leave.
“So it’s not just a challenge to the people on the panel here, but to our business community. We have to offer something to these young people,” Woodfin said.
However, Weld Publisher Mark Kelly argued that in his three decades of living in Birmingham, there is now, more than ever, an energy that is beginning to stir in the city — the kind of positive vibe that can attract and retain young minds and businesses alike.
“It used to be you could say something bad about Birmingham and no one would disagree with you,” Kelly said. “Now, we have this enthusiasm and optimism — I’ve been here 33 years and have never seen anything like the way it is right now. It’s still sort of an unfocused optimism, I think, but we’re beginning to feel good about ourselves.”
Kelly believes that the people of Birmingham — in spite of what he called lackadaisical leadership of local government — are the ones who can truly make a difference by utilizing citizen leadership as opposed to elected leadership.
“We’ve heard talk about working together and the need to elect better people to public office, but what I really think it comes down to is the engagement of citizens,” Kelly said. “We have to make up our own minds that we want this place to be what it can be, to be better, to maybe run for something ourselves. We have to step out and take some chances. You can’t be great without taking risks. They need to be calculated risks, but opportunity is purchased with the coin of risk.”
The featured image for this post was shot by Beau Gustafson.