It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
When we use the word community, what do we mean? Broadly, the term refers to people bonded by common interests, beliefs and aspirations. In the most complicated sense, a community is a diverse assortment of individuals, organizations and institutions characterized by the willingness of its members to work collectively toward the realization of a shared vision.
Such was the sort of vision that propelled the One Great City campaign of 1969-70. One Great City was a proposal to consolidate most of Jefferson County — including the city of Birmingham — under a single unit of government. Among the leaders of that effort — which died in the Alabama Legislature without ever reaching the floor — was attorney David Vann, who would go on to be elected to the Birmingham City Council in 1971, and as Birmingham’s mayor four years later.
Vann died in 2000, still lamenting what he viewed unequivocally as Birmingham’s “last chance” to become a great city. He and others envisioned a city in which the economic, political and social interests of black and white, rich and poor, management and labor, city and suburb, were inextricably interwoven. Vann had articulated that vision in a letter to an acquaintance while One Great City was still in the formative stages.
We want to show the people of the area how big they are, Vann wrote, and then ask them to think that big. Later, in one of the many speeches he delivered during the active campaign, he called it “simply an effort to express as a political reality the true city that we have become by our own natural growth processes,” and “to retain and express the ambitions and desires those growth processes have indicated, while consolidating all of our human, leadership and revenue resources.”
Typing Vann’s words gives me pause to reflect on them, and now I don’t know whether to be encouraged or depressed. On the one hand, Vann’s fears to the contrary, we are swept up in another wave of potentially transformative progress in Birmingham. On the other, the last time we were at the point we now are nearing — that at which the wave crests and dissipates, or else continues to build in size and strength and power — was 45 years ago. And we blew it.
Let me be clear that I am not talking about One Great City here. The relative merits of governmental consolidation — including whether that would be our most appropriate, productive or achievable community goal at this critical moment in our history — is a topic for another day.
What I am talking about is that “inescapable network of mutuality,” as articulated by Dr. King. What I am talking about is living in a place where civic processes — our ability to come together around shared objectives — transcend those areas in which interests diverge.
What I am talking about is community.
Helping to build that kind of community has been a hallmark of many of America’s best newspapers — as it should be for the increasingly integrated media companies of the present. One means of doing that is by producing and publishing journalism of high quality — factual, informative, in-depth and written well and fairly. Another is by taking editorial stances and offering a forum for opinion on important topics of civic interest. Still another is by functioning corporately in the community, by which I mean finding, cultivating and creating opportunities for our company to lead or support things that contribute to economic growth, social progress and political cohesion.
These things are not mutually exclusive. I don’t have to agree with everything you say or do, just as I shouldn’t expect you to live in full agreement with me. But neither of those means that we cannot or should not work together in areas of common interest — or take opportunities to confront collectively the question of just how big we are willing to think.
This is Weld’s overarching objective in taking on the subject of poverty in Birmingham in a series of articles appearing throughout 2014 and into next year. It’s the reason we’re excited about teaming with UAB’s Edge of Chaos program to host six “Wicked Problem” discussions designed to produce a broad-based outline for addressing poverty throughout our community. And it’s the basis of our welcoming Alabama Power Company as the underwriter of our series on poverty.
“Poverty is the single biggest problem holding Alabama back,” says John Hudson, the president of the Alabama Power Foundation. “If we solve it, our state prospers. Our company has employees and business offices around the state, we encourage and expect our employees to be engaged in their communities, and we provide a lot of support, financial and otherwise, for community programs and initiatives.
“Support is important, but it’s got to start leading to change,” Hudson adds. “Weld is starting the dialogue. Weld has shown that it is capable of creating substantive conversations. This series is challenging the community to come together around this idea of attacking poverty at the root. We think we have a role to play in that.”
I doubt the reader will be surprised when I acknowledge that this particular association with Alabama Power has raised some eyebrows. With a very few exceptions, the comments and questions that have come our way have been legitimate and well intended as they relate to Weld, with many just looking to be reassured — or, in some cases, waiting to be shown — that our business relationship with Alabama Power will not infringe on our editorial priorities.
Fair enough all around, and so be it. Weld’s goal in devoting considerable editorial resources to our series and other reporting is to bring attention to the impacts on our community of poverty and related issues, and to generate coordinated community action that yields measurable results.
To the extent that we are able to achieve that goal, Alabama Power is helping to make it possible. So is the Edge of Chaos. So are the organizations and individuals who have agreed to be interviewed for our series, provide information and resources or participate in one or more of the “Wicked Problem” discussions.
And so is anyone who chooses to believe in the bigness of Birmingham. “Tied into” that “single garment of destiny,” we all are bound to sink or swim together. In that spirit, let us take every opportunity we have to make progress happen.