“If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we got,” Mayor William Bell said during the first of two town hall meetings at the Alabama Theatre last Monday.
Bell was referring to a new program he hopes to introduce to Birmingham’s inner-city youth, more specifically, Birmingham’s young black males.
As people began to file into the ornately decorated theater, Bell was waiting on stage, his lightly colored suit and white hair gleaming from the lights against the backdrop of the amaranthine stage curtain.
Bell’s vision to bring to Birmingham My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), a program implemented by President Barack Obama to help inner-city males stay on track and graduate, has come with a cost. Bell has proposed to drastically reduce the amount of money allocated to community school programs in order to fund MBK.
Bell serves as the co-chair for the nationwide initiative. “The third mayor to get on board with this was the mayor of Birmingham,” Bell said referring to himself and his eagerness to implement this program. My Brother’s Keeper has recently drawn criticism from the Birmingham City Council because it would cut funding from Birmingham’s community school programs that cover after-school care and arts programs for various schools throughout the city.
“I want to show you all a little bit about what My Brother’s Keeper is all about,” Bell said as the curtains were raised and a movie began to play. The movie, produced by the White House, was an hour-long look into what MBK does and how it has been implemented in places like Chicago and Baltimore.
After the screening, Bell opened the floor for questioning for those who had stayed for the duration of the film. Those who remained took issue with the lack of funding that would be available for community school programs, which have been on the decline in recent years.
During the 2014 fiscal year, the city allocated $655,000 to the community school program. In the 2015 fiscal year, the city cut back the funding to $242,000. As for the 2016 fiscal budget, which has yet to be approved by the city council, the funding for community schools has been reduced to nothing. The 2016 budget does include $11 million to be allocated to the mayor’s office, a $1.88 million increase from last year’s budget.
During the meeting Birmingham resident Brenda Dickerson asked Bell about a $650,000 expenditure for a party during last year’s Magic City Classic and why his office spent that amount of money for an event, but not for community schools.
“Is it possible to reduce spending in your office and not from the community schools program in order to fund My Brother’s Keeper program?” Dickerson asked over a chorus of applause from the audience.
In regards to the $650,000 expenditure for the Magic City Classic party, Bell said, “$450,000 of that goes to the two schools, Alabama State and Alabama A&M. That number has not changed from the day I got here. What we found out when I came to office, the Magic City Classic was generating about $13 million in economic opportunities in the city. With the additional increase of money we invested, that $650,000 you are talking about generates over $24 million in economic vitality and opportunity here in the city.”
As mayor, Bell said his responsibility is to bring people to Birmingham to spend money. “You have to spend money to make money,” he added. “If you look at what we’re doing, Birmingham is far ahead of other communities and other cities because we’ve taken time to invest.”
Dickerson also brought up another point of contention — an issue showcased by Black Lives Matter protestors gathered in front of the stage to hold posters with the number 51 and the word “Transparency”— the fact that Bell’s office has 51 administrative assistants on the books.
Bell responded, “My administration, the staff that works directly under me, I’ve forgotten how many of them that is…it may be about, oh, 15 or 17, I don’t have the exact number.”
The mayor said that the other members of his administration that make up the total of 51 assistants are people he has appointed to various positions with the city’s grants management division, the Birmingham Crossplex, the economic development office, the internal audit division and the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act office.
“All of those individuals that you are talking about are needed to run the city,” Bell said.
Before the town hall meeting, seven protestors, all clad in t-shirts with the “Black Lives Matter” logo on the front, gathered out front of the theater, their mouths covered with duct tape.
“This isn’t a protest,” Shirah Robinson, an organizer for Birmingham’s chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, said as she waited outside and handed out flyers before the meeting. “This is a call for transparency within the mayor’s office.”
During the meeting, Robinson, who is in favor of MBK, said, “Taking funds from community education programs is not the way. My Brother’s Keeper is centered around helping young black men, correct?”
“Yes,” Bell replied.
“Well, women are also at risk in these same communities that you’re speaking of,” Robinson followed.
According to Bell, MBK in Birmingham would also include programs that would be open to young women as well. “I was at a meeting at White House back about four or five months ago where [President Obama] appointed Valerie Jarrett and Heather Jackson to develop a similar program for young women as well. We’re not talking about taking money away from programs that help children of color. We’re trying to bring more resources to them.”
Although he did not give specifics, Bell mentioned that the city will have access to $200 million in federal funds through MBK.
Bell also indicated that My Brother’s Keeper is a priority over community schools for a reason.
“I asked the question to the last superintendent, ‘What exactly do community schools do?’ He couldn’t tell me,” Bell said. “I dare say nobody knows what community schools do and how effective they are.”
On the other hand, Randall Woodfin, president of the Birmingham Board of Education, had no problem defining community schools in a separate interview as “a program that the school board supports and has provided a benefit for those students and adults who participate in it.” Woodfin declined to comment on Bell’s proposal to cut funding for community schools.
The overarching purpose for bringing an initiative like MBK to Birmingham, Bell explained, is to eradicate the culture of violence that has long plagued the Magic City. That starts with providing a leg up for youths living in poverty.
“If you got some beef, chop the beef,” Bell said in reference to the high rate of violent crime in Birmingham.
Recently, the city created the Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative to help reduce homicides and gun violence.
The idea is to bring together “at risk” members of the community — A Birmingham Police study over the last two years of violent crimes show the majority of those “at risk” of committing a crime in the city are young African-American males — and “chop the beef” as Bell said.
The goal is to bring together law enforcement agencies and community leaders to put “peer pressure” on those who are likely to commit a violent crime, Bell explained.
The initiative was one of several topics Bell touched on during the meeting. Of the 200 people in attendance, several stood up to voice their concerns over the “prejudices and profiling” that they believe will result from the new policing initiative. A Black Lives Matter supporter, who did not give his name, said he believes the violence reduction initiative will criminalize black youth.
“We’re not interested in a good punchline, we’re looking for facts. This is targeting, profiling, criminalizing and incarcerating our youth by the masses as we speak. Then you talk about My Brother’s Keeper, that we all agree is a good thing, but on the other side of it, our children are being profiled and locked up,” the man said.
Most speakers agreed that the MBK initiative is a positive one that could have a substantial impact on Birmingham’s impoverished youth. Still, most who spoke indicated that cutting funding to community school programs is the wrong way to accomplish those goals.
At last week’s meeting Birmingham School Board member April Williams voiced her concern that as the new school year approaches it is not clear how funding changes for community schools will affect next year’s operations.
While Bell has said services will continue to be offered with community school programs, he did not offer specifics.
“We have an obligation to take care of our employees,” Williams said. “We are now faced with being after May and we are going to have to find a way to continue their contracts. The greater concern is how will we be able to keep providing services to the citizens of Birmingham.”