“One of the greatest failures of our school system here in Birmingham has been that of cultural identity crisis,” said Patricia Bell, who in April launched her campaign for mayor at an event at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “We have not implemented and [imparted] cultural knowledge to the students of Birmingham, and they should know that, especially here, because Birmingham’s history has played such a pivotal role in the changing of laws in the United States.”
Bell, a veteran educator and community activist in Birmingham, got her start in politics in 1979, when she worked in the campaign to elect Richard Arrington as Birmingham’s first African-American mayor. She first ran for mayor herself in 1995, becoming the first woman to put her name on the mayoral ballot. She faces an especially crowded field in this year’s race, with community activist Carlos Chaverst, Jefferson County deputy sheriff Randy Davis, entrepreneur Ervin Philemon Hill, pastor Fernandez Sims, contractor Chris Woods, and school board member Randall Woodfin all also seeking to replace incumbent Mayor William Bell.
Bell (no relation to the current mayor) believes that if students understand and appreciate their heritage, they will begin to take more pride in their community and come to respect themselves and others. In addition to teaching Birmingham students about the history of their hometown, she wants city schools to offer classes on the languages and cultures of Africa.
“In the suburbs, some of the students are learning about cultural studies and are taking Afro-centric languages such as Swahili. The children of Birmingham have never had that option. This is a disgrace, because we have had predominantly African-American leadership, and what they were thinking about, I don’t know,” Bell said. “They should have already put in place cultural educational resources for our children. This has not been there, and I think this contributes to the violence. When you take pride in who you are, what you are, you have a sense of belonging. You have a sense of protection for yourself and others when you learn to have self-identity and self-respect.”
Bell advocates a similar approach for first-time offenders, and said that her administration will mandate a six-month “cultural identity program” for those convicted for the first time that will aim to teach the importance of respecting oneself and one’s community. Bell, who expressed horror at Birmingham’s designation as the nation’s third most dangerous city in the FBI’s 2016 crime statistics, also seeks to lower the city’s crime rate by putting together a volunteer force to support the city’s police. Bell said that these volunteers would be offered free training and preparation for the police exams in exchange for their service, thus providing the police department with a steady supply of trained recruits.
Improving relations between police and the community is another key component of Bell’s platform. Bell proposed that precincts hold regular outdoor events where citizens would get the chance to meet and interact with their officers and captains. She also expressed her appreciation for Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper’s efforts to improve relations between civilians and officers.
“One thing I like about Chief Roper is that he has taught his officers to respect the citizens. I was a little girl in the ’60s; citizens weren’t always respected as men and women,” she said. “That is one of the reasons why I really like the chief, and I would work with him to meet these benchmarks to bring the crime numbers down … and to get off the list as the third-most deadly city in the nation. We’d have to do this in the first year that I’m mayor of this city.”
In addition, creating more business opportunities throughout Birmingham will help lower the crime rate, Bell said, criticizing what she considers the unfair amount of city spending that has been concentrated in the downtown business districts at the expense of the other neighborhoods. She described her plans to turn abandoned school buildings in the city into multiplex centers that would host “business incubator” programs that teach citizens how to start and run their own businesses effectively.
Bell’s economic plan drew further inspiration from an unlikely source: the southeast Asian nation of Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations. Bell noted that citizens of that nation had taken advantage of micro-loans and start-up loans offered by international nonprofits to jump-start their own businesses and lift themselves out of poverty. She said that similar micro-loan programs are available in Alabama and Birmingham, and promised that her administration would work to advertise these opportunities and ensure that Birmingham’s citizens knew how to take advantage of them.
“When you’re bubbling over with poverty, you’ve got to come up with ways to start new businesses. … If we can get our citizens motivated to start businesses, it’s another way of developing job opportunity,” she said. “And then with the support of the city we can establish incubators for training how to run your business effectively and legally and [have] a support system in place by the local government to encourage self-employment and gainful employment and sustainability. I believe this is the first way to counteract poverty, and that is what I saw them doing in Bangladesh.”