August 8, 2018

Innovate Birmingham, Innovate America

By Sarena Martinez ’17

Everyday when I walk to work in downtown Birmingham, I walk along the Civil Rights trail markers memorializing the march routes that Fred Shuttlesworth and others walked to fight for equality less than sixty years ago. I enter City Hall and make my way to the third floor to set my stuff down at my desk, less than fifteen feet from Bull Connor’s old office. In the same space where Connor mobilized his police force and commanded them to enforce the city’s segregationist laws that structurally disempowered and excluded people from opportunity based on their race, I now work with a team laser focused on facilitating an inclusive economy. An economy that ensures each citizen of Birmingham has a fair shot to contribute to our region’s economic vitality.
I am the daughter of an immigrant father and a first generation mother who made many sacrifices to give their children the best chance at success. My parents and grandparents firmly believe in the American Dream and instilled in us the optimism and hope that is fundamentally characteristic of the American identity. I grew up believing in the power of education and work ethic; the credo of “you can do anything that you set your mind to do” underpinned my childhood and all of my endeavors.
And while the credo once filled me with hope and inspiration and made me feel lighter, it now serves as a heavy reminder of my privilege. It is a reminder that I am a part of the 33 percent of Americans that have a bachelor’s degree in an economic landscape wherein 65 percent of jobs will require a post-secondary degree or credential by 2020. It is a reminder that I live in a country that has the highest GDP in the world but the third highest poverty rate among 34 OECD countries.  It is a reminder that I am a part of the 33 percent of Americans that have a bachelor’s degree in an economic landscape wherein 65 percent of jobs will require a post-secondary degree or credential by 2020.
The rise in high-tech employment concentrated in cities such as San Francisco, New York, Boston and DC coupled with the decline in manufacturing employment in cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and Birmingham have generated significant regional inequality. A recent Brookings report notes that Older Industrial Counties have seen double the decline in employment in advanced industries since 2000 than other Urban Counties across the US.
Our America today has unprecedented opulence yet implicitly denies basic freedoms to many in our communities because they live in poverty. This inequality has resulted in a state of anxiety and restlessness that has fueled divisive rhetoric and actions and made anger our default emotion. Automation and globalization are testing the ability of our systems and institutions to be responsive and effective, and if our labor force participation rate—the lowest in four decades—is the yardstick, we are failing. The latest Rasmussen poll tells us that less than half of Americans believe our country is on the right track.
Our political division as a country has yielded a partisan gridlock in DC that has left cities to navigate the rolling waves of our economy alone. Consistently, we read that we must turn to cities as laboratories and that it is municipal governments that will determine the success or the decline of our future as a country. However, it is important to remember that a laboratory is effective only if it mirrors the climate of the larger environment. We must turn to Cities that are microcosms of the political, social and economic landscape of the United States. Cities that are small enough to quickly experiment, but large enough to produce scalable solutions. Cities like Birmingham.
From generational poverty to structural unemployment to inequitable health outcomes, Birmingham is home to many of the persistent and pervasive social challenges plaguing our nation. Fully 30 percent of our residents and 42 percent of our mothers and children live in poverty, and our intergenerational mobility rate, the quantification of the American dream, is 4.8 percent. In other words, children born in the bottom quintile of the income distribution have a 4.8 percent chance of making it to the top quintile. Further, in a majority-minority City with a 73 percent black population, our average unemployment rate for blacks is more than double that for whites.
Birmingham’s story has always been one of unfolding struggle and one that has captured the imagination of our nation. From this City, Dr. King reminded America that we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny”. From this City, children took a stand and turned the tide of the Civil Rights Movement. From this City, our new Mayor is leading an army of system shapers that are committed to “putting people first” and facilitating an economy wherein our citizens can have the opportunity to create their own economic future.
Through Venture For America, I had the opportunity to come to this City to work for the Innovate Birmingham Workforce Program, a coalition of fifteen community partners and over thirty employers woven together because they believe talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not. The student-centered program is designed to establish a sustainable pipeline of IT talent and train 1000 under and unemployed youth for tech careers. Birmingham’s size and interconnectedness provided the environment necessary to design and form the program in six weeks, and with an employment rate within three months of graduation of ~66 percent, the model is one that can be translated and scaled in other Cities.
At its core, I believe that entrepreneurship in Birmingham has always been about creating opportunities, not just creating a new product. It has been about challenging the status quo with courage, confronting tough problems with grit and knitting together a tapestry of community. Venture For America provides the opportunity for fellows to work with builders who are improving our citizens ability to manage their health, like PackHealth, designing a new charitable giving experience, like Planet Fundraiser or re-imagining the modern grocery store, like Shipt.
I transitioned to City Hall, because I believe that if as a City we can anchor ourselves in the right questions and commit to bold experimentation, we can facilitate an economy wherein kids can be told that they can do anything they set their mind to, and it will be true. I believe that we can once again remind America ,from our own painful experience, that we are at our best when we begin with recognizing the dignity of our people.  
It was the success of the older industrial cities like Birmingham, Detroit and Cleveland during the industrial economy that catapulted America to its current status as a world leader in the 20th century. It is those cities that have struggled to transition to the modern economy, and it is those cities that now stand at the vanguard of the future of American prosperity.

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