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Neena Speer’s First Year in Law School Made Her Better Attorney — And an Author

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — Speer’s mindset was that somebody is going to deal with what she dealt with and ask what law school was like for her. So, instead of telling people, she decided to give them something to read and to go by.

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Neena Speer with her book "Dear Future Lawyer: An Intimate Survival Guide for the Minority Female Law Student" (Photo by: Ameera Steward | The Birmingham Times

By Ameera Steward

Neena Speer’s book “Dear Future Lawyer: An Intimate Survival Guide for the Minority Female Law Student” (Ameera Steward, The Birmingham Times)

At the time, Neena Speer felt that going through law school was the worst hand she could have been dealt.

“I almost flunked out,” she said. “I went from honors student … to barely getting a 3.0 [grade point average]. … It just messed with my psyche. … Then I got out of law school, failed the bar, … [and] couldn’t find a job.

“All these experiences can happen, so I said, ‘Why not write and tell [people] about all these feelings they’re going to feel, all this stuff they’re going to go through? [Why not] tell somebody exactly how they may feel in that scenario and how to use it?’”

Those experiences led Speer to write “Dear Future Lawyer: An Intimate Survival Guide for the Minority Female Law Student,” a book that walks the reader through Speer’s experiences during each year of law school. She attended the University of Alabama School of Law from 2014 until 2017—and almost didn’t make it through her first year.

“I just had to have some way to cope with the fact that I thought, ‘If God was sending me here, why the heck would He have me almost fail out of law school?’” she said.

One of the problems Speer faced was that she had received advice from people who had experienced law school differently than she had, and they were telling her she wasn’t doing enough.

“I was in every office of every teacher every week, asking [questions], doing my outline, skipping football games, going out maybe every once in a while, and I didn’t do enough? It put me in a place or a mindset I didn’t know how to recover from,” she said.

To deal with it all, Speer decided to write a funny way of looking at what she was going through.

“I met so many different characters and went through so many different emotions. Had [someone] told me I was going to feel like this, I would have felt a little better knowing … beforehand that this [was] all the stuff I [would] go through,” she said. “So, I just literally wrote down [everything from] my first year of law school.”

It became therapeutic, and she sent it to a mentor.

“It was just a ‘Dear Future 1L, [first year of law school], Note to Myself.’ That’s how [the process of writing the book] started,” said Speer, 26.

The reception was so strong that she decided to write another chapter for her second (2L) and third (3L) years.

“By the time I finished law school and flunked the bar, I wrote a graduate chapter,” Speer said. “Then I wrote a bar-exam-prep diary at the end.”

“Real-Life Scenarios”

Speer’s mindset was that somebody is going to deal with what she dealt with and ask what law school was like for her. So, instead of telling people, she decided to give them something to read and to go by.

“I give you real-life scenarios, real things you’re going to encounter,” she said. “I wanted this book to be a reality check for people like me—people who had never been to law school, people who never had anyone in their immediate family go to law school, … [people who] don’t know what to expect.”

“Dear Future Lawyer: An Intimate Survival Guide for the Minority Female Law Student” is an “expectations book” that prepares law school students “for some of the people they’ll meet; the different mindsets, emotional mindsets they’ll go through, especially in the first year,” said Speer, who added that she doesn’t sugarcoat her experiences and she wants people to have “the real.”

The end of each chapter asks readers to “gut check themselves.”

“Don’t just read this. Talk to me. Have a conversation with me.” Speer said. “The book is written as a conversation about expectations, so it’s meant for you to have a conversation. I want people to write in those pages. … This book gives you the information you need from me and gives me information I need from you to make you better.

“It’s a book in which you can actually express [yourself] and hear from somebody without being interrupted. … It’s like a safe space for you to actually be uninterrupted with whatever happened in your life, your law school experiences, or your … truth without having somebody say, ‘Oh, wait, let me tell you about mine.’ This is a place where you can put down your innermost thoughts, just like I put down my innermost thoughts.”

Speer’s book is written for female minority law students “sitting in a classroom, feeling, ‘I don’t know how to do any of this. Sometimes I feel like the people here think less of me. Sometimes I feel like the people in here don’t understand how much I can add to the conversation. Most times I don’t even feel like I deserve to sit in this seat.’ … It’s for that woman. It’s also for the same girl that got up there and finished anyway.”

Speer graduated from Homewood High School in 2010 and attended Howard University, where she double majored in psychology and French; she focused on the two subjects she was interested in during high school.

“I became fluent in French,” she said, “and psychology was just good to understand people’s minds.”

After graduating from Howard, she attended the UA School of Law.

Start Your Own Business

Before starting her own firm, Speer said she could not find a job. During her search, she recalled something a mentor said to her: “I don’t really see you working for anybody. I see you starting your own business.”

That’s exactly what Speer did. She opened Neena R. Speer Law Firm LLC in April 2018.

“By the time I got to January of this year, I was like, ‘I can do this!’ I felt so good that I could do it. … I just felt more confident,” said Speer, who also is a motivational speaker and a mentor through her mentoring program called Step 1-2-3.

“Dear Future Lawyer: An Intimate Survival Guide for the Minority Female Law Student” is available at Amazon.com (search for the book title) and Speer’s website, https://www.neenathelastbrand.com, where you can also find out more about her.

For more author stories, click one of the links below. 

Jayla Groom penned book after seeing her mom’s ‘wanted’ mugshot on Crimestoppers

Mother and 7 year old daughter encourage girls to see beauty; not differences

Khalil Saadiq wrote book that he says “will read you”

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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  1. Synnachia Mcqueen

    Synnachia Mcqueen

    August 5, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    Congratulations!!!!

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Birmingham Promise Education program exceeded expectations, city officials say

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — The Birmingham Promise Initiative, launched this summer to build pathways into quality jobs for Birmingham City School (BCS) students, came to a successful conclusion last week, said city officials. Last week, 23 BCS students finished their apprenticeships at companies across the metro area and the program had an impact, said Mayor Randall Woodfin and Councilors on Tuesday.

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Birmingham City Council (Photo by: birminghamtimes.com)
Birmingham City Council (Photo by: birminghamtimes.com)

By Erica Wight

The Birmingham Promise Initiative, launched this summer to build pathways into quality jobs for Birmingham City School (BCS) students, came to a successful conclusion last week, said city officials.

Last week, 23 BCS students finished their apprenticeships at companies across the metro area and the program had an impact, said Mayor Randall Woodfin and Councilors on Tuesday.

“There’s now more work to do to make sure that many more high school students can participate in this program, so I’m proud of the success of the pilot but . . . I’m looking forward to engaging parents directly, students directly and employers about these opportunities and so to employers,” Woodfin said.

“Our economy is changing and you all talk about your gaps in workforce, here’s an opportunity to close that workforce gap . . . our parents need to know these options exist before their children walk across the stage and to our children who have the passion, as a city we’re here to support your dreams and make them come true before you walk across the stage.”

Councilor John Hilliard said during Tuesday’s council meeting, “We must change our direction of how we deal with education . . . we have to meet the demand the corporate community is asking. A four-year education is important but it’s not the only way to go . . . I think it’s important we instill in our young people a different type of work ethic and give them the opportunity on the front end rather than the back end to make things happen.”

The seven-week summer pilot is part of the larger Birmingham Promise Initiative, which will offer multiple pathways for Birmingham students to “earn and learn” as they develop skills to prepare for jobs in industries that are growing in the regional economy.

The inaugural apprenticeships involved a vocational education component and work-based learning opportunities that were guided by a mentor. The pilot was complemented by the City of Birmingham’s partnership with Southern New Hampshire University, a national leader in delivering digital education to youth, the Jefferson County Commission on Economic Opportunity (JCCEO) and the city’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity.

Councilor Wardine Alexander said the Birmingham Promise prepares students to be college and career ready.

“When I served on the Board of Education, I had the pleasure to shake the hands of every student who graduated from the City of Birmingham… I think the mayor will remember we had one board member who would always ask the students as they were going through the line, ‘what’s your next goal’ and often students were not able to tell us what their goal was or what they were going to do,” said Alexander.

Birmingham Promise gave students the opportunity to work with Fortune 500 companies, earn a salary and have an idea of what they were going to do, Alexander said.

Council President Valerie Abbott, who attended graduation ceremony for the students along with Mayor Randall Woodfin, Alexander and Hilliard, said she was inspired by the students.

“Just to see those young people, they were full grown adults and doing those jobs, it was very impressive,” said Abbott. “We do need more people in the corporate community, but businesses of any kind can use an intern. It doesn’t have to be a corporation… we have so many students to benefit from that opportunity and only a handful got to participate in this pilot. We need hundreds of businesses to take on these young people so they can learn. I was just inspired by the quality of the young people and how inspired they were and their level of enthusiasm was just wonderful. I think we all need to encourage as many businesses as we can to participate.”

The following employers participated in the Birmingham Promise pilot program this summer:

  • Alabama Futures Fund
  • Alabama Power Company
  • Altec
  • Baptist Princeton
  • BIG Communications
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Brasfield & Gorrie
  • Encompass Health
  • HOAR Construction
  • Mayer
  • Pack Health
  • Protective
  • Renasant Bank
  • Regions
  • Shipt
  • Spire
  • Vincent’s
  • Theranest
  • UAB
  • Vulcan Materials

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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Meet Birmingham’s Felicia Johnson, President of American Business Women’s Association

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — As national president of the American Business Women’s Association (ABWA), Birmingham’s Felicia Johnson helps women grow through leadership, education, networking support, and national recognition. Johnson was elected last fall, and said her journey to the presidency has a lot to do with her service in the Magic City.

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Felicia Johnson (Photo by: birminghamtimes.com)
Felicia Johnson (Photo by: birminghamtimes.com)

By Ameera Steward

As national president of the American Business Women’s Association (ABWA), Birmingham’s Felicia Johnson helps women grow through leadership, education, networking support, and national recognition. Johnson was elected last fall, and said her journey to the presidency has a lot to do with her service in the Magic City.

“For me to be able to win, it’s phenomenal,” said Johnson, who joined the ABWA in 2003. “It’s awesome to know that people have that much confidence in me to [elect me] to lead this association.

“I’ve served in every leadership role on the local level. … When you do that, you get to interact with people, and people watch you over the years. When you look at where I came from and [see that] our chapter is not a large chapter, it’s special to get the [national vote].”

Johnson has served as president of the ABWA’s Birmingham chapter three times, beginning in 2006, and she was recently voted president for a fourth time this year.

“I’ve been in the association for more than 16 years, so over the course of that time people have watched me grow … [and] watched me at different events,” she said. “I think a lot of it has to do with personality, leadership skills, how well you get along with others.”

In addition to working on the local level, Johnson was instrumental in forming the ABWA’s Alabama Council in 2014, which is made up of chapters from Montgomery, Huntsville, Birmingham, and Anniston. She served as committee chair of the statewide council for 2014 and 2016, attending regional and national meetings to become more involved. Eventually, women on the national board asked if Johnson would consider a leadership position.

“After interacting with different people, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can do something,’” she said. “So, I decided I would try.”

Johnson was elected ABWA president during the group’s 69th National Women’s Leadership Conference in Augusta, Ga., in October 2018. She also serves as the trustee for a foundation through which the association provides scholarships for women.

As national president of the Kansas City-based ABWA, Johnson oversees a nine-member executive board and six districts, each of which is represented by a vice president: “All of us together govern … all of the women across the U.S.,” she said.

Musically Inclined

Johnson, 58, was born and raised on the east side of Birmingham, where W.C. Patton Park is now located. She graduated from Carol W. Hayes High School in 1979. She attended Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville, where she was a biology major with a minor in chemistry; she graduated in 1983. During her time in college, she played baritone saxophone in the jazz and concert bands, in addition to playing tenor sax in the marching band—where she made history as TSU’s first female drum major in 1981.

“I love music: I sing, and I play. Music is a very important part of my life,” said Johnson, who is a lead singer and an alto with the W.J. Nickols Gospel Ensemble, a community choir in Birmingham that she’s been with for about 15 years, as well as with the Bernard Bowden Voices of Faith, a group she’s been part of for the past four years.

She also plays piano at her church, Mt. Sinai Baptist Church on 14th Avenue North in Birmingham, where her husband of eight years, James Johnson, is the pastor.

“If you’re ever around me for long, I’ll be singing,” she said. “I’ve always got a song in my head. … Music is ingrained in me.”

In fact, Johnson grew up in a musical family. Her father, John Carter, who passed away two years ago, was a musician and singer who played trombone and sang at Ullman High School and at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in East Lake on Kentucky Avenue. And her mother, Hattie Carter, sings at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

Johnson’s siblings, two sisters and one brother, are musically inclined, as well. Her brother, John G. Carter, is the leader of and a singer with the Bernard Bowden Voices of Faith and also plays trombone, which he’s played since high school. Her older sister plays “any woodwind or reed instrument, such as the bassoon, oboe, and clarinet,” but she doesn’t sing. Her youngest sister, who sings and plays the piano and clarinet, sometimes serves as a backup musician at her church in Chicago.

“Music has been in our household throughout my life,” Johnson said. “All my life, when I sing, especially when I do gospel, it’s freeing and allows me to let the spirit of God that’s in me hopefully minister to other people.”

Her love of music goes beyond family and church, too. Johnson, who has been a business manager for AT&T Corp. since 1985, is also part of the Connie Carson AT&T Pioneer Singers, which is part of the AT&T Pioneers volunteer network. The group performs at company events, Christmas celebrations, and veteran’s parades, in addition to visiting and performing at nursing homes.

Joy of Reading

Johnson is also an avid reader. No matter what it the subject matter, “I love to read,” she said, adding that she is currently reading the ABWA’s two publications: Women in Business magazine and the Achieve newsletter.

She and her younger sister share their book lists, which they did recently, so Johnson is in the process of choosing something from her sister’s list. The last book Johnson read was Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.”

“I love that book. … It was a good read,” she said, adding that she recently finished “An American Marriage,” as a light read.

Johnson loves reading so much that she also works with Better Basics, a program that provides literacy intervention and enrichment activities for students in area schools. She reads to second graders through the “Ready to Read” initiative “… just [to] give students a love for reading,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You can go anywhere in your mind when you read.’”

Providing Service

In all areas of her life—whether through her work with the AWBA or her love of music and reading—Johnson has a passion for service. She is a board member with the James Lewis Tennis Scholarship Foundation, which gives “children from the inner city a love for tennis” and has an educational component. She has been with the foundation for nine years and currently serves as its vice president.

Johnson has been a mentor with the Dannon Project, a mentorship program and nonprofit organization that helps unemployed or underemployed at-risk youth and nonviolent offenders reentering society, for six years. She has served as scholarship brunch chair for the TSU Alumni Association for the last two years. She is president of the South Cahaba Council of the AT&T Pioneers volunteer network that works in the community. She’s a professional clown, too.

Johnson is known as FeFe Felicity the clown, and she appears at the children’s parade during Mardi Gras in Mobile, visits nursing homes, and participates in Veteran’s Day parades. She has been a clown for 10 years and is part of a clown alley, a term used to describe a group of clowns. She is a member of the Magic City Town Clowns, as well as an AT&T Pioneer clown.

“A lot of my volunteer work is done in association with AT&T Pioneers, but … I am owner of the name and business [of] FeFe Felicity, so I can do paid events [and] volunteer,” Johnson said, adding that FeFe is for anyone that wants to have a good time, not just children.

“FeFe gives you fun, honey. … Just a bundle of fun.”

Speaking of children, they are a big part of Johnson’s life. She and her husband have a total of 11 children from previous marriages, 17 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

“We’re a blended family,” she said. “We take [the grandchildren] as they come. … We still have five children that haven’t had any children, so there’s potential to grow.”

Johnson said service “gives her a fulfillment that she is able to give back.”

“I feel like I’m helping people, especially around education,” she said. “I think education is the only thing that will allow you to move forward. Once you get it in [your mind], nobody can take it from you.

“Being able to give back and help other people see the importance of education helps [them] grow. I think we ought to be able to bring somebody up … and send them on to go farther than [we’ve gone].”

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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Rebuilding Titusville Community with $300M in Investments

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — Picture the Titusville you grew to know and love, a place with miles of land and even more potential. There’s a sense of nostalgia watching so many walk the sidewalks, possibly just as people did where you grew up. Greenery catches the eye, until it’s interrupted by the sight of a vacant lot or a vacant home. Though soulless apartment buildings occupy many spaces, a taste of what once was still lingers in the air. There’s a strong sense of history but not much to commemorate it.

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The Villas at Titusville located on Goldwire Street South West in North Titusville (Ameera Steward, The Birmingham Times)
The Villas at Titusville located on Goldwire Street South West in North Titusville (Ameera Steward, The Birmingham Times)

By Ameera Steward

Picture the Titusville you grew to know and love, a place with miles of land and even more potential. There’s a sense of nostalgia watching so many walk the sidewalks, possibly just as people did where you grew up. Greenery catches the eye, until it’s interrupted by the sight of a vacant lot or a vacant home. Though soulless apartment buildings occupy many spaces, a taste of what once was still lingers in the air. There’s a strong sense of history but not much to commemorate it.

Now envision this same space with newfound light and life. Apartment buildings filled with love and community. A house built by generations of a family occupying a once-empty landscape. Black-owned businesses emerging from the shadows of blight and years of poverty.

Welcome to new and improved Titusville community, which is now undergoing $300 million in redevelopment that includes Atlanta, Ga.-based data center provider DC BLOX Inc. opening its flagship hub data center at the former Trinity Steel site in the historic Birmingham community.

And there’s more.

  • King Manor and Montevallo Gardens along Third Avenue Southwest have merged to form the University Crossings apartment complex, which will provide safe housing for veterans and those with low incomes.
  • Loveman Village—now known as the Villas at Titusville and undergoing construction by the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District (HABD)—is currently in the midst of phase one of a renovation that includes 100 units planned for completion by the fall; phase two will include 64 new units and should be complete in the summer of 2020.
  • The former Center Street Middle School was purchased by Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School, which is making significant upgrades to improve the facility for its students and the surrounding community.

More Diversity

Titusville, a neighborhood nestled between the University of Alabama (UAB) to the east and Elmwood Cemetery to the west, launched the careers of politicians, college presidents, prize-winning journalists, and international bankers. It was home to prominent local leaders, such as African American architect Wallace Rayfield, who designed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church downtown Birmingham, and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It was one of the first neighborhoods in Birmingham where African Americans were allowed to own residential and commercial property.

“A lot of good things are coming to Titusville, a lot of good jobs. … No matter where you go, there will be great housing, great job opportunities, great developments, great opportunities to develop businesses,” said Crystal Smitherman, 25, who was born and raised in Titusville and now represents the area as the District 6 Birmingham City Council member.

“I’m excited because I think new housing will bring millennials, young families. It will still keep the integrity of the community, but it’ll also bring more life and more diversity.

She added, “Certainly, DC BLOX will push employee traffic to the area. Employees will opt to exercise at Memorial Park or use the walking trail to enhance their fitness routines. For decades, that property has been dormant. Now lights cut into the darkness. You can even see the red rooftop [of DC BLOX] from the street—it’s Titusville’s first skyscraper.”

Approximately eight developments are expected to be completed within the next few years, beginning in North Titusville with DC BLOX. The University Crossings apartment complex has just two more units to complete; the Davenport and Harris Funeral Home, located on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, is expanding; Center Court apartments on Fifth Avenue will be demolished; and lights at Memorial Park around its baseball field are being repaired.

Improved Sidewalks And Safety

Jefferson County District 2 Commissioner Sheila Tyson, who represents the area, said, with all the current changes being made the community will soon be unrecognizable.

“Neighborhood Housing Services [of Birmingham Inc. (NHSB)] has plans to redevelop some homes [in Titusville], as well as develop streetscape plans [to improve] sidewalks and lighting,” she said.

NHSB stabilizes urban neighborhoods in Birmingham and surrounding areas by promoting personal financial empowerment and home ownership.

Improving quality of life in the area and providing safe and affordable housing for residents were among Tyson’s main focuses when she served as a city councilor for the area, beginning in 2013.

“All I wanted was [University Crossings] remodeled and people living there, but I wanted security too,” she said. “I didn’t want another Montevallo Gardens, [an apartment complex on Third Avenue Southwest that is now part of University Crossings], where we were having so many problems. I wanted [residents] to have security.”

University Crossings will have 24-hour security, as well as police officers onsite not only walking the premises but also living among the residents.

The former King Manor and Montevallo Gardens were combined to create University Crossings, which is housing some tenants while construction is ongoing. Other amenities in the apartment complex include matching appliances, as well as a day care facility and workforce development center. It also has a storage unit that is shared with the Villas at Titusville apartments.

“To secure the [Villas at Titusville] property, [the HABD] closed off certain areas to prevent people from running between apartments,” Tyson said. “Porches were redesigned so they’re not too big; they’re big enough for you to be able to talk to your neighbor but not so big that people can gather and hang out all day long. [The Villas at Titusville also] will get an air-conditioned recreation center, in addition to day care and workforce development centers.”

The HABD will provide the remaining $500,000 for the Villas at Titusville Early Childhood Development Program, which is expected to be completed within 12 months, through its capital improvements fund budget; the agency also recently announced that it has secured a $500,000 grant to renovate the existing onsite day care center facility.

Other HABD plans include the construction of approximately six houses on the property behind the Titusville Library on Sixth Avenue, as well as the development of 56 lots on which new affordable homes will be built. For these efforts, the HABD has partnered with the Birmingham Land Bank Authority, which transforms vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties into areas that increase community and overall … property values.

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Memorial Park

Units in Titusville’s Memorial Park have been remodeled to include new floors; the complex also has a new pool, air conditioning in the gym, and fresh dugouts on the baseball field.

Another plus: DC BLOX recently opened its flagship hub data center on Sixth Street South across from Memorial Park. The initial investment is for 20 jobs with the potential to grow up to $785 million in capital investment. In addition, Tyson asked DC BLOX for a 15-year agreement to install a computer lab in the Memorial Park recreation center, which resulted in company officials promising to not only update the computers but also buy chairs, tables, and a printer for the facility.

“On my side, during my time on the City Council, I promised to install the alarm system to secure the [facility],” Tyson said. “[We have] $18,000 for the security system and the Wi-Fi.”

Other improvements in the Memorial Park area include remodeling of the Golden Flake Snack Foods plant, located down the road at the end of Golden Flake Drive, as well as expansions of both the Smith and Gaston and Davenport and Harris funeral homes.

Aside from seeing homes built and businesses expanded, Titusville will also see transportation improvements, such as bus depots or shelters and parking lots. Metro Area Express (MAX) Transit, the bus system operated by the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), has plans for Titusville as part of its $20 million grant that will be used to place Birmingham Bus Rapid Transit Project (BRT Project) hubs throughout the city, including across from Davenport and Harris Funeral Home on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Third Avenue Southwest.

According to birminghamtransitprogram.org, “The … [BRT Project] will be a modern, enhanced transit line through Birmingham’s Jones Valley along the U.S. [Highway] 11 corridor. … It will connect 25 neighborhoods to services and provide residents with greater access to opportunities.”

Rebirth

When work is completed in North Titusville, efforts will begin in South Titusville and Woodland Park, Tyson said.

“If there are any vacant lots in South Titusville that can get under land banking, we will get those lots through HABD and build over there.”

For Smitherman, the rebirth of Titusville is personal. She is responsible for ensuring that the housing development is on schedule.

“I’m kind of the liaison between District 6 nonprofits and businesspeople in the city,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get in touch with the city if you don’t know somebody there.”

For example, Navigate Affordable Housing Partners Inc.—a nonprofit group that focuses on ensuring safe, quality, affordable housing by focusing on the unique needs of specific neighborhoods—recently boarded up the apartments behind Westminster Presbyterian Church and the Titusville Library. Smitherman is partnering with Navigate to develop new housing, some of which will be rebuilt with support from the organization.

“That’ll help the city with demolition costs,” she said.

The Titusville Development Corp. (TDC), founded in 1984 to maintain, revitalize, and develop the community, is bringing approximately 50 new houses to North Titusville, as well, Smitherman said.

“Those are the main two nonprofits involved right now,” she said. “It’s very encouraging to see people taking pride in the community.”

Smitherman has been working with Titusville as an official since January 2019, when she was sworn in as a Birmingham City Council member as the representative for District 6, where she has lived her entire life.

“[This community] will always have a special place in my heart. We renovated my granny’s house, and just to see her … property looking a lot better means a lot. … I think [this] will bring a lot of attraction,” she said, adding that the Sixth Avenue corridor is “ripe for restaurants, gas stations, shoe shops. … The possibilities are limitless.”

Growing Toward the Future

In addition to rebuilding and renovating, Titusville is preparing for the future, part of which involves bringing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) opportunities to the community. Last month, Smitherman met with leaders involved with UAB’s Core Curriculum, particularly those in the areas of math and science, to discuss ways to help Washington K-8 School become a STEM-focused school, as well as improve reading and math skills among “every age group.”

“If you help every age group, you can chip away at the bad habits people have, such as not knowing how to build up credit or buy a house. I think it’s very important to educate people,” said Smitherman, adding that community-wide education efforts for residents of all ages—preschoolers to seniors—could start as early as next fall, and programs will be offered both during and after the school day.

What’s best for Titusville is best for the entire city, said elected officials.

“When you improve Titusville, you will improve West End, Smithfield,” said Tyson. “All the communities over here will be affected by this.”

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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Here Are Some of the Rising Developments in Titusville

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — Ronald Bayles may not live in the Titusville community, but it is where he has attended church for the past 30 years and where he spends most of his time as executive director of the Titusville Development Corp. (TDC).

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Lisa McCarroll, CEO, Navigate Affordable Housing Partners, Inc. (Ameera Steward, The Birmingham Times)
Lisa McCarroll, CEO, Navigate Affordable Housing Partners, Inc. (Ameera Steward, The Birmingham Times)

By Ameera Steward

Ronald Bayles may not live in the Titusville community, but it is where he has attended church for the past 30 years and where he spends most of his time as executive director of the Titusville Development Corp. (TDC).

“It’s very personal for me [to be] in a place that was once cited as one of the most blighted neighborhoods in the state and see the changes,” Bayles said. “We’re at the place where change is literally happening.”

“We’re here to fix the blight and pass the knowledge so the blight does not happen the same way it has in other neighborhoods,” he said. “We want to make sure that what we do in this community is something that is both viewed and received by the residents as a … collective effort.”

The TDC has been in existence for 35 years, maintaining, revitalizing, and developing the area. One of the top priorities, Bayles said, is to replace, preserve, and rehabilitate the housing stock in North Titusville.

“We’re going to do that through … rehabbing homes that are currently existing and offering critical repairs for current homeowners … [through] a partnership with the city and other equity partners like [Navigate Affordable Housing Partners Inc.],” said Bayles. “We’re looking to offer funds to people who qualify to actually work on their particular homes.”

Bayles, who attends Living Church Ministries on Omega Street in Titusville, said he’s in the community at least six days out of the week and has worked with the TDC for the past 11 years. His team is looking at a “holistic revitalization.”

“It’s not just building with sticks and bricks,” he said. “It’s making sure we are actually dealing with people.”

For example, the TDC plans to be more specific with its Greek Street Initiative, which has been in the planning process for the last two years. Titusville’s Greek Streets are a series of streets named with letters of the Greek alphabet — Kappa, Iota, Theta, and Omega — by the community’s founder.

The Greek Streets Initiative is a 50-house development of workforce housing priced between $140,000 and $200,000 on each Greek street and is part of the Titusville Community Framework Plan, an effort supported by funding from the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham (RPCGB) and the Birmingham Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Building Communities Program that involves mixed-income housing, said TDC Director of Housing Development Archibald Hill.

The Framework Plan was presented first as an existing condition report and then developed and adopted by the community to be conducted in three phases: community assessment, public involvement, and plan development and action; the final draft was presented to the Birmingham Planning Commission in 2015.

“This is not something the TDC is just jumping into and doing,” Hill said. “This is something we are assisting with.”

The TDC isn’t the only entity investing in the Titusville renaissance. Other nonprofits and businesses plan to participate, as well. Here are some of their proposed plans.

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Navigate Affordable Housing Partners

Navigate Affordable Housing Partners Inc. is a Birmingham-based nonprofit that has taken an interest in Titusville for several reasons. The location, for starters, said Navigate CEO Lisa McCarroll.

“Sixth Avenue is a significant portion of the … [Birmingham Bus Rapid Transit Project (BRT Project)] they are starting to build. It’s also historic, … [it has] proximity to downtown Birmingham, and … it’s got defined boundaries,” she said. “Many of the other communities in Birmingham sprawl. … We wanted something we could get our hands around, … [something through which] whatever efforts we took could be seen by the community. … We wanted something that was meaningful.”

Navigate—a nonprofit group that focuses on ensuring safe, quality, affordable housing by focusing on the unique needs of specific neighborhood—plans to start small, working with the Center Court apartments on Fifth Avenue Southwest, behind the Titusville Library. The group said, “We’re going to involve the community here, [asking them], ‘What type of housing?’” said McCarroll.

“Some folks may say senior housing, but what does that … look like? They may say single-family, but that could be duplexes, that could be town houses. We’re trying to figure out what [all of that] means [to and for the residents],” she said.

Navigate Planning and Development Coordinator Matthew Churnock added that the first step is to demolish existing units and then leave the site as an open canvas for the community or leave one of the buildings on the property for a community mural project.

“We’re probably at least a month out from breaking ground on a new project, so we don’t want to leave it as a vacant site for the next year,” said Churnock. “The intent is to work with the community to reprogram that site into an amenity while we wait on redevelopment plans.”

He added that Navigate is planning an event to kick off the mural campaign on August 15, if it can get permits in time. The group is working with the community to figure out the highest quality and best use for properties, “whether it’s family or senior housing, town houses, or single-family,” he said.

Navigate also recently closed on the Marc Steel Company Building on Sixth Street next to DC BLOX, where the group would like to redevelop a few single-family homes.

“The other part of redeveloping homes and helping revitalize a community [involves good schools]. People move where there are good schools,” said McCarroll. “We’ve been partnering … with Washington [k-8] School [on improvements]; that has included everything from helping paint during the summer to participating in some of their programs to reading to the children.”

McCarroll said Navigate wants to do its part for Titusville, which she calls a “jewel.”

“When you place on top of that the folks that live in this community, the people who care about it and want to see it stabilize and do better [things will move forward],” she said. “With all the efforts that are happening, … as long as we’re all pulling together—and from my standpoint, we are—as long as we’re moving in the same direction, it’s a win-win not only for this community but for South Titusville and Birmingham in general.”

Davenport and Harris Funeral Home

All three Davenport and Harris Funeral Home buildings across from Elmwood Cemetery on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive are being renovated.

“This will help transform the Titusville community from what is considered a low-income community to a historic designation,” said Titusville resident and Davenport and Harris President Marion Sterling. “It’s going to also change the landscape of how we look as a community. The visual landscape will change.”

Sterling, 64, was born and raised in South Titusville, where he still lives. He recalls when Avenue F became Sixth Avenue.

“That is what I remember as being a spark of change,” he said. “There’s been a lot of change in the community. When I was growing up, the yards were pristine, the homes were very well kept, there was not much blight. … Now, I think the revitalization is not only with businesses but also within the community. I think there’s a different level of respect in movement now. … I think it’s returning to what it was like when I was a child.”

Looking at the funeral home from Elmwood Cemetery, Davenport and Harris will have three buildings. The first will support funeral and/or cremation services. The second will be utilized as a community life center for events, such as repasts, the gathering of family and friends after a funeral, and community meetings; it also will have a nonprofit to support seminars and events for youth and seniors. The third building will be used as a second chapel.

In addition to helping with the renewal in Titusville, Sterling said the changes will offer options for families.

“Today, most families are restricted to communicating with churches for locations, but some family members are not members of a church, so they often have to look for a repast location,” he said.

“Outside of churches, there are few community life centers where families can hold events. … There also are very few facilities in the city of Titusville or across Birmingham where groups can host seminars for our youth; they usually have to contract with large facilities like the Boutwell [Auditorium]. … Now, [our facility] will be available,” Sterling said.

“We’re hoping our renovation will spark other businesses to come into the area.”

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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Kingston Teaching Farm Renamed in Memory of Richard “Dick” Pigford

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — 

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A group photo of everyone who attended the dedication to Richard "Dick" Pigford in the Kingston Teaching Farm (Ameera Steward, The Birmingham Times)

By Ameera Steward

Following a moving ceremony in Kingston attended by family, friends and members from some of the city’s leading organizations, the legacy of architect Richard I. Pigford, also known as “Dick,” will live for generations.

On Wednesday, the Kingston Teaching Farm located on Center Street North was renamed the “Richard Ireland Pigford Memorial Kingston Teaching Farm” in memory of Mr. Pigford, a Kingston Coalition charter member, who passed March 31 of this year.

“Communities were so important to him,” said his wife, Dana. “He loved Birmingham, he loved this area, the people that he worked with here he had a great fondness for …  going forward this could be the structure to help other communities that are at risk and even those communities that aren’t at risk, teaching them how to come together.”

Ella Pigford, his sixteen-year-old granddaughter, remembered helping him in one of the gardens and was touched by the number of people at the ceremony.

“I’m happy that he’s done so much for so many communities,” she said. “[His work] makes me think that I can do more for my community, it shows me what I can do for my community and it shows me the communities that he cared for, it makes me want to help them more. It inspires me to do more and want to do more when I grow up,” she said.

Individuals from a number of organizations who worked with Pigford toward healthier communities were in attendance including UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center (UAB MHRC), the Kingston Coalition and the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District (HABD).

“This garden was just a tiny piece of what Mr. Pigford did in Kingston,” said Tiffany Osborne, director of community engagement for UAB MHRC. “He worked on projects, he invested funds, he helped us go after funds so that we could do programs and projects, there’s another community garden that he invested in, just other little things that he did…and I think that that’s really important for people to know.”

Partnerships

Working in the community, meant people working together with Mr. Pigford, Osborne said.

Jay Pigford, son (left) and Dana Pigford, wife (right) (Ameera Steward, The Birmingham Times)

Jay Pigford, son
(left) and Dana Pigford, wife (right) (Ameera Steward, The Birmingham Times)

“[He] was not one to just do, he wanted the residents working alongside of him because this is one of the communities that we work in to try and encourage the community to come work together . . . and Mr. Pigford was good about doing that,” she said. “He connected the neighborhood to representatives from UAB who assisted Kingston to help identify projects and agree on priorities. So, it is no surprise that the teaching farm is located on the Morton Simpson site.”

Adrian Peterson-Fields, HABD COO called the ceremony a “momentous” occasion.

“I grew up in Birmingham, I know what this looked like before and to see [the] teaching farm in honor of and memory of Mr. Pigford” and now to see the fruits of his labor in the teaching farm is crucial, she said.

“We all know that the Kingston area is in a food desert and so these type of foods as we begin to harvest and bring forth; we’ll be able to assist our residents,” said Fields.

Lovie Crawford, president of the Kingston Neighborhood Association, said Pigford was a “true, divine man and his belief was beautifying people…his work speaks for itself, this teaching farm here as well is a dream of his…we will forever remember Dick and all the good things he’s done.”

Beyond The Garden

A lot of Pigford’s work went beyond the teaching garden, said those in attendance.

“He was very interested in violence reduction,” said Dr. Mona Fouad, professor, and director of UAB MHRC. “We were looking at projects to see how can we impact violence reduction so children, and young people, and older people in the community can freely enjoy this beautiful neighborhood.”

Part of Pigford’s legacy, she said, is that the National Institutes of Health has provided UAB with additional funding to create a violence reduction program in Kingston. She added that her department’s Grand Challenge win [part of UAB’s strategic plan that united university activities with community partners] will help the MHRC help bring resources to Kingston.

Others in attendance included, Erica Williams, director of educational advancement for the city of Birmingham and Cathy Adamas, board member of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.“When we asked the [Kingston Coalition] what we should do to honor Dick and his work, unanimously everybody voted to [rename the teaching farm] and it’s going to stay forever,” Fouad said. “We’re going to make sure it’s going to stay like this and even get bigger…and impact all the residents here.”

“I kept thinking that it’s just not fair that he’s not here and then I just heard this voice saying ‘of course he’s here, he’ll always be here,’” said Adams who has known Pigford for 50 years. “This wouldn’t be here without him and it will go on because of him…I am so grateful for every minute I was able to spend with him.”

Jay Pigford, Mr. Pigford’s son, said his father would be honored by the dedication.

“He would be more proud that it’s a great honor for the community and what they’re doing here, and creating a legacy for future generations here on this property,” said Jay Pigford. “This seems like a great gift to Kingston but really the Kingston community was such a huge part of his life and a gift to him.”

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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Miles College welcomes interim president Bobbie Knight   

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — Miles College on Thursday prepared to say farewell to one member of the school’s family and embrace another. The institution welcomed Interim President Dr. Bobbie Knight and began a farewell to her predecessor Dr. George T. French Jr. who is leaving the Birmingham area to become president of Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Bobbie Knight, Miles College interim president, and Dr. George T. French, Jr., outgoing president, are shown before a press conference in Fairfield, Ala. (Photo by Mark Almond)
Bobbie Knight, Miles College interim president, and Dr. George T. French, Jr., outgoing president, are shown before a press conference in Fairfield, Ala. (Photo by Mark Almond)

By Erica Wright

Miles College on Thursday prepared to say farewell to one member of the school’s family and embrace another.

The institution welcomed Interim President Dr. Bobbie Knight and began a farewell to her predecessor Dr. George T. French Jr. who is leaving the Birmingham area to become president of Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Knight will become the first female president of Miles College in the school’s 121 year history.

“I deliberated long and hard after I got over the initial shock of being asked to consider this opportunity and I have continuously prayed for the wisdom, strength and courage it will take to lead this institution with integrity, compassion and a servant’s heart,” said Knight, during a press conference.

The retired Alabama Power executive who is also chair of the Board of Managers for the Birmingham Times Media Group was named as interim president by the Board of Trustees on July 17.

“During this transition, the job before me is clear; first, to serve the students of Miles College by ensuring they receive a quality education, that they are equipped with the tools they need to be successful here and in the future and that they enjoy a safe and fulfilling campus life. Second, my job is to maintain a fiscally sound institution, I have a business background and my plan is to use business principles and practices to keep this institution financially strong.”

Knight will begin her duties Sept. 1, when French leaves for Atlanta.

Knight said her plans for the college are to continue to encourage students to enroll in Miles and the community to support the school.

The interim president said she will “continue to encourage students to enroll in Miles College. Miles is here, we’re an asset to this community and we don’t want to lose our kids out-of-state or to other colleges when we have a great institution sitting right here.”

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The French Tenure

French will end his tenure at Miles on Friday, Aug.16. Miles has been his home for more than 23 years with nine years as Director of Development and the last 14 as president.

“Thank you for the opportunity to lead this great institution for the last 14 years, for the opportunity to lead in having record enrollments of this institution, for the opportunity to raise over $100 million at Miles College, for the opportunity to more than triple the size of our campus,” said French.

The outgoing president said he was grateful for his time in the metro area.

“I say thank you to the Birmingham community; I say thank you to the Alabama community; I say thank you to a governor who has been supportive, to mayors of Birmingham and Fairfield who have been supportive and to a corporate community that has been supportive of this institution, we say thank you,” he said. “Now after 14 years at the helm, it gives me great pleasure to turn over the reins to my friend, a distinguished corporate citizen, a lover of students and of education, the Interim President of Miles College, Bobbie Knight.”

French said he will continue to be a part of the Miles family and looks forward to forming a partnership between the two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“Clark Atlanta University saw what was going on at Miles College,” said French. “That research institution with 4,000 students was looking at Birmingham. They were looking at the relationship of alums to Miles College. They were looking at how we are turning this world upside down so we look forward to a partnership with Clark Atlanta University and Miles College. I’m looking for my students after they matriculate and walk across the stage with a bachelor’s degree, I’m looking for them to come to Clark Atlanta University for masters and doctoral degrees.”

Keila Lawrence, a senior and President of the Student Government Association at Miles, said the moment is bittersweet.

“Dr. French has been a visionary and I can only emulate and strive to be like him and his leadership because he’s done so much for Miles and it’s been great to work with him,” said Lawrence. “Of course, it’s bittersweet because he’s done so much, but he had the foresight and the board as well to elect Dr. Bobbie Knight and we’re really excited to work with her and it’s a new era for Miles and I’m truly excited to what’s to come in the future and what it holds.”

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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