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Podcast: Putting People First in Birmingham, AL with Ed Fields

Posted on February 7, 2020


Ed Fields

Ed Fields
Senior Advisor and Chief Strategist
City of Birmingham, Alabama
Bio | LinkedIn


Engagement from campaigning to governing. Ed Fields, Senior Advisor and Chief Strategist for the City of Birmingham, Alabama, joined the podcast to talk about how they engage residents in the work of local government. He also discussed transitioning a new mayoral administration and how he works to drive Mayor Woodfin’s agenda.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Learn More

Reigniting civic enthusiasm

Birmingham Strategic Plan

Birmingham Promise Initiative

Mayor Woodfin’s Office Website

Meet members of Mayor-Elect Randall Woodfin’s newly announced Leadership Team

Birmingham Mayor-elect Woodfin names executive leadership team


Episode Transcript

Ben Kittelson

Hi ya’ll. This is GovLove, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at the Novak Consulting Group and a GovLove co-host. We’ve got a great episode for you today. We’re going to talk engagement and we’re going to take a trip down to Birmingham, Alabama to do that. As a reminder for our listeners, if you want to support GovLove, the best way to do that is to become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. GovLove is looking for your feedback. Please visit GovLovesurvey.com and tell us a little about you and what you think about the podcast. Hearing from you will help us make GovLove even better. That’s GovLovesurvey.com. Thanks. Now let me introduce today’s guest. Ed Fields is a Senior Advisor and is Chief Strategist for the City of Birmingham, Alabama, a position he’s been in since November of 2017. Prior to joining the city, he served as Mayor Woodfin’s campaign manager. Before he ran that campaign, he was the, had a role as the Events and Community Engagement Director for the Alabama Media Group. At the Alabama Media Group he led marketing engagement programs that enhanced relationships with key community economic development agencies. Now Mr. Fields work involves getting residents of Birmingham involved in local government. So something that we’re really interested in at ELGL and GovLove. So with that, welcome to GovLove Mr. Fields. Thank you so much for joining us.

 

Ed Fields

Glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, of course. So we have a tradition on the podcast and we do a short lightning round to get to know our guests a little better. So my first question for you. What was the first concert that you went to?

 

Ed Fields

First concert I went to was Mary J. Blige “Real Love Tour”.

 

Ben Kittelson

Nice. [Laughter] And where do you go for inspiration?

 

Ed Fields

Man, I do a couple things but aside from disappearing in my mind, I do like to hike. So I find hiking to be incredibly therapeutic and inspirational.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. No, I like that. Is there a favorite, like you have if you are ever in the Birmingham area?

 

Ed Fields

Yeah, I think Ruffner Mountain is an urban hiking trail, with a lot of, a lot of hidden trails so to speak. It’s it’s right there, inside of our community in a neighborhood. It touches the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. And it truly is, it’s free as well. But it truly is a mix and a blend of Birmingham’s history, and it’s present, as we have a lot of new generation members, residents that are seeking to protect it and to grow its donor base. So I look forward to being a donor of that organization at some point in near future. Because I really believe that taking care of our homegrown physical spaces can really be transformative and really, really ground us. No pun intended, really ground, really ground us in in community.

 

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. So my next line of question for you, what’s the best advice you ever received?

 

Ed Fields

I don’t know about the best advice because there’s so many truths, right? But I remember doing Toastmasters as a high school student and it was a professional speaking organization. I was a really shy kid. And I started out incredibly shy in the back of the room. By the time I was a senior, I won Speaker of the Year and I will never forget the advisor to the Toastmaster chapter saying it, always remember speak from the heart. And so I’ve taken that with me if I’ve ever been uncertain about anything. This center myself, find my truth and just speak that truth from the heart and it’s been some of the best advice that’s carried me through a lot of interesting twists and turns in my career and in my life.

 

Ben Kittelson

That’s great. Yeah. That’s great advice. So the last lightning round question I have for you, what book are you currently reading?

 

Ed Fields

Well, I just finished “The Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek. It’s a great book. I’ll be doing a little writing on that myself. And so right now I’m currently trying to read or finish the four or five books currently in my read pile. There is an assorted amount. I’m sure that some of your listeners can relate to that.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. That sounds exactly like my, my problem. [Laughter] And so, so one thing I always like to do with guests that I have on the podcast is talking about their career path and into where they are now. And I think everyone has a different path into local government and for you, how did you end up you know, working for the City of Birmingham and being umm the Chief Strategist and Senior Advisor for the Mayor?

 

Ed Fields

Yeah, so as indicated in your opening, I did serve as campaign manager for the Mayor, but a candidate at that point. And it was really through… First of all, I’ve known the mayor for about 15 years through, through a variety of civic engagement in Birmingham, particularly around philanthropy, and communities of color, and in particularly young people under the age of 30. And so we met then as he was coming out of college and been on his journey to support, grow, celebrate Birmingham. And I’ve never had a particular interest in politics. But I have been involved in in the public sector. And so when he asked me to serve as his campaign manager, it was a little odd because I’ve never had any local political engagement. But I’d have been an operator for a lot of nonprofits, for small business, and for some professional associations, which means I just know how to run an org. And most importantly, I ended up in government because his agenda is so doggone dynamic and connected to my core values. And I believe in him, I support him. He’s my friend. He’s my brother. He’s my boss, somebody I thought that I could follow and support. So that’s how I ended up here. Like a lot of people end up in places of their passion. It’s just believing in a mission and believing in a person who could bring it to fruition, and that I uniquely can contribute to that.

 

Ben Kittelson

And we’ve had we’ve had, you know, candidates for elected office or elected officials come on the podcast before and talk about, you know, why they want to run for office and kind of that, and what it’s like to do that, but I don’t think we’ve already talked about that transition period. And so for kind of your perspective, like going from campaign manager to we gotta, we want now we got to set up like a an administration and figure out how to how to, you know, run the city. What was that like transition like, from going, you know, we got to get as many votes as we can, to or now we got to figure out what we’re going to do, like just the administration side, once we are formally in office?

 

Ed Fields

Sure. Well, there’s, there’s two components that have been, and the first is that I mean, this guy, this guy really wasn’t just running for mayor. He was actually planning to be mayor. So when we came into office, the agenda that had been developed, it was more than just campaign promises. These are like, seriously good things that we seriously planned to do. And so, with that in mind, we already knew some of the pieces that we needed going into office. A lot of people were caught off guard by Woodfin’s win. We were not. This was not like others, other upsets where somebody well got into it and hoped that they would win and we’re totally surprised and had to scramble to get their team together. The second component of my answer is related to getting the team together. We had a seven week gap from the time that Mayor Woodfin won on October 3rd 2017 to the time he actually took his oath on November 27. And in that time, we created a separate foundation 501 (c) (3) organization that was citizen led. We had a couple of very significant, credible leaders from our community that chaired the organization and then led a lot of transition committees, that were communities citizen led. We had committees ranging from public safety and neighborhood revitalization to social justice, and education. And those folks were actually the people who really helped advance and lift up the mayor’s agenda. While they were doing that, the Mayor Elect was recruiting his team, a mix of people that were already in the, in city government, and a bunch of folks like me who have not been in city government to have this this team with a diverse perspective. So the transition was healthy. It was, it was funded, it was it was separate from from the campaign. And so I found myself sort of running in three lanes at one time as we were shutting down the campaign, actively running the transition. And then onboarding into City Hall. It was an incredible time for, for me personally, and certainly for our administration.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, no, that’s so interesting. And what’s it like with integrating, you know, like you said, people like yourself that hadn’t worked in government before and, and, and people that are already in the city that are, you know, they probably had their marching orders from the previous Mayor, had the way they wanted to do things and now they’re, you know, adjusting and integrating with, you know, the the ideas for the new administration. What was kind of that dynamic like?

 

Ed Fields

It was twofold. Once again, the first is it’s been maddening at times, because it’s just a lot of change. There were two different dynamics at play when we came into office as it relates to current staff and then the folks that the mayor’s appointed. First, is that there was some real morale issues throughout the city. I’m talking about with merit system employees that not necessarily appointed people, but folks who have been around for a long time, and have had ideas that they felt were stagnant that felt like they just did not have the access to be able to influence what would happen or to see a career path forward. And so we worked really, really hard on the front end to communicate how important they were and to build small things in one regard like doing a “caught doing good” program when we start to recognize staff for the good that they were doing, or raising expectations for customer service and for the mayor’s office to actually lead by example, in answering the phones timely, responding to emails timely. These sound like small things, but in our city they had become virtually nonexistent in a many many spaces, not all throughout the whole city, but the city brand and the reputation was very, very poor. And so we worked to restore that. And by doing that we know loving on our staff. So that’s been good and positive. Most staff and employees have responded well to that. Some of the challenge has been, the progressive agenda, and the ideas that our mayor is challenging our city to employ, like smart technology, using data, finding ways to pull residents and citizens closer to the decision making process. Even for people who want to see that happen, it is uncomfortable because it requires a change of behavior. And so the skinny of it Ben has been a group of people who absolutely want their omelets, but absolutely don’t want their, their eggs broken. Yeah. So, you know, navigating those two different dynamics has been challenging, but it’s been fun.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Yeah. It’s so interesting. Thank you. Thanks for doing a little tangent there. That transition just seems like such a challenge. Especially like with, I don’t know with coming in and trying to you know, integrate what you want to do versus what people have done for a long time and like said like, rewarding behavior and changing interest is a it takes time. So yeah. Before we get into kind of some of the engagement work that you’re doing, I love the title Chief Strategist. [Laughter]

 

Ed Fields

Me too. It’s pretty cool.

 

Ben Kittelson

[Laughter] So what is, what is, how would you define what a Chief Strategist does? What’s kind of like your day to day? Because that’s obviously not, not a or at least in my experience hasn’t been a common title in local government. So what would you, can you tell our listeners like what, what that is and what kind of your day to day looks like?

 

Ed Fields

Yeah, well, my mother’s really impressed. [Laughter] So it’s interesting. So my, I have two titles as Senior Advisor and Chief Strategist. And my role as Senior Advisor is really just to drive the mayor’s agenda. It was a very broad in an ever God I show up in a lot of spaces depending on how l am needed, a troubleshooter, a cheerleader, a hammer, however that’s needed. A Chief Strategist is pretty clean. I’m truly peered and paired up with our Chief of Staff and Chief of Operations who run the day to day in the city. My job is to ensure that the mayor’s agenda is reflected in our priorities. So if we say that post-secondary education is important, what does that actually look like in terms of his time and his schedule? His messaging, our budget allocations in those directions, staffing alignment, I partner with those gentlemen who actually run the the day to day of the organization as it relates to his strategy. I wrote the strategic plan with the support of many different team members. It is my job to ensure that we’re hitting the metrics, that we are actually achieving things. And then the second lane I run in is around strategic communications, which is to provide some leadership for our Office of Public Information. We have a director there, and we have a lot of different vendors and partners that support certain initiatives. My job is to sort of keep a bird’s eye view and ensure that to the extent we can, we integrate those communication efforts. And to the extent that we cannot or that we will not that, we’re tracking and understand how our city is being perceived not just as an organization, but as an organism, you know, just the identity of this community. So I keep an eye on strategic communications broadly and then I zero in on a couple of specific issues. And then there, they’re just special initiatives that I work on. One of the key projects right now that the mayor has asked me to keep my eye on and be as proxy to, is the World Games. We have a major IOC, the International Olympic Committee’s sanctioned, multi-sport event coming to Birmingham in July of 2021. And we have an incredible effort, that’s taken our entire team, but I serve as the mayor’s proxy to that board to ensure that we’re looking at the relational dynamics between the partners at the table that interlock to our Chief of Operations who will effectively activate about 3500 people in support of this, this this event next year. And then our communications efforts make sure that the city, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, sponsors and many other entities are all in alignment as it relates to how we talk about Birmingham. So that’s, that’s the skinny of it. There’s a lot of but my day doesn’t look the same on a day to day basis. But these are the hot, the hot points.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah no, and that makes so much sense to align, you know, strategic communications with, you know, the strategic plan and then you’re figuring out how that works with the, you know, the operations of the city. Are there other departments saying that you end up kind of working closely with regularly or is it kind of depends on whatever special project is going on at a given time?

 

Ed Fields

I do have one other constant and that is our social justice or racial equity team. I am attached to them, they report to me specifically. So I mean, all together I have about 20 people that were may report to me. But there are about 3500 to 4000 employees, depending on the season, depending on the depending on the budget, throughout, throughout a year. So my slice of the pie is pretty small, and try to direct management is really not even my role. Again, we have two great leaders that do that. My job is to really protect and amplify the mayor’s agenda and to make sure we have a bench of leaders, whether it’s social justice or other places that can that can really carry that agenda. And even beyond the mayor’s tenure, how do we build a bench of leadership that survives in the city and creates a demand for excellence? Now that stuff is that’s not written in my title. But that is absolutely a big part of my role.

 

Ben Kittelson

Part of why I wanted to have you on was to talk about the work you guys are doing to engage residents in Birmingham. And, and when, when I was preparing for this interview, one of the things that I read was that part of what you guys were wanting to do is take the enthusiasm, y’all felt through the campaign and bring that into kind of the day to day of, of local government. So can you talk about maybe what the approaches around engagement and kind of maybe the transition from that campaign to governing and what that and how you wanted to, to figure out a way to involve residents in that process?

 

Ed Fields

I gotta tell you, Ben, this has been one of the most challenging parts of my work. It is challenging because we have a earned reputation at City Hall that precedes the Woodfin administration, that people don’t know how to navigate City Hall, City Hall is nappin particularly warm to residents and citizens and business owners, our customers effectively. And that city hall, the reality is that there are not enough structures that make it easy for people to on ramp or off ramp in the city hall. So for instance, we have about 120 boards and agencies at the city. The mayor has appointment power for about 20 to 25 of those. The rest lie with the City Council. I mean everything from the Airport Authority to Keep Birmingham Beautiful Commission to Historic Preservation, there’s so many and when you add the total budget of those organizations and what they touch is actually bigger than the City of Birmingham. That’s how significant boards and agencies are but most people don’t know what the full list looks like. They don’t know who’s on those boards and agencies. They don’t know what the qualifications are. And this is just one lane. And so what we sought to do was create some on ramps for people to at least be able to understand it, and then engage it. So we do now we now do quarterly boards and agencies trainings where we have our Governmental Affairs team. We do a three hour training about good board governance, ethics, things that everybody should know if they’re even thinking about serving on a board or agency. And then we have contracted with a company called Granicus. It is an online portal that allows people to not only apply but to also see who’s sitting on boards and when their terms are up and what the qualifications are. Like this is this is a transformational opportunity for us to open up City Hall and bring people in, but the product that we’re most excited about is called ACE. It’s it’s a civic engagement program that really does help people over a course of seven to nine weeks, get to know their city. They meet every single week. We bring heads of departments from our police chief to economic development to division of youth services, to sit and talk with residents. They do their presentation, they do Q&A. We have one week where they actually do a city hall tour, and come throughout and they actually meet with the City Council person, as well as the mayor. They come behind the scenes, if you will. They come all the way into our conference room area. I speak with them, our Chief of Staff will speak with them. They go into the bunker for emergency management. So they actually see the bunker, they see our 311 system, our 911 operators. We really try to demystify City Hall and make it accessible to them and also help them understand the cost of equipment and why trash schedules shift and things of that nature. It gets really granular. But when people finish, and we’d have 450 people go through this program since last year, they are truly astonished about how much they don’t know. And that includes some city employees that go through the program. So we’re we are very excited about our ACE program. We think as an exemplar, we studied other cities that have these sort of leadership or open programs that bring in all sorts of folks and ours is definitely one of the larger ones because of the number of people we are engaging in it in a short period of time.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, such a great way those, I think there’s depending on the city, they’re called, you know, Citizen Academies or Neighborhood College as ones that I’ve heard before. But what a great way to get like, you know, hands on experience and understanding the nuts and bolts of all the different aspects of the local government and a great way to help people understand how they can get involved and and maybe run for office someday or, or whatever.

 

Ed Fields

Yeah, well and I mean, one of the cool things that we’ve is our program is called Academy of Civic Engagement. And then, in our second iteration, we found that some of the presentations were not as exciting. So we made some modifications, we had our equipment management guide, instead of doing a PowerPoint presentation, we turn their presentation into a price of, Price is Right style, put up a big picture of a street sweeper and ask how much it costs and the person that gets closest to it sort of wins the prize, if you will. And man that, that has been so enlightening, when people have to guess how much a $275,000 piece of equipment costs, and for them to start then asking the question, why don’t we have more of these and what does it take? Because one of our goals, of this administration is, this was part of the mayor’s promises was that we would explore and try to get to a place where participatory budgeting could be a reality for Birmingham. And based on the research that I’ve done, and people that I’ve spoken with you really can’t get there unless you have a set of people that actually understands that process. And so without, without saying that is participatory budgeting, I think we’re doing a great job laying the groundwork for residents to truly be able to influence the budget.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. So is that something you guys have a timeline on? On wanting to do or because we, yeah, we when I was at the City of Durham, we, we did our first year of participatory budgeting. The last year I was there, and it was quite the lift. And it takes a lot of education, a lot of engagement. Yeah. So do you guys have a timeline on that? Or is it just kind of up on the list and it’ll happen eventually, as you guys are starting to lay the groundwork?

 

Ed Fields

No, there’s not a timeline. I’ve spoken with the Mayor about it directly. He wants me to keep pressing on it. I will tell you that the main thing that I want to do is ensure, ensure that we have an internal readiness as well. Ben, you may have experienced this, but it doesn’t matter how brilliant the Mayor’s ideas are, if there’s not a team of people that can implement it. And what I’m finding is not just about talent, it’s also about perspective, and what do you believe is possible? And that’s where I’ve come to as of latest when my deepest thinking is understanding that what’s motivating people’s behavior, either to the positive or negative in many cases, isn’t that just what their agenda is, it’s really what they believe is possible, especially from a city perspective. Part of my role is to hold the line and really help be an example or be an example of what belief looks like in this moment for our city under this Mayor, and to help prove the case in as many spaces as we can so that other people can bear hug it for themselves and carry it forward.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, so are there other ways, you talked about activating the boards of commissions, you talked about your Academy? What, are there other ways that you guys are engaging residents in kind of the day to day of, of the City of Birmingham?

 

Ed Fields

Yeah, so the Ace program is really our big one. We’re actually about to announce a series of workshops attached to ACE. So aside from that, that one big class that we’re bringing through, we’re also going to be doing workshops specific to city budget or some historical issues around the city. We are also continuing those boards and agencies trainings, which are so important. We’ve seen really strong interest in those and attendance. So we’re excited about that. We have other specific, perhaps more targeted things that we’re doing. We’ve launched a Small Business Council, which is comprised of 22 different businesses. It is I think 60% diverse at this point. It is fully inclusive, of in terms of race and gender and orientation. We also separately have an LGBTQ Advisory Council that is led by our LGBTQ liaison, which is an important role for us here, we try to make sure that our agenda is represented not just by staff, but also by the people we put around them. And then we have a reentry task force that we put together last year, which will probably transition more into work groups. So we have a variety of other spaces that we’ve created, which are much more targeted to allow people to have their voice at the table.

 

Ben Kittelson

That’s cool. What does the reentry task force, what is their work and kind of how, what are they charged with?

 

Ed Fields

They’re charged with actually connecting the dots between all the different services that provide reentry, whether they’re on the mental health side or job side and ensure that left hand and those with the right hand is doing I don’t know that we’re there yet. Frankly, I think we have a lot of work to do in that space. We have an Office of Peace and Policy that’s really staff oriented. That’s working in that. But I will tell you, that’s been some challenging work for us. There have been good organizations on the ground, but I don’t know if you know this, but in the State of Alabama, the Department of Justice just sanctioned the state of Alabama or found them guilty of not taking care of prisoners throughout the state. And this is relevant to Birmingham because we are the biggest city in the state, which means that we tend to have a disproportionate number of people who are leaving prison, come to Birmingham, whether they came out of, whether they originated Birmingham or not. So reentry for us becomes a lot more important because we’re taking on a disproportionate amount of people who need an incredible amount of social service support.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, and the work of integrating that population that’s really important. Like, it can have a big impact on those people’s lives and their and the community.

 

Ed Fields

They can. One of the other things that we’ve done is we’ve launched a bold program, which are building opportunities for lasting development out of our economic development team. This used to be a pool of a million dollars that would go to three different economic development organizations doing traditional industrial or commercial or retail economic development. We’ve changed that process now. Anybody can apply for those funds. And we have had small businesses win those funds. One of them in a low income area did a reentry program where they took a bunch of folks and gave them financial literacy, partnered with an organization that helps them with placement. And then we put metrics around the success of these initiatives. That’s something that the city hadn’t done before. So everything from our Women’s Foundation to our Creative Lab, which has these entrepreneurial development programs, in communities, among others, just a very, very wide, diverse group of people that are now receiving funds from the city’s economic development pool. That that’s just a different way to approach. It is RFP based. It is proposed, excuse me proposal based. We’ve taken all the decision making from one person at this Mayor’s office, brought in a diverse team of people, including representatives from the from the from the city council, administrative staff, for them to be able to weigh in on who gets the funding and that’s been very rewarding work in terms of changing structures so that people can get closer to being part of the solution.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. That’s great. Um, are there other, Is there anything that maybe was on the Mayor’s work plan, is your guy’s plan when you were entering office that once you got in, you’re like, Oh, no, this is going to be a longer lift or this this thing that we didn’t know about, that’s going on in the city Is more important and so we’re gonna have to move stuff around. Is there anything like that, that maybe you’re surprised that you were going to have to take on and address once you’re in office or you would like to, still a priority but had to kind of go on the back burner?

 

Ed Fields

Oh, yeah, there’s a handful of those things. We have a very as you may have seen, we had a very ambitious agenda coming in. And we’ve done an awful lot. We’ve accomplished a lot, but there are things that we have not yet done. A couple of those things would be the participatory budgeting piece. But I feel, I feel good that we’re moving in the direction that we, we really sought to. But there’s a couple of areas. One of them is Civilian Oversight Board. The Mayor said that he would explore the possibility of a Civilian Oversight Board. We didn’t mean that he was going to do it. But we talked about doing a lot more work around that. He and I went to Denver back in October and sat down and talked with their Mayor, also talked with their Public Safety Director. They have an entire organization that does oversight in a particular way. So we’ve shared some of that information with our Office of Peace and Policy, and we’ll continue to discuss that. That, frankly, has not been the priority. The priority has been what we need to do to shore up our police department. And we’re really proud of the progress there. But at this point, we know we could be spending a little bit more time talking about what the accountability piece looks like. The other item I would add, is in the arts, and this is where we see the probably the least amount of effort on our part. And I shared this with a few folks and you know, it’s no secret but we have focused on neighborhood revitalization, which is really the basics of neighborhood revitalization. The thing that has not got a lot of interest and attention has been arts. And I mean that not in terms of just words, obviously we care about the arts and the Mayor shows up in support of them. But when you asked me how much progress we made on our agenda, and how much have we actually done, I think that can be represented by what kind of resources have gone in that direction, either in terms of human resources, or in terms of dollars. And I really don’t have much to show in that area. We did have our Museum of Art Director, help us with some research on a Percent for Art program, which is a very specific initiative that we promise we would explore along with some of those other things I mentioned. And I don’t think we’re there yet. It’s been a great research. I’ve got his research, it is really good. I guess my final point then would be, as I have been responsible for exploring these opportunities, I’ve been clear that, you know, you could do some things and say you check the box, and maybe that’s okay. For where we are, what our intent was and what we’re trying to do, I don’t think it’s okay. I think that either you do it or you don’t do it. And if you’re not going to be able to do it in a way that you really, really want to, how can you at least build a scaffolding and at least start to bring people around and make that easier to do in the next round. So with that said, you know, the Mayor is entering his fourth year of his administration later this year, we’re in the middle of our third. And he is running for reelect, I anticipate us being able to close the loop on some of these initiatives, either before the end of his term, or as we begin his next term.

 

Ben Kittelson

What kind of from your perspective as the Chief Strategist as you’re closing out a term and getting ready for, you know, running another campaign and setting sights on kind of the next four years? What, what do you, what do you what do you see as like the like things that you’re, you’re like, hey, this is what we’ve been able to be able to do. And with former years, we’re going to be able to do you know, x, y, and z is that what’s kind of, from your perspective, what do you guys kind of preparing for in that regard?

 

Ed Fields

Well, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves Ben [laughter]. The reality is that we have a lot of work to do right now. So, I mean, obviously, we’re planning and part of my job is to look beyond the horizon. Which, by the way, is incredibly hard to do. It’s hard to not get sucked into the day to day here and I am sure you can appreciate that. But even as I look down, look down the road. You know, I just got out of a critical planning meeting around Birmingham Promise, which is the most transformative initiative out of our administration. And we were talking about how much money we spend on the communication front now. You know, my point has been, we’ve got to establish credibility for some of these initiatives early on, so that they have a chance to really become all they can be. It’s like running a business. If you under invest in the business, if you get too far ahead, looking at year three, year four, then you won’t get there because you you’ve gotten distracted. And I think the smart money and most smart people I have engaged, they tend to do a really good job of being present, and not over doing what has been done or what will be done. And that’s more art than science, right? That’s leadership. So I serve as a copartner with the Mayor, and keeping our team focused on the main thing, and then creating a lane for us to be able to go to the places that we want to go to. And I’m confident that if we stay focused on neighborhood revitalization, we build some confidence that the city can do what it says it can do, which has not always been the case and that the city can represent the values of the people in the way they want to represent it, transparent government, clean government, scandal free. People need to see a few years of that, and Randall Woodfin is a relative newcomer to a lot of our residents and so frankly, you know, my remarks have been about him, you know, putting him in a position to be consistent, for him to do what he said he was going to do. And for the things that he hasn’t been able to do, for people to perceive why for themselves, and to be able to buy into the next level of engagement, which is we’ve covered some bases. Now let’s get to some more. Now that you see we have the capacity, and we’ve proven that internally first, and then externally, and then we’ll put ourselves in position to really do even more transformative things for our community. We’re very optimistic about where we are, and where we’re really good advice. But it’s fragile. Yeah. And that has not been lost on us. It’s very fragile. And we’ve got to continue to nurture the moment. Not just the programs, but nurture the moment and not get too caught up in the technicalities, but also remember to lead with our hearts and that’s a big part of this work.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. No, you guys are very inspiring. I love, I love the optimism and the vision. Since you kind of mentioned, what is Birmingham Promise? What is that program?

 

Ed Fields

The Birmingham, [clears throat] Birmingham Promise is a transformative program that seeks to take Birmingham City Schools students, who happen to be residents of Birmingham and activating them. We have a 29% poverty rate in the City of Birmingham, nearly 41% for single families, which with children, and you match that up against an employer base, even in relatively poor economies, are starving for people with some very specific skills and technology in advanced manufacturing and others. So our philosophy is based on some data from Burning Glass Report, that we’ve got to put people into durable career careers that are skills based. And so we’ve got two tracks. For those students, we’re putting them into apprenticeships that are aligned with jobs of the future. We’re allowing those students to leave school early to go to work. These students are being paid $7.50 cents by the employers. They’re being paid $7.50 cents by the Birmingham Promise. So you got a high school student senior who’s earning $15 an hour in a skilled trade. That is growth, industry, construction, software development, advanced manufacturing, and employers throughout town. We have 100 students right now and employers throughout the entire Birmingham region. That’s super exciting, but that’s the first part of it. The second part of it is a tuition free program, which is basically, if you attend Birmingham City Schools and you graduate from Birmingham City schools, and you live in the City of Birmingham, you go to any two or four year public institution at no cost. The last dollar scholarship effectively select our scholarship that After the Pell Grants after other grants, after any other financial aid has come through scholarships from others, whatever that last dollar that they need to close the gap on, as it relates to tuition only, the Birmingham Promise will pay for that tuition. In addition, Birmingham Promise will ensure that there are support services because we find with our population of students a very high or very low retention rate after that first year or even first semester of college, but we’ve got to wrap our arms around children. Our Mayor says that this is our down payment on the next generation. And that is why we’re so excited about it. There’s about $31 million of student debt being held by Birmingham residents right now. And you know, that younger folks that may be listening to this or you know, they know it’s not you granddaddy’s college tuition. And so, imagine an entire generation of Birmingham residents with no college debt and what that means for home ownership, what that means entrepreneurial opportunities and just what that means for peace of mind and overall healthcare cost. I mean, that’s why this is transformational, particularly for the city that is 74% African American, where net wealth gap is still high. We want Birmingham to be the city of destination for people who want to maximize their opportunity, whether they want to be in business or work for someone else to just have a good a good a good family life. We believe we can get there within the next few years.

 

Ben Kittelson

That’s awesome. That’s awesome. So we’ll definitely have to keep an eye on on that work and kind of the all the work that you guys are doing in the City of Birmingham. One last question for you to kind of close out our interview, if you could be the GovLove DJ and pick a song to close our episode with, what song would you pick?

 

Ed Fields

Well, I think I’d take a song by The Roots called “The Next Movement”.

 

Ben Kittelson

Awesome! Perfect!

 

Ed Fields

It’s actually pretty cool. It’s got a great core. I think it represents not only what we’re doing here, but what you’re trying to do to elicit voices throughout our country. And trying to show where we’re, we’re getting things right and where the critical gaps are and challenging us to get a little higher through ELGL. So thank you for what you’re doing.

 

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Awesome. Yeah. So we’ll get we’ll get The Roots queued up. With that, thank you, and for coming on and talking with me. I really appreciate you taking the time.

 

Ed Fields

Yes Sir, thank you!

 

Ben Kittelson

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