Mayors Lumumba of Jackson, Woodfin of Birmingham dish on poverty solutions

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Rogelio V. Solis/City of Birmingham

From left: Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin

Chokwe A. Lumumba and Randall Woodfin have quite a bit in common.

Both men are two of the youngest mayors elected in the history of their cities, Jackson and Birmingham, respectively. Both ran as progressives — each drew comparisons to Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for one reason or another — to lead the most populous cities in their respective states.

Their cities both have African American populations over 60 percent and poverty rates well above the national rate of about 15 percent. In Jackson, more than 30 percent of people live in poverty; in Birmingham, the rate is falling but still stands at about 24 percent.

For that reason, Lumumba and Woodfin, are looking to diversify their revenue streams by soliciting more philanthropic funding and mending relationships with Republican leadership in their states.

Mayor Woodfin recently visited Jackson as part of a Community Investment Network discussion on philanthropic activism. He and Mayor Lumumba sat down with Mississippi Today to talk about the role cities play in alleviating poverty. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mississippi Today

I read that Birmingham’s poverty rate between 2011 and 2017 fell about 7.5 percent and that the city’s population is growing, probably at the expense of other cities, such as Jackson. What do you think has been working and what is your role in maintaining that momentum to grow in a sustainable way?

Mayor Randall Woodfin

I don’t think anything Birmingham is doing is at the expense of Jackson. Around poverty, I would even say I was unaware of those numbers. I think our poverty rate is not only too high, but it’s unacceptable. What’s my role in fighting that? I think it’s several fold. I think the most important thing is education. I have a real, tangible, genuine rapport with our new superintendent. My relationship with her started when I was a school board member and we hired her. My job in supporting her deals with workforce development and training (and) scholarship opportunities for two- and four-year colleges. The real jewel in that investing in education piece is early childhood education so that we can make sure that the gap doesn’t get too wide prior to them going to middle school.

The second piece is creating opportunities in economic development. Bottom line is that’s a lot of fancy words to say I’ve got to bring jobs to my city. People need to work and the more opportunities that exist around employment, the more people can take care of their families, the more we can get people out of poverty. I’m not just talking about minimum wage jobs. I’m talking about employment opportunities that offer livable wages.

Mississippi Today

In terms of philanthropic activism, we see a lot of philanthropic activity in places like the Mississippi Delta and the needle has not moved very much. How do you make sure that the needle moves as you pursue these relationships with philanthropic organizations?

Mayor Randall Woodfin

Birmingham is always in the top 10 most altruistic cities; we give. The foundation community, nonprofit community and black church community — that’s sitting on a lot of money. At the exact same time you’ve got all these hospitals, but people don’t have access to health care. We’ve got all this giving but the needle hasn’t moved in decreasing poverty so there’s a disconnect. My job is to close that disconnect. How do you do it? I think you’ve got to align some folks. What we’ve seen is a lot of different people are giving, but they’re giving in silos. Those silos have created a space where people feel good about their part but their part is as individuals instead of giving as a collective whole. It’s causing us not to be able to move the needle in the way that we need to. My job is to bring down those silos.

Mississippi Today

Same question for you Mayor Lumumba

Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba

We face similar circumstances. Maybe there’s a slight variation in degree possibly, but we have to attack it in similar circumstance. When you asked me about philanthropic circles and how much of the needle has not necessarily shifted, I would offer a critique of ourselves and how we engage in the necessary cross collaboration that makes certain that our common in goals are truly met. Then I would offer a critique of many of those philanthropic institutions.

Although it is necessary work that is worth commending, our philanthropic institutions are a bit lazy with how they engage in the resources. Or, once they provide those resources they step away from the table and there’s not much oversight to ensure that the aims and goals of those resources are actually met. So we have to make certain that we can continue to have the right people at the table, that we hold people accountable, that we place ourselves in a position that we can be held accountable and understand that the money in and of itself is not the solution.

Mississippi Today

For lay people, they may see a lot of money coming into the city when they see the signage in places like Fondren and think the city is choosing to spend it on white neighborhoods. How do you argue to people in West Jackson and South Jackson that’s not the case?

Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba

That is the central premise behind this discussion: To make sure that communities that are underserved get the resources and the support they need. The real answer to your question is privilege. People speak to me on a regular basis about what is happening in Fondren. They credit the city and they talk about all the great things that the city is doing. I have to tell them, “Well, thank you, but the city isn’t doing that.” That community was able to secure those dollars for themselves and they are organized — that is one of the benefits that community has. That community has access to wealth and resources. Resources go beyond just financial ones. It is human capital. It is relationships that communities such as West Jackson and South Jackson don’t have the benefit of.

I stand by the premise that if your plan for success is solely for someone else to see value in you then you don’t have a plan. You have a wish list. We have to push the envelope on that wish list and start showing how we can recreate reinvestment from a self-determined place, where we see crowdfunding mechanisms, cooperative businesses that help support our community.

Mississippi Today

How do you make the case to funders to give you the flexibility in the latitude to deploy those resources in the ways that your cities need?

Mayor Randall Woodfin

When we study successful cities, there is a three-legged stool. There’s the government, the private sector and the not-for-profit sector. Nothing is going to move in any one city unless those three things are aligned. But the alignment has to be led by the leader of that city.

As it relates to being progressive leaders, it’s the mayors of Jackson, Miss., and the mayor of Birmingham, Ala., that are going to push this issue (and say) here is the vision for a city; here’s the strategic plan, goals and priorities for a city; this is the direction we’re going and this is where we need resources to flow.

If you don’t have that alignment and you don’t exercise the chief convener role, if you don’t exercise the vision where the three-legged stool stands together then we’re not going to see what we need to for the least of us who live in our cities.

Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba

The way you bring that collaboration together is by demonstrating how the concerns of all those institutions are interdependent. You take advantage of operational unity identifying what your common ends and objectives are and utilize those rather than the differences.

If you have issues of poverty, that impacts the issue of fair housing. If you have issues of crime then the opportunity exist in your community to directly impact crime because wherever you have high poverty you have high crime. So those are the things that you need to create that messaging around so that you bring those groups together.

You started the conversation talking about the declining population of Jackson. We’ve studied it to find that where our population decline is most significant is among our millennials. That is particularly regretful in the fact that we’re really a college town. We have 40,000 college students in Jackson. We literally get to audition for them to live in our city and we’re not making the grade. We’re looking at what are the quality of life conditions that they need. What are the things they want most? First and foremost, they want opportunities … because when you have a lack of opportunity you have increased poverty, and you don’t have a population that looks to stay in your city. They like walkable, urban cities.

Coincidentally not only is that the demographic that the city of Jackson is losing at the most significant rate, it’s the demographic that the state of Mississippi is losing. So for Jackson, that not only represents the best opportunity for itself but it represents the best opportunity for the state as a whole.

Mississippi Today

You’re both mayors of the largest cities in your states — Democratic cities operating in states with conservative Republican leadership. Mayor Woodfin, what’s the city of Birmingham’s relationship with the Alabama legislature and governor’s office in Montgomery? How do you leverage that relationship to be an advocate for your city?

Mayor Randall Woodfin

The thing I like about professional sports is that there are rule books. There are rules to the game. There are rules to local politics in regards to how you engage. The city of Birmingham, like all other municipalities within the entire state, don’t have home rule. So here are your options: cooperate and work with the legislators or buck everything. At the end of the day, yes, I’m a proud Democrat that believes in the people I represent. I also acknowledge because I don’t have home rule, I have to work with the majority (in the) Legislature that are Republicans if I’m going to bring resources to the people I serve.

Here’s a classic example: Every state receives federal dollars from the Department of Transportation. When our dollars come through Montgomery they don’t come directly to the city.

In Montgomery, those legislators don’t necessarily believe in public transportation.They believe that federal dollars for transportation should be used for roads and so we struggle with getting dollars from Montgomery as a relates to transportation.

My role is to say to legislators please consider peeling off some of this for public transportation and here’s why: We both have a mutual want, need and desire for Alabamians – not just Birminghamians – to be put to work. They need to get from point A to B. If you support public transportation, it helps not only with Birmingham’s unemployment rate, it helps with the state unemployment rate because people can actually get to their jobs. Even if you’re a Democrat or Republican we share the same priorities.

Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba

I think respect is central to the conversation. We can go back to the impending state takeover of the Jackson Public School District where Gov. (Phil) Bryant and I were able to reach an agreement. If we were betting before that took place, most people would have put their money on the fact that we would not have reached an agreement. We didn’t walk into that room talking to the governor about all the issues that we had with him. We didn’t talk about problems we found with his ideology or where he stood on several different issues.

What we talked about was what was concerning to him. We said as governor this would happen on your watch. This is your second largest school district. What do you feel has been the level of success for state takeovers in the state’s history? Not only have they not been successful in the state of Mississippi, they haven’t been successful around the nation. Is that the playbook that we want to go by? In a moment of honesty he admitted to us that he felt stretched. He felt that while there was a need for correction within the Jackson Public School District, he did not necessarily feel comfortable with the prospects that the state takeover was a solution. He said I wish I had a third option, and so we went back to the lab and created a third option to present to him that allowed the stakeholders who have the most to lose and the most to gain to still be at the center of making those decisions.

That does not mean that we will always be able to reach consensus – then we can all use a process that I like to call unity to bait unity. We can all arrive in a room, identify where we see eye-to-eye (and) where we are unified. We can have a debate over the differences of our perspectives with the central objective of reaching greater unity at the end of the day than we arrived with.

Hear more of our conversations with Mayors Lumumba and Woodfin on a future episode of The Jungle Podcast.