Empowering Birmingham: How Community Voices are Driving Employment and Economic Growth

April 25, 2024
DA News
Shara Watkins
Shara Watkins

During a transformative workshop with the City of Birmingham, a key question not only changed our perspective, but also steered our strategy towards more inclusive community engagement. Discover how tapping into community insights is closing the employment gap and creating a flourishing economic landscape. 

Understanding Birmingham’s Employment Challenges

The City of Birmingham, AL, wanted to close its prime age employment gap (ages 25-54) by increasing employment rates and median wages. The Community Funding Accelerator, led by Delivery Associates (DA), supported the City in applying for a grant to help achieve these important economic goals. During a dynamic workshop, city leaders and stakeholders — including employers, K-12 educators, and multisector partners — gathered to confront a critical question: "What do we understand about the people who are not currently working in Birmingham?"

The Power of Community Engagement in Economic Development

As the team reflected on this question, we realized we were trying to solve a challenge that we — a group of individuals with "good jobs" — don’t fully understand.  

Although the concept of community engagement in economic and urban development policy has been around since the 1970s, this fundamental principle still fails to truly materialize in today's social and economic policy implementation. We realized that, although we understood the data and had robust policy strategy informed by key Birmingham stakeholders and community members, we lacked the experience of unemployed residents. We knew that to ensure successful implementation and a responsive action plan, we needed community input. Community input has a variety of benefits, such as improving the likelihood that initiatives will be accepted in the community; unifying and empowering residents from different cultures and life circumstances; generating more effective solutions; and building trust in local government. Simply put: Community input is critical.

From the workshop arose a strong commitment among the group to bring together community members in "deep and meaningful community engagement." Following the Urban Institute’s framework, we would engage community members by creating an accessible, fair, trusting, engaging space which “redistributes power” and “uplifts local values and knowledge” in order to co-develop solutions. This framework emphasizes a participatory environment crucial for creating effective and sustainable action in our grant application process; informing our approach to the overall governance model for implementation; and, ultimately, for generating meaningful outcomes for citizens’ livelihoods and the city’s economic goals.

Birmingham, AL Mayor Randall Woodfin speaking during the workshop.

Putting it into Practice

Delivery Associates (DA) supported a philanthropic organization aimed at substantially enhancing economic mobility for adults living below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, or earning less than $30,120 for an individual or less than $62,400 for a family of four annually. This initiative focused on broadening access to public goods — resources such as tools, data, and research that are freely available and support local government representatives in developing and implementing mobility strategies. The Urban Institute’s "Boosting Upward Mobility: A Planning Guide for Local Action," referenced above, is an example of a public good.

Achieving this goal required robust alignment and integration with essential stakeholders such as public goods creators, local policymakers, and people experiencing poverty. During the planning phase, we sought to redefine the traditional engagement approaches, moving away from superficial interactions towards fostering authentic and meaningful collaboration. This shift was essential to drive lasting change and meaningful impact. 

In partnership with Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) across the United States, we organized focus groups involving individuals living in poverty, compensating them fairly for their contributions. Especially since relationships between policymakers and community members can feel extractive, we wanted to ensure our process demonstrated how much we value participants’ time and commitment. Our discussions highlighted pervasive systemic challenges across education, health, employment, safety, housing, and more. These insights underscored the critical need for solutions that not only address issues identified by community members and local decision-makers, but also dismantle significant barriers with a focus on stopping ineffective government services and removing stakeholder silos that don’t address local decision-makers’ needs. 

In focus groups, a core recommendation was to co-create public goods resources with people experiencing poverty, engaging stakeholders in community-generated, human-centered concepts and including people experiencing poverty as ideation partners.

Principles and Recommendations for Inclusive Community Engagement 

In our drive to create equitable impact across projects, DA strives to center community members in decision-making and include all voices at the table. We fundamentally believe that these principles ensure our initiatives are inclusive, equitable, and responsive to the needs of those we serve.

Core principles driving our community engagement work:

  • We value listening. We prioritize capturing qualitative and quantitative data to shape policy and delivery, ensuring it meets the community’s needs. 
  • We seek to communicate clearly. We maintain open dialogue with community members about their roles, rights, responsibilities, and our commitments — emphasizing transparency and clarity. 
  • We recognize the impact of structural racism and inequality. We acknowledge the disparities and systemic barriers certain communities face, and we strive to continuously evaluate our impact.
  • We are accountable. We can’t do impact-driven work without equity-driven work that consistently prioritizes and amplifies voices that are often overlooked

Strategic recommendations: 

  • Engage Directly with Impacted Individuals: Partnering with people experiencing poverty is crucial for addressing economic disparities effectively.
  • Enhance Solutions Through Engagement: Utilize community engagement to develop effective solutions by understanding stakeholders’ comprehensive needs, challenges, and strengths.
  • Adopt a User-Centered Approach: Ensure that stakeholder engagement is integrated and focused on the user, tailoring solutions to the needs and lived experiences of affected individuals.
  • Leverage Community Assets: Build solutions that are rooted in the community's existing assets, enhancing relevance and sustainability.
  • Prioritize Community Needs: Focus on creating innovative solutions that directly address the community's most pressing issues, ensuring relevance and impact.

To solve community challenges successfully, we must include community members in problem solving from the outset, developing a deep understanding of the residents most impacted by the solutions we design. We must invite our neighbors, particularly those whose voices aren’t always heard, to be partners in the conversation — and the solution. 

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Cover photo by Zach Farmer.

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