Wade on Birmingham

The Future of Birmingham: XX

Carole Smitherman

Photo courtesy Carole Smitherman

Carole Smitherman served as Birmingham’s first and only
female mayor for 28 days. The city hasn’t seen many women
as CEOs and public officials in its history.

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Women wield power, but in Birmingham, that power has almost always been by their deliberate seizure of it, rather than waiting for its bestowal.

The Future of BirminghamWe’ve never had an elected female mayor of Birmingham, and only one in Hoover. Only two of the 25 largest private companies in Birmingham have women in charge. Occasionally, a woman has led the Jefferson County Commission or the University of Alabama at Birmingham, otherwise known as the city’s (and the state’s) largest employer.

Birmingham could do worse than female rule. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but I’m willing to let them have a turn for the next 150 years to be fair. If it goes badly, it’s all on me.

We’d need to find a way to transition out all the men as civic leaders and CEOs, whether by board votes or armed coup. Ballots or bullets, I’m willing to spring for either or both.

Sure, it’s not a meritocracy. But if we’re seriously living in a meritocratic city, we have utterly and totally failed. Birmingham high schools have among the worst graduation rates in the state. The city’s unemployment rate is substantially higher than the state and national averages, as is the homicide rate. Transportation, economic development, infrastructure, stopping brain drain, urban planning — none of these are new issues, and yet we’ve seen very little progress in any of these areas.

Women may not have all the answers, but let’s give them a shot.

Assuming we don’t ship off all the male leaders tomorrow, an alternate plan may be in order. Several professional organizations in Birmingham cater to women, but education should be the starting point.

Birmingham schools started six career academies in 2011: architecture and construction, business and finance, engineering, hospitality and tourism, health sciences and urban educators. (I haven’t seen any numbers to indicate results to date.) I propose a seventh, the Women in Leadership academy.

This is an opportunity for female high school students to learn and grow in an environment designed to push them for maximum achievement. Students can partner with mentors, learn about paths to the top and practice the skills of effective leadership and management.

They might run for office someday. They might start their own companies. They might take over Google and Boeing and Starbucks and JPMorgan Chase. They might win James Beard Awards and Oscars and Nobel Prizes and MacArthur Genius Grants.

I’ll leave it up to the new superintendent of Birmingham schools, Kelley Castlin-Gacutan. Coincidentally, the first appointed female leader for the system.

Let’s make the future brighter for half of our population today, so it will shine even more so for all of us down the road.

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Read more essays in our special 10th anniversary series, The Future of Birmingham.

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