New stories and intercultural understandings are bringing a long-stigmatized neighborhood’s true identity to light.
Once an elegant, thriving community famous for its jazz clubs, the Birmingham neighborhood of Ensley, Alabama, inspired the 1939 hit song “Tuxedo Junction.”
But the decline of the iron and steel industry—combined with decades of segregation policies—left the community under-resourced, struggling, and stigmatized. For a long time, the only stories told about Ensley focused on crime, poverty, and poor health.
In recent years, though, new stories have emerged: stories of creativity and beauty, stories of life and hope, stories of a renaissance, a rebirth.
One of the people weaving those stories has been Bettina Byrd-Giles, a member of the first cohort of Culture of Health Leaders and a longtime resident of Birmingham.
In 2010, Byrd-Giles was recruited to run The Bethesda Life Center, which provided primary health care services to the medically underserved residents of Ensley, regardless of ability to pay. Soon, though, her focus expanded to encompass wellness in a larger sense, and she teamed up with several community members to create a counternarrative and change how the place was perceived.
As the initiative dubbed Ensley Alive began to take shape, The Bethesda Life Center served as a headquarters and offered the side of its building as a canvas for the mural that would become the first dramatic, visible symbol of Ensley’s renaissance. The center also used its nonprofit status to help access resources and overcome the bureaucratic barriers that, as Byrd-Giles put it, “often block communities from solving their own problems.”
The transformational power of interculturalism
As she sees it, the unique power and success of the Ensley Alive initiative is rooted in its intercultural approach: its commitment to and effectiveness in facilitating interaction among groups with different values, beliefs, and experiences. For decades, people had seen Ensley through a lens of data, statistics, and negative assumptions. One of the main challenges was to help people see through a different lens.
As a member of the Ensley Alive team—and as a professional interculturalist who had previously trained medical staff in how to work with African American patients—Byrd-Giles felt she had two primary responsibilities in helping craft that new lens.
The first was to interpret the cultural norms and values of the Ensley community, to go beyond the data and see what she could learn about the community. “Perceptions of Ensley were very negative, but that didn’t match my experience,” she said. “I saw people living and loving and celebrating together. I wanted to know what made people tick there. How did they think? What assets did they have? What made the community so alive?”
Her second responsibility was to share those insights. “We wanted people from outside Ensley to see more than the crime reports,” she said. “We wanted them to see more deeply and complexly, to realize that there is more to this place than they thought.” To help people see the community in a different light, members of the #EnsleyAlive team employed multiple tactics, from writing articles and press releases to correcting misleading media stories to helping residents access social and traditional media platforms where they could share their perspectives and experiences.
The team also shared insights within the community. “It was important for people to see the assets in their own community, to counter and overcome internalized oppression.” One of the team’s first initiatives, “100 Lenses,” provided cameras to residents and asked them to document the neighborhood, its aspirations, and its challenges. Another initiative, “S.T.E.W. (Soup, The Ensley Way),” gave residents a chance to pitch community improvement ideas and awarded seed money to the audience’s favorite idea.
A renaissance from within
Credit for Ensley’s renaissance has sometimes been given to people, organizations, and forces from outside the community. But Byrd-Giles is emphatic: “The daughters and sons of Ensley are responsible for the attention and excitement that have been built and the transformation that has occurred.” It was only by tapping into the creativity of locals and harnessing the energy of earlier efforts that the initiative could build cohesion and share Ensley’s true identity with the world.
“A lot of people came to Ensley over the years, doing assessments and saying they’d help, but they didn’t understand who the people are, what they value, or how they communicate and tell stories,” said Byrd-Giles. “They didn’t understand African American collective culture. Building a deep intercultural understanding was key to changing attitudes about Ensley.”
By the spring of 2020, there were six giant murals in Ensley. The neighborhood has been called “the most colorful place in Alabama.”
As Byrd-Giles watches more murals go up and watches Ensley evolve, she is awed and grateful. “The seeds were planted a decade ago and now they’re bearing fruit. I can see how our team played a role in this revolution. It’s really humbling.”