By Marie Sutton
Four miles separate the edge of UAB’s campus from the heart of Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood, but the route is becoming increasingly well traveled. On any given day, students, faculty, and staff serve as mentors to high school students, teach art and hip-hop dance classes, lead creative writing workshops, and assist with service projects.
This isn’t the sort of attention Woodlawn is used to receiving. Although it offers a feast of historic architecture—including regal-looking former mansions of Birmingham’s industrial barons, a Masonic lodge, and a high school affectionately called “The Castle”—the community has become best known for its pockets of abject poverty and plaguing crime. Now, however, Woodlawn seems to be entering a new era, with a growing commercial district and a host of community development projects in the works.
“Woodlawn is a good place to start something,” says Kimberly Kirklin, education and outreach director for UAB’s ArtPlay arts enrichment program, which recently started a new program at the Woodlawn YWCA. “The area’s logistics are ideal, and the community has welcomed us with open arms.”
Reaching Out with Art
When Theresa Bruno, board president of UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, toured the YWCA facility last year, she felt that adding an environment steeped in the arts would give residents nourishment for both soul and spirit, she told Kirklin. “The arts have transformative and healing power,” says Bruno. “They’re an outlet for expression. If there is something you don't want to talk about, you can drum it out.”
Bruno and Kirklin created a menu of classes to offer to the YWCA residents and the larger Woodlawn community, and found funding from the Goodrich Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.
The ArtReach initiative began in January 2012 with 12 weeks of free art, acting, and dance classes for anyone ages three and up. The events culminated with a community arts festival in April. Participants also were invited to attend several free performances at the Alys Stephens Center. Another arts outreach program, ArtCare, is now being offered to residents of independent living facilities in Birmingham, including Woodlawn’s Faush-Metropolitan Manor Apartments.
These pilot projects are an exciting development, but Bruno and Kirklin aren’t content to stay in one spot. “The ultimate goal is to go beyond Woodlawn and offer programs across the city,” says Bruno.
Blueprints for a Better Future
On Wednesday afternoons, when the midday bell rings at Woodlawn High School, a dozen students file into a classroom in the B building to focus on the future. The students are met by undergraduate mentors from UAB who help them with their schoolwork and encourage them to set lofty career and life goals.
The class is part of the Blueprints program, which is run by the Alabama Poverty Project with the goal of helping students attend college. Several Alabama universities participate in Blueprints and work with a neighboring high school; UAB chose Woodlawn as the focus of its efforts.
For 16-year-old Jermaine Sealie, the program has offered a new vision. None of his family ever attended college, so going himself was unimaginable, he says. “I didn’t have anyone who could give me the steps.” Now, after participating in several classes and learning about college applications, financial aid, and student life, Sealie proudly proclaims that he is college bound, with a plan to major in criminal justice.
That attitude excites Sims Smith, coordinator of the Woodlawn Community School at Woodlawn High School. When students start telling their peers that they’re going to college, “you never know what may happen,” says Smith. “There could be a full college-bound student body at Woodlawn.”
But Blueprints doesn’t just encourage students to think about their own futures. Participants also engage in a community service project to improve the lives of their fellow residents as well. That is what attracted UAB student Victoria Gosnell to volunteer. “Service was very important to me in high school,” says the international studies major, “and I really hope to encourage a service-oriented atmosphere among these students to help them better their community and themselves.”
(Story continues below slideshow)
Spreading a Love for Writing
UAB writing instructor Elizabeth Hughey and her husband, Chip Brantley, live a short walk from Woodlawn. They say the community seemed to call to them. In 2010, the duo started the Desert Island Supply Company, or DISCO. Patterned after the San Francisco-based 826 Valencia project, led by author David Eggers, DISCO will use a Woodlawn storefront to raise money for its creative writing programs by selling desert island-themed gear.
DISCO began with workshops at the Woodlawn Library and a community center. Then Hughey and Brantley went into Woodlawn High School, tutoring students and helping to develop a journalism program. They recently hosted FoodBlogSouth Teen, a free half-day blogging workshop for students in grades seven through 12.
At first, students would come to DISCO hating to write, but now “what they hate is not being creative,” Hughey says. It helps that they don’t write the typical “what I did last summer” essays. Students have worked with a food writer to muse about the food in their refrigerators, created copy for comic books, and written to Alabama’s governor. The goal is to help students boldly approach future writing assignments “and not freak out,” says Hughey.
DISCO also hosted Woodlawn Stories, a community storytelling project with a goal to “bring together the stories of diverse neighbors, past and present, across boundaries of race, age, socioeconomics, and origin.”
In 2010, the group captured stories from Woodlawn residents and created a script that was the basis for a series of spoken word performances by Woodlawn High School students.
Even though the DISCO storefront is still under construction, the program continues to expand. There are plans to bring in UAB English professors to teach classes, Hughey says, and to expand DISCO beyond Woodlawn. “I see what is happening here, and I get excited,” says Hughey. “We have a lot of uncharted territory.”
Just a few blocks away from Woodlawn in the neighboring community of Avondale, several volunteers from UAB’s School of Nursing and School of Medicine are providing health care for people who cannot afford it otherwise.
On Wednesdays, the students staff the health center operated by M-POWER Ministries, which offers the only free clinic and pharmacy in Jefferson County. A quarter of the visits come from homeless people from local shelters.
Volunteers from the School of Nursing, which include faculty and nurse practitioners, come in the mornings and provide primary care and chronic disease management. They see about 18 patients and help them manage hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and depression, among other issues.
Equal Access Birmingham (EAB), a School of Medicine student-run organization with a mission to promote health in medically underserved communities, staffs the clinic on Wednesday nights. They also host health screenings in the community and provide health education to youth and adults.
Twice a year, EAB organizes a Women’s Health Day and provides free pap smears, breast exams, STD/HIV testing, education, and social work counseling to women without insurance or access to an ob/gyn.