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Addressing the systemic challenges of poverty is no easy task. But in Birmingham’s Woodlawn community, this is exactly what’s happening through multi-pronged efforts designed to build long-term success.
And now, the efforts to revitalize what was once a thriving town are yielding results, with Woodlawn welcoming new businesses and residents and continuing to grow as an innovative hub for education and community wellness.
Annexed into the city of Birmingham in 1910, Woodlawn was once a burgeoning community. However, by the 1970s, it had changed, and urban blight and poverty adversely affected the area. In 2008, Mike and Gillian Goodrich started the Woodlawn Foundation, launching the community’s revitalization. Now, due to a multitude of innovative public-private partnerships, the neighborhood is experiencing transformation in its schools, housing and businesses, becoming a place where people want to live and work once again.
From entrepreneurs working at the SocialVenture co-op space, to neighbors buying produce at the regular Woodlawn Street Market, Woodlawn is returning to vibrancy.
At the heart of the Woodlawn Foundation is place-based philanthropy, which involves multiple organizations working together and with local residents to develop long-term solutions. This initiative, Woodlawn United, whose objective is accomplishing comprehensive change in the entire community, is led by the Woodlawn Foundation.
“We have so many great organizations across our city and our region,” says Sally Mackin, Executive Director of the Woodlawn Foundation. “They all do great work, but many times that work happens through one organization and not through a unified effort. Woodlawn United focuses on every aspect of the Woodlawn community, working with multiple organizations in a coordinated fashion to meet residents’ needs.”
With a three-pronged approach of focusing on housing, education, and community wellness, the Woodlawn Foundation partners with public entities and private organizations to harness resources and empower the community. For instance, this year saw the opening of The Park at Wood Station, a two-story townhouse project with 64 units in 15 buildings, which opened at 100% occupancy. Through the combined efforts of architects, builders, mortgage lenders and corporate donors like Protective, coupled with available tax credits, new affordable and critically-needed housing became a reality.
Protective has been involved with the Woodlawn Foundation since its inception, providing both leadership and funding to a number of vital projects, Mackin says. “Johnny Johns (Protective’s Chairman and CEO) was a founding board member and has remained actively involved since that time,” she says. “His ability to understand and help us develop a long-term vision has been crucial to our success.”
Many Protective employees are and have been involved with Woodlawn revitalization efforts, from hands-on volunteer service to assisting with strategic planning. Kate Cotton, Vice President of Community Relations and Executive Director of the Protective Life Foundation, serves as the co-chair of the Campaign for Woodlawn, which is raising $7.1 million for the construction of The James Rushton Early Learning and Family Success Center. The Center, which will serve up to 100 infants and toddlers, will be a foundational piece in the Woodlawn Innovation Network, a “cradle to career” pipeline supporting the five schools that feed into Woodlawn High School.
“The Rushton Center is a great example of corporations, businesses and individuals investing in Birmingham’s future.” Sally says. “Investing in the Center is not an intervention or support for a program to correct something, but an investment whose return won’t be realized for 18 years when these students graduate. That takes real vision and a commitment to the future.”
“One of the things that makes the historic Woodlawn community special,” Johns says, “is that it’s home to many organizations dedicated to improving both Woodlawn and Birmingham as a whole. This includes the YWCA Central Alabama’s apartment housing complex, the office of REV Birmingham, the main campus of Cornerstone Schools, the Desert Island Supply Company (a reading & literacy program for students) and CAMP (College Admissions Made Possible).”
Sally concurs. “Donors look for and truly appreciate dedicated collaboration. Here in Woodlawn, they are funding a catalytic, life-changing movement.”