2015 Fusion Awards

Fusion featuredWritten by Joe O’Donnell, Lindsey Osborne, and Katie Turpen

Photography by Beau Gustafson

There’s so much talk of revival these days. Ask almost anyone on the street, someone who’s been here for years or someone who’s just arriving, and he or she will tell you that Birmingham is changing.

Wander around downtown, and perhaps you’ll think that there’s revival because more places have opened up shop there or because Regions Field has sparked it. In part, that’s true. But if you venture through the city on any given weekend, you might think that revival has happened because of the art and music festivals that are taking place in Birmingham. In part, that’s true. And if you take a culinary tour of Birmingham, you might say, “Oh! This is why they call it the Magic City. The magic is here.” Indeed, in part, that’s true.

While all of these factors and many more contribute to Birmingham moving forward, beyond her past and finally to the city she has always been destined to be, there’s one thing that lies at the foundation of all of it. It’s the acceptance we’ve come to perpetuate, the diversity we’ve come to embrace, the attitude of inclusion we continue to insist upon. And because that’s the reason Birmingham is changing, we thought it appropriate—necessary, even—to recognize those who are leading the cause with our 2015 Fusion Awards.

On the pages that follow, you’ll find Birminghamians from all walks of life who are championing the value of diversity. Even more than that, they’re reminding us of the things—compassion, grace, determination, work ethic, humor—that bind us all together.

ahley jonesAshley M. Jones 

Jones is a native of Birmingham and attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA), where she now teaches creative writing, as well as the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She received an MFA in poetry from Florida International University, where she was a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellow. She served as Official Poet for the City of Sunrise, Florida’s Little Free Libraries Initiative, and her work was recognized in the 2014 Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writer’s Exchange Contest and the 2015 Academy of American Poets Contest at FIU. “We’re seeing ourselves as a global city—we are becoming a part of the international conversation. I’m attempting to contribute to this expansion by writing about my city and my experience as a black girl from Birmingham,” she says. “I’m putting our past and present onto the page, and, by publishing my work widely, I hope to bring national recognition and historical legitimacy to the thriving, complicated, world-class city that Birmingham is.”

Jones’s poems appear or are forthcoming in Night Owl, The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, pluck! A Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, and Valley Voices: New York School Edition, among many others. She will receive a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award; the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award program is the only national literary award program of its kind dedicated to supporting women writers exclusively.

Much of Jones’s poetry seeks to break down stereotypes in Birmingham and beyond. “When people meet me, they’re meeting a piece of Birmingham, and it’s important that the impression people get is positive, intelligent, and surprising,” Jones explains. “People think of Birmingham in terms of what it was in 1963—they only see people being assaulted at lunch counters. What I’m trying to do is acknowledge that troubled history, but to remember that it isn’t just a part of the distant past—it’s a part of our present and future, and if we don’t learn from it and keep it close to our hearts, we will never grow into the incredible, world-class city we are destined to be.”

robert recordDr. Robert Rex Record

Record is a native of Breezy Hill Farm, located somewhere near Clinton, Louisiana. He attended Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. There he majored in business administration, ran track, and met the love of his life, Leland. He also joined a congregation in a transitional neighborhood and developed a clearer vision for serving those who struggle. Though seemingly far from his desire to attend seminary, providence led him to LSU medical school in New Orleans, where, with a heart for ministry and a healthy dose of imagination, he learned community development through work with Desire Street Ministries. “There is so much diversity around us if we would only consider it for a moment,” he says. “Everybody I meet is a unique individual, loved by God and created for a purpose not intended for anyone else since the creation of the world.”

Residency brought him to Birmingham for the faith-based Family Medicine residency at the current St. Vincent’s East Hospital. During training, he and his wife joined a very small congregation called Church of the Highlands as members and ultimately pastoral staff; Church of the Highlands has since grown into the largest church in Alabama. A love for the city of Birmingham grew alongside a vision of starting a clinic that would catalyze community transformation and provide health care to anyone who needed it. In 2009, his long-held dream was realized with the opening of The Birmingham Dream Center and Christ Health Center in Woodlawn. “Woodlawn was once the epicenter of white flight. Now I spend my Sunday mornings in Woodlawn High School worshipping with a congregation more diverse than anywhere I know. My patients are from a block away and countries on the other side of the orb. Christ Health Center has become a crossroads of society where people from disparate backgrounds are serving one another in love,” Record says.

Record has served as director of the Dream Center and continues to practice medicine while leading the clinic as CEO. He and his wife have four children, Tate, Caley, Mimi, and June. The latter two are adopted from China (he notes that adoption is his family’s “greatest call to date.”) And he calls Birmingham his adopted hometown. “I could have established a life anywhere and chose this city,” he says. “Ours is a remarkably livable city with a sense of home. Where other cities have chased professional sports and hip entertainment scenes for their defining win, we continue to chase justice and community.

“Birmingham, we are valid; we are different; and we matter.”

frank adamsFrank E. Adams Jr.

Adams is a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) and of Boston University. Adams’s professional career includes his work as a healthcare strategic planner and business development executive for both the UAB Health System and Brookwood Medical Center; he also served as district director and chief of staff to former Congressman Artur Davis during the 110th and 111th United States Congresses. As of January 2012, Adams was appointed as the third president and CEO of the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club (the Club is associated with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America). The Club serves more than 1,400 metro area boys and girls ages 6–18 annually by providing a wide array of age- and gender-specific developmental activities during out-of-school times; the ultimate goal of the Club is to empower youth to be more prepared for their futures while they demonstrate commitment to their communities. Adams is a proud former member of the Club. “While we can’t be everything to a young boy or girl, we certainly can identify resources and relationships that give them a real opportunity to have great futures and to be little lighthouses of hope within their communities,” he explains.

In addition to chairman of the board of trustees for ASFA, Adams’s civic engagement includes serving on the boards of Habitat for Humanity, Alys Stephens Center, WBHM 90.3 FM, and more. Additionally, Adams was appointed as the youngest member to ever serve on the Birmingham City Council while representing District 8.

Every day, Adams, a Birmingham native, pours into the next generation of this city, and he is certain that she is one poised for greatness. “Birmingham is truly the ‘Magic City,’ because of its current unwillingness to fail,” he says. “Once left for dead as recently as the ’90s, Birmingham had every reason to crumble. From a dark history, limited economy, and rapidly deteriorating infrastructure, to population decline, Birmingham survived the very worst. Now is our time to shine as a true New South city catching up to our potential greatness. The most important element has been the belief that we can achieve a brighter, more inclusive future together by those who live inside Birmingham.”

ashley deramus twoAshley DeRamus

Although DeRamus was diagnosed with Down syndrome early in life, she hasn’t let it stop her from living out her dreams and encouraging others to do the same. Her motto is simple but carries immense weight. “I always tell those with special needs, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do. Show them what you can do,’” says DeRamus.

At age 11, DeRamus began swimming and has since won 43 medals at the Special Olympics state games. Her journey has taken her across the country, where she has recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the Rose Bowl Parade, the Grand Canyon, and aboard the USS Massachusetts Battleship. Recently, she visited the United Nations in New York City, where she was interviewed about job opportunities for adults with special needs.

In February 2012, DeRamus and her mother began the Ashley DeRamus Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to the education, advancement, and quality lifestyle of those with Down syndrome and aims to increase the awareness of those with special needs. Furthermore, in July 2013, DeRamus debuted Ashley by Design, a clothing line specially tailored for young women with Down syndrome. DeRamus and her mother are the exclusive designers of the clothing line, believing Down syndrome should never be an obstacle to fashion and style.

DeRamus stays active through swimming, acting, fashion, shopping, sailing, ziplining, singing, and motivational public speaking. She volunteers at Birmingham’s Bell Center for Early Intervention, which provides treatment for children with special needs through therapy programs. She is proud to call Birmingham home. “I love the people, the weather, and my church,” she says. “My biggest aspiration is to raise national awareness of the capabilities of people with Down syndrome so that they may become informed voters.”

Bob LujanoBob Lujano

At the age of 9, Kansas native Lujano lost all four of his limbs in an attempt to save his life when he contracted a rare form of meningitis. Nonetheless, Lujano has defied most any odd set against him. He came to Birmingham in 1998 to be a part of the Lakeshore Foundation, where he is now an information specialist for the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability (located at Lakeshore). “I have been part of distributing health information and producing and participating in videos that promote the importance of inclusion in our cities and nation. I have also been asked to speak to local organizations such as Redstone and the Vestavia mayor’s office on the importance of the benefits of an inclusive community,” he says of his efforts to promote inclusion. “These benefits include addressing secondary health issues that can deter a healthy lifestyle for people with disabilities. As an information specialist, I seek to address barriers in programs, facilities, and attitudes that can change the mindset of a community to see the benefits of healthy active lifestyles for people with disabilities. Every day that I come to work seems to always provide a new fulfilling life changing moment and experience that impacts my life and our city. Just greeting our members, meeting children with disabilities and knowing that Lakeshore Foundation is the place that all youth should experience. Spending time with our veterans as they attend our military camps.”

Lujano lives his life in a way that is a testament to the fact that different doesn’t mean anything except, well, different. He wrote a book called No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When Life Happens, You Can Wish to Die or Choose to Live (published in 2014 and available on Amazon), and he frequently speaks to large groups, sharing his experiences as a quad amputee. Additionally, he is very involved in Lakeshore’s wheelchair rugby team, and has been a wheelchair rugby player since the mid-90s. “The 20 years of wheelchair rugby that I have played has changed my life to be a healthy, active, and competitive one, in which I get to share with the many athletes who play in the sport.”

carlton youngDr. Carlton Young

Young received his bachelor of science with distinction from Villanova University and his doctorate from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He completed his surgical residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, as well as two fellowships, one at Thomas Jefferson and one at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

He came to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1997, where he is now a professor of surgery in the division of transplantation. He is the director of pancreas transplantation, the director of pediatric renal transplantation at Children’s of Alabama, and the assistant dean for medical student diversity and inclusion at UAB’s School of Medicine. “UAB is in the top five most diverse schools in the United States, and the hospital attracts people from all over the world. My office is dedicated to expanding the footprint of our student body to include those who are underrepresented in medicine, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native American students,” Young explains. “Our efforts at UAB necessarily spill over to Birmingham’s myriad communities because these students live in these communities and with their arrival, they bring diversity to the neighborhoods in which they live. [Additionally], diversity not only includes ethnic diversity, but also sexual orientation as well. As such, my office (Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs) is actively engaged in creating ‘safe zones’ for our LGBT students, as well as educating our students about the LGBT community and their health needs. This active effort will better equip our students to care for a vast array of patients as well as become sensitive to their colleagues who may identify with the LGBT community.”

Young’s interest in diversity and inclusion carries over into other areas of his work—his research focuses on health disparities in transplantation, especially in African-Americans, and his hope is that one day, such disparities will be eradicated. “The greatest gift I can give our students is the ability to be compassionate for all patients regardless of their station in life or their beliefs,” he says. “Ultimately, these young men and women will become the physicians who will care for the citizens of America and the world. We have a great responsibility to prepare them to compassionately care for and to be empathetic to all of their patients since by doing so, they will not only heal their bodies, but also heal their souls.”

Lavondia Bryant-SquareLaVondia Bryant-Square

Bryant-Square, owner of Nathifa Dance Company and Outreach, Inc. (NDCO), began her extensive dance training in West African and modern dance at a young age in Brooklyn, New York, where she moved as a young child. Bryant-Square continued her studies after she returned to her hometown of Birmingham in 1986, working with Southern Dance Works and Mary Foshee and Donna Edwards Todd of Sculpture Essence Dance Company. Her African and Caribbean dance studies were greatly mentored by the late King Sundiata Keite of the Omowale African Dancers and Cultural Society based in Detroit; The Birmingham African Dance Coalition under the directorship of Ife Balams, Uhuru Dancers, Inc.; and Omelika Kummba of Giwayen Mata and Yousouff Koumbassa of Kankouran West African Dance conference in Washington, D.C. She is a grant recipient of the Fellowship Grant from the State Council on the Arts and the Individual Grant through the Cultural Arts Alliance. “I love to help others to develop individual gifts through movement and enhance their coordination and their rhythm skills. It blesses me to see that I am blessing others,” Bryant-Square says. “Dancing to inspirational music helps heals the body, mind, and soul. Dancing and playing the drums is a way to help bring families, cultures, and people of diverse groups together.”

Bryant-Square started NDCO in 1992 as a children’s dance company after searching the city and finding no place that offered African dance. In 2006, the company expanded become a West African dance company for people of all ages. “Celebrating the 22nd anniversary of NDCO was very exciting. I became acutely aware of our longstanding contribution to the community,” she says. “I looked around and saw students whom we had served over the many years and students whom we have newly established relationships with. I was very proud.”

 amandaAmanda Keller

Keller, who received her bachelor’s from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is the director of LGBTQ programs and the Magic City Acceptance Center (MCAC), a project of Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO). MCAC, which opened in the spring of 2014, is a unique program providing direct services to LGBTQ-identified youth ages 13–24 in a supportive and affirming space. MCAC provides nearly 800 services each year through the following initiatives: movie nights, art workshops, health and wellness workshops, drop-in hours, counseling, support groups, queer prom, and free HIV/STD/STI testing. “We have a unique program in Alabama that contributes to diversity on a daily basis by creating a safe, supportive, and affirming space for LGBTQ individuals, while continuing a very important dialogue in the community about the need for acceptance, all of which would not be possible without support from the Birmingham community,” Keller says.

Keller is excited about the future of these programs and other at BAO and across Alabama, which are all doing their part to create dialogue concerning acceptance and the embracement of diversity. “I wouldn’t dream of doing this work anywhere else. I choose Birmingham because it is my home, and a city that I ardently believe in,” Keller says. “I want to contribute my time and energy to causes I believe in, where the work is needed the most, and to lay a strong foundation for future generations.”

Keller also serves as a diversity committee member of the Magic City Acceptance Project, a coalition that aims to improve the health outcomes of LGBTQ youth in Birmingham, and is a member of the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition. She is the 2015 recipient of the Simpkins/Talley Spirit of Pride Award. “I’m so proud to work for an organization with such a strong vision and leadership and to be trusted with making part of that vision a reality,” she says. “I never dreamed that my work and my passions in life would intersect, but I love waking up every morning, excited for another opportunity to make a difference while working with such a wonderful team and community.”

Mr. Chaudhuri and WifePia Sen & Sanjeev Chaudhuri 

Chaudhuri and Sen are a power couple in the name of promoting diversity. Chaudhuri is the AVP and Appointed Actuary at Alfa Life Insurance Company, as well as president of the Mid-America Bengali Association, a nonprofit that promotes Bengali arts, culture, and heritage in the U.S. and promotes interactions between Bengali Americans and Americans of other cultures. Sen is a professor of health policy and health economics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; her research focuses on the impact of health policies on veritable populations. Sen is also the founder of Notinee Indian Dance, which is one of the most diverse Indian dance schools in the Southeast.

“We have seen growing interest in Asian and South-Asian cultures and growing interest in cross-cultural collaborations. The Birmingham Museum of Art now regularly hosts artists from India, and Holi at the Museum is one of the events of the year. In 2015, the Alabama Asian Cultures Foundation’s annual event had [more than] 2,000 people stop by,” the couple says of the ways Birmingham is leaning more toward diversity every day. “We think our biggest contribution to the city has been through Notinee Indian Dance. The dance style was founded in the 1920s in India (by Tagore, Asia’s first Nobel Laureate poet and educator), and was based on the concept of inclusion and moving beyond regional and religious barriers. However, there are relatively few groups in the U.S. that perform this style of Indian dance.”

The couple, who were both raised in India and met there, are both passionate about Notinee Indian Dance. “Pia is the founder and director, but in truth we both dearly love Notinee,” Chaudhuri says. “We’re proud that the student-troupe of Notinee has attained a high enough quality to be noticed by some of the top international choreographers in this style of dance. But beyond quality, what we find so deeply rewarding is the dedication and passion of the students, and the bond they develop with us and with each other. Our dance troupe has little kids, teenagers, adults—including women who are mothers of teenagers and one (exceedingly fit) grandmother, and recently, we had a young male student join.”

Likewise, they are both excited about the work they do to unite cultures throughout Birmingham. When asked of one moment that has been very fulfilling during their work with the city, they say, “It is an event that we organized in the local Bengali community in April 2015—a panel of adult, second generation Indian-Americans who talked about what it was like growing up children of immigrants, and what message they had for new immigrants today with young children of their own.  Nothing like this had been done in the community before, and some were justifiably nervous about doing something out of the box. But it resulted in the venue being packed to overflowing, and stimulating conversations that lasted all through dinner, and attendees were extremely appreciative.” A similar event will take place at the Birmingham Museum of Art on Oct. 11.

“What has made it very special for us is the vibrancy of the cultural scene,” they say of living in Birmingham. “One can truly feel the change happening, and what is really rewarding is that we can make a meaningful impact in promoting cultural exchange and conversations.”

armando santoAmado Santos

Santos, a patient advocate and interpreter at Children’s of Alabama, came to Birmingham from Honduras when he was 13 to receive medical care for the polio that he’d contracted as a baby. “After I attended a clinic in my village in 1989, I met a missionary who fiercely committed himself to bring me to the United States for medical treatment. Finally, in the U.S. in 1989, I underwent corrective surgery to repair some of the damage done by polio,” he shares. “On July 7, 1990, with the assistance of bilateral leg braces and arm crutches, which I still use today, I realized my dream and walked for the first time in my life at the age of 14.”

Today, Santos’s work at Children’s is that of a true advocate—his mission is to communicate both knowledge and peace to the families with whom he interacts. “My work is simple, and my passion is helping others to the best of my ability. Being able to support and advocate for all our families, especially those with limited English proficiency, is crucial and a highlight of my work. These families are in a completely different world and must deal with a sick child while adjusting to a different language and culture. Many are unfamiliar with the health care system and often have poor—or nonexistent—support systems.

“Regardless of where we come from or the language we speak, we are all human beings who have the potential and ability to make a positive impact in someone else’s life,” he says. Santos and his wife, Aracely Montufar-Santos, have two children, Nicolás and Mia. He says that he has found joy in making his family’s home in Birmingham. “From the moment I arrived in Birmingham and interacted with people, I always felt loved, valued, and welcomed, even when there was a language barrier,” he says. “My life was changed forever in this city.”

doug-jonesDoug Jones

The bomb that splintered a quiet Sunday in September 1963, taking the lives of four young girls preparing for a church service, still reverberates today more than a half century later. Jones was 9 years old on that Sunday, a white kid in a town that was very black and white. Thirty-five years later as U.S. attorney, Jones led the prosecution that convicted two men, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, of setting the bomb that first shattered then knitted back together a city torn by racial violence. As a law student back in 1977, Jones had watched from the balcony while another of the bombers, Robert Chambliss, was also convicted. It was a long and emotional road to justice for Jones and the families of the victims. In recognition of his work promoting civil rights and justice, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute awarded him the Civil Rights Distinguished Service Award.

Jones is a graduate of the University of Alabama (B.S. 1976) and Cumberland School of Law at Samford University (J.D. 1979) and began his career as staff counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee for the late Senator Howell Heflin. He served as an Assistant United States Attorney from 1980–1984 and was in private practice in Birmingham until his appointment as United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama in 1997. He served as U.S. attorney until June, 2001. He was a partner at litigation firms in Birmingham until founding the law firm Jones & Hawley.

Chuck F.2FChuck Faush

With five years spent as chief of staff at the side of Mayor William Bell behind him, Faush can look back on a period that has been an extraordinary renaissance for the city. From Railroad Park and Regions Field to the celebrations of 50-year milestones in the Civil Rights Movement to new housing and tourism growth, the city is on fire. “I am honored to serve and grateful that I was able to learn and support the right guy at the right time for a city that deserves our very best,’’ Faush says. “Words cannot express my appreciation for sharing with so many gifted people in work that will transcend us all.’’

In many ways, Faush has now returned to his roots in broadcast media as senior vice president of Summit Media Corp. and president of the newly created Summit Media Entertainment. He’ll be working to offer complete marketing solutions with radio and digital, as well as events. The company will create signature events with corporate, urban, and blue collar offerings, as well as elevating supporting existing events in the existing Summit footprint like the Women’s Expo in Greenville, South Carolina; the Country Music Festival in Richmond, Virginia; ProBowl in Honolulu; and the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. “We have the leading personalities like Rick & Bubba, Tom Joyner, Rickey Smiley, and D.L. Hughly and the most listened-to radio stations in our markets,” says Faush. “Summit is positioned to be a leader.” And with different formats serving distinct audiences, a diverse leader at that. Photo by Liesa Cole

patricia toddRep. Patricia Todd

Todd has socially and professionally advocated for public policies relevant to social justice, education, HIV/AIDS, and a wide range of issues affecting the entire Birmingham community for more than 20 years. Todd holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and professionally serves as the state director of Human Rights Campaign Alabama. She was elected to the Alabama Legislature as the State Representative for House District 54 in November of 2006 as the first openly gay elected official in Alabama’s history. She is now beginning her third term in the legislature and is a member of the Education Policy, Jefferson County Legislation, and Ways and Means Education legislative committees. “Birmingham is learning from its past and embracing diversity in all sectors. From race to religion, Birmingham welcomes those outside the norm,” Todd says. “As an openly gay woman who has lived here for more than a quarter century, I find the city is a welcoming community for LGBT and the support for full equality is growing from City Hall to corporations.”

In addition to Todd’s numerous community activities and awards, she was selected as the first UAB School of Public Health “Advocate of the Year,” one of UAB’s Outstanding Alumni, and a SMART Woman by The Women’s Fund, and she received the Billy Jack Gaither Award for her fight to ensure equality for LBGT Alabamians. She has sponsored legislation to expand employment nondiscrimination to LGBT employees, raise the minimum wage, establish the Alabama Housing Trust Fund, and set maximum interest rates that pay day loan businesses can charge customers. Her community work includes service on the boards of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and Leading Edge Institute, and she is a graduate of Leadership Birmingham and Leadership Alabama. “I am passionate about changing the world for the better,” Todd says. “I have learned to be an active listener, especially those who disagree with me. I love active civil discussions about public policy issues.”

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