Getting Engaged

Those who make time to connect with the homeless deserve a seat at the table.

By Max Rykov

Photos courtesy of 100 Black Men Deep Walk

As the glorious spirit of Thanksgiving descends upon the humble people of the Birmingham metropolitan area, families will gather to rejoice and reminisce, to feast upon decadent birds stuffed with birds of even higher decadence. High school classmates will run into each other in Birmingham’s charming bars and hook up with each other in clumsy displays of hopefulness and nostalgia, and we will all feel grateful for our gratitude and for our comforts, and will fall asleep knowing that we are taken care of.

That’s the Thanksgiving season for most of us.

That’s not the Thanksgiving season for DeJuan Hall and Cory Pettway. For these two friends, the spirit of giving from the heart radiates year round, and manifests in powerful ways.

In 2016, Hall and others started a movement called the 100 Black Men Deep Walk, in which men (and women and children too) walk through Birmingham’s neighborhoods, communicating messages of encouragement, unity, and empowerment. Pettway heard about one of those first events, and soon formed a friendship and partnership with Hall that I’ve been fortunate enough to see firsthand. The 100 Black Men Deep Walks are among the most honest and effective means of community organizing I’ve yet seen. They serve as rallying cries for self-reliance and Do It Yourself neighborhood revitalization. Leaders like Avee Shabazz offer wisdom and economic strategies for building wealth, Pettway and others speak directly to residents and help cultivate solutions to issues they face, and each walk event includes a Unity Circle, a symbol of protection and harmony in which all who participate hold hands and form concentric circles with each other.

Hall and Pettway’s activism has coalesced into an organization called The Willing Family, whose name expresses its collective soul of service and action. Joined by others like the Goddess of Civic Engagement, Julia Juarez, The Willing Family doesn’t wait for anyone’s permission or on government funding to clean up neighborhoods and help provide services to the extended family that is the city of Birmingham. Among the activities of The Willing Family is a monthly display of love in which Hall, known as the “Neighborhood Barber,” and others in a group called the Birmingham Barber Coalition provide free haircuts to Birmingham’s homeless population in Linn Park. A year old this month, the free haircut initiative usually turns into a therapy session. Coming without any sort of agenda, and with an energy of love and acceptance, Hall and his friends become confidantes for the homeless, listening to their stories, and about their lives and wants and needs.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Birmingham still has a long way to go to figure out how to address homelessness effectively. Like in any other place in the world, there is a tremendous stigma associated with being homeless. Even for some who work or volunteer for organizations that serve the homeless, there is a subconscious sense of “otherness” associated with a homeless person that makes it possible to subtly perceive them as something less than human. During the Thanksgiving season, when some families take time to volunteer in soup kitchens, the time spent performing service can feel more like marking off a checkbox than genuinely engaging with another human being.

But there are some individuals, like Hall and Pettway, and also like Erica “Star” Robbins, whose monthly “Be a Blessing Birmingham” events provide needed supplies to the homeless, who perform their work with servants’ hearts, and who I believe should be seated at the table for any conversations about truly alleviating homelessness in our city.

We’ve got a divide in Birmingham, between those who call the shots and control the resources, and those who are active on a grassroots level, working directly with the people in those quote-unquote underserved parts of town. The real work—the relationship building—is very rarely done by those with institutional power. Solutions exist for pretty much all of the issues that Birmingham faces, but I believe that only when those who operate at a grassroots level begin to be taken seriously by those at the highest level, and become decision-makers at the policy level, will we actually be able to make progress.

The impact that DeJuan Hall and Cory Pettway have in Birmingham can’t be overstated. Between the two of them alone, and their social media followings, there is the potential to reach tens of thousands of people who might otherwise be ignored by the powers that be. Fortunately, Cory now works at City Hall, as an assistant to Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, bringing his powerful voice and organizing prowess to another level of operating. I am hopeful that Birmingham can move in the right direction, follow suit, and ask our grassroots organizers what they need to continue and magnify their important work. And then leave them to do it without interference.

May all those who need love and compassion receive it. And that’s everyone. Happy Thanksgiving!

One Response to “Getting Engaged”

  1. Cory P says:

    Wonderful article.

Leave a Reply