Bettina Byrd-Giles isn’t fond of the spotlight. For years, she’s been happy to work behind the scenes on her mission to shift the narrative about Birmingham’s Ensley neighborhood. Bettina is the CEO of The Bethesda Life Center, an Ensley-based health clinic that serves people regardless of their ability to pay. She’s a co-founder of Ensley Alive, an initiative that highlights Ensley’s community life, public art, cultural arts programming and more. She helped bring a mural to Ensley and assisted with 100 Lenses: Ensley, an exhibit of photographs taken by Ensley residents, meant to capture the true essence of the community. Bettina is also a recent fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leaders program, through which she has launched her latest project, Branding Ensley. We sat down with Bettina to learn more about Branding Ensley and her love for this community. Please welcome our newest FACE of Birmingham, Bettina Byrd-Giles.
What is the mission of Branding Ensley?
Branding Ensley is an effort to increase foot traffic for retail spaces in downtown Ensley by highlighting its jazz heritage. People always talk about Ensley and its jazz heritage as part of the distant past. Jazz is part of the fabric of this community; it’s not just a part of history. Birmingham is not a big steel-producing town anymore, but it’s still a part of our heritage. It still shapes who we are, how we do things and the landscape, and I would say jazz has that same influence on this community.
Every other day I’m having a conversation with someone, and they are actively pursuing their artistic talents and interests in this community. My project is to improve the built environment in Ensley by shifting its narrative. People don’t want to invest in Ensley because it has a narrative, to me, that’s unwarranted.
Tell me more about the t-shirts honoring jazz greats from Ensley and surrounding areas that are a part of the Branding Ensley project.
How did Ensley Alive get started?
Ensley Alive is a movement dedicated to Ensley’s renaissance. The founders are Deidre Clark, Brian “Voice” Porter Hawkins, Brian Gunn and myself, and Hank Layman joined us later.
Deidre Clark, a photographer from Ensley who had started art classes for youth at the Ensley rec center, contacted me and said she wanted to collaborate to do some type of health-related project with photography. My immediate thought was a photo-voice project.
That’s how the 100 Lenses: Ensley project came to be. The exhibit was here at the Bethesda Life Center, and so people started coming. Then Brian “Voice” Porter Hawkins and I collaborated on the mural.
I found that the people who are from here just had a lot of talent, and I felt privileged to be working with them.
What is your vision for Ensley?
My vision is informed by what the people in the community want but also by Ensley Alive. With the mural, we were on the cutting edge of what people are looking for across the country. Brian was already aware of how creative placemaking could transform a community. I was not. I was just being supportive of some people who were from the community and wanted to improve their community, and I had access to a wall, space, connections, resources and social capital. So, I try to stay in my lane. I like to stay in the background.
Why have you been reluctant to be interviewed about your work in Ensley?
There have been people working here for so long. They’ve been working here for 30 years. I’ve been working here for nine years. I feel that interviewing me detracts from the talent. I’m more behind the scenes trying to help make things work. But with Branding Ensley, my coaches through the Robert Wood Johnson Fellow Health Leaders program said, “This is your project. You need to be the face of your project.”
Growing up, you lived in Titusville and College Hills, and you now live close to Pratt City. How did you become so passionate about Ensley?
When I started working at Bethesda, and when my son was of age to start playing sports, I started looking for opportunities on the west side of town, and I was really happy and pleased with what I found once I went to McAlpine and Ensley Rec Centers and the libraries. There were a lot of opportunities. It just wasn’t made public. On all the mom blogs, they didn’t include the west side of town.
When I started working here, people responded so negatively when I said where I worked. I was really shocked. They almost felt they needed to protect me from the community. I had already been coming over here as a board member before I took the job, and I don’t live that far away. That just wasn’t my experience when I came over here.
I was wondering why people had that reaction and what would happen if I shared what I experienced when I came into the community. I just started posting on my Facebook page the delightful things that I found as I drove into the community every day.
What’s the main thing you want people to know about Ensley?
People live and love in this community. They care about this community. And they need our support in moving the community forward.
Before Ensley Alive, one thing that I launched was my one-woman “force you to come to Ensley” campaign. If people needed something from me, then they had to come here to Bethesda. Then any and everybody I met who I knew was from Ensley I would say, “Come and help!” I was inviting people to use the space at Bethesda. So, I would like people to know that money is not the only way you can transform a community. Enthusiasm goes a long way.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I practice yoga. I love to dance. Since I don’t get a chance to go out, I dance in the grocery store, I dance in Starbucks, I dance around the house.
I hang out in the Starbucks in the Crossplex, but I get a lot of work done there because often people I need to talk to at some point will come in there, whether it’s a councilperson or member of the state legislature or one of the neighborhood leaders or just a friend.
And I love trying different food. Some people would classify me as a foodie.
What are some of your favorite restaurants?
Surin West, Great Wall, and Bamboo on 2nd. I like almost everything at Surin West, but my favorite would be the spicy scallops. At Great Wall, I like the chicken eggplant clay pot. And at Bamboo, I like the lumpia.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given or the best advice you have to give?
Choose your battles. You try to find a win-win, but sometimes you have to give up something to get something … to get to the win-win.
Name three things you can’t live without.
My lavender essential oil, chai latte with soy, and my monthly pedicure
Thank you, Bettina, for the work you do on behalf of Ensley and Birmingham as a whole. Thank you to Eric & Jamie Photography for the beautiful photos.
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