Liz Huntley’s poverty-stricken and abuse-filled childhood was reversed in one game-changing moment on her first day of first grade. Her strong faith, hunger for knowledge and undying motivation enabled her to triumph over the hardships of her youth. She is now a successful attorney at Lightfoot, Franklin & White and an advocate for early childhood education and sexual abuse prevention in children. Liz is also a member of Auburn University’s Board of Trustees and vice chair of The University of Alabama School of Law’s Board of Trustees for Farrah Law Society, leader of many professional and community organizations, motivational speaker — including a TedX Birmingham talk — mother of three and author of the inspirational memoir, More Than A Bird. Today, we’re thrilled to have Liz Huntley as our FACE of Birmingham!
Where did you grow up and if not a Birmingham native, what brought you to the city?
I came to Clanton at age 5, when my mother died, to live with my grandmother. During law school, I clerked for federal Judge U.W. Clemon in Birmingham, and then came back to practice law after I received my legal degree. I really fell in love with the city and its history, especially everything associated with the civil rights movement here in Birmingham.
What drew you to study law? Tell us about your legal practice.
When I was in the sixth grade, I had a history teacher who encouraged me to read biographies. As I read, I learned that everything significant that happened in our country happened through the practice of law. I knew I wanted to be a person that was engaged with the public good and helped people. So at that age, I just knew I wanted to be a lawyer.
My legal practice has really evolved. My firm is a corporate defense firm and a natural fit for me because I represent some organizations that serve children. I represent children by ensuring they receive fair and equitable settlements in personal injury cases. I hope to continue to expand that work, so my legal practice can actually center around children. I’m working to “marry” my advocacy work that I do outside of the firm with my legal work.
What is your role in advocating for early childhood education and the prevention of sexual abuse in children?
I serve on the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Board of Directors and Task Force, which is a grassroots organization working to expand access to high-quality voluntary PreK to all four-year-olds in Alabama. I also travel the state to speak to business and community leaders to promote PreK. Early childhood education is so important to me, because the solid PreK foundation I received was critical to my academic success. It led the way for me to be very successful in kindergarten and beyond.
Regarding child sexual abuse education, I was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley to serve on the Governor’s Task Force for Child Sexual Abuse Education. The task force submits recommendations to the governor for age-appropriate curriculum to be taught in classrooms with the intent of reducing the incidence of child sexual abuse in the state. I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse, and when I was going through that, I was scared and didn’t know how to find protection, so naturally I am passionate about finding a way to educate young children on how to reach out for help if they’re going through the same situation.
What is the ultimate outcome you would like to see from your advocacy work?
I would like to get my story out to as many kids I can, with the main message being that no one has to allow their circumstances to define them. From poverty to divorced parents and anything that can affect or impede a child’s growth, their circumstances do not have to define who they are. One of the things I’m working on with my co-author, Cole Peck, is a reflection guide to accompany More Than A Bird for teenagers. My goal is for this to help them work through and identify their issues that they can take responsibility for. Hopefully, that will prevent them from allowing some family, environment or home circumstance to dictate their future, because it does not have to.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
I think a mentor is someone you trust with your future, and you have them for different areas of your life. Spiritually, my pastor and adopted father is clearly my mentor in terms of who I go to to think through how God would want me to handle a situation. My professional mentor would have to be Sam Franklin. There are very few steps I take in my career without talking with Sam. Sam Franklin and former federal Judge U.W. Clemon are the two people I trust to go to with ideas and decisions. When I pick up the phone to call, they always answer, give sound advice and have my best interest at heart.
In your TedX Birmingham talk, you discuss “game-changing moments.” Please describe one of yours.
Because of my solid foundation in early childhood education, I was able to find my way into my classroom on the first day of public school without an adult. My first-grade teacher recognized my potential and said to me with tears in her eyes, “Elizabeth, you’re going to be the brightest student I ever have.” That moment truly set the stage for the rest of my life.
How can other people be game-changers in their own lives or in the lives of others?
Being a game-changer is all about recognizing that moment in time where you have the ability to do something that’s really going to impact somebody’s life. It doesn’t have to be an isolated moment, although many times it can be. How you seek out those game-changing moments is through community service; that’s where they happen, in nonprofit organizations that serve families or children or whomever. I always think that these acts of service mean more to the individual that’s doing it if they connect to it on a personal level. To me, it’s almost a way to give another person something you didn’t have that you would’ve liked to have had yourself, and it’s so fulfilling when you’re able to give that thing that you missed out on to somebody else, because God blessed you with the ability to do that. There’s no greater feeling than that to me.
How has More Than A Bird impacted your life and the lives of others?
The way that people have reached out to me, from being inspired as teachers to look differently at their students or some kid coming up to me and telling me the impact it’s had on their life, and the outpouring of people that have communicated with me and how it’s impacted them has just been more than I ever imagined in my wildest dreams. To know that those experiences that hurt so bad and were so hard to go through are now helping people is sort of my social justice. There’s a verse that says, “All things work together of those that love the Lord.” The Lord knows that I love Him, and for all of these bad things to end up working together for this book that’s helped so many people is just amazing to me. I get notes in the mail, emails and messages all the time. It just overwhelms me.
What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of your life?
I really never thought I’d be able to function as a wife and mother growing up. My husband and three children are the greatest accomplishment of my life, and one’s not any more important than the other. When you go through the childhood I went through, and you get to watch your own children blossom in a healthy home and environment and not have all the fears and insecurities that I did as a child, to be able to be a mother, is my greatest success.
What is your best piece of advice?
Someone told me a long time ago that if I didn’t know what to do about a situation, there’s always somebody out there who does, so I should look to that person or those people. Whether it be through observing them or going to them directly for guidance, you can always identify the person in the room who knows what to do. Somebody out there knows how to do it, so you can’t be afraid to ask. I have used that advice in so many areas in my life.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
There is nothing that I can’t live without except for those three things. As long as I’ve got those, I can get through anything. I came from nothing, so there are very few material things that have any significance to me, and most of those that do are some object that was given to me by someone who meant a lot to me. Because it’s a gift from that person is what makes it special. Your faith especially, and your family and friends, you just have to have them.
And thank you to Brendon Pinola for the beautiful pictures of Liz at the offices of Lightfoot, Franklin & White!
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