Sally Mackin’s job is not easy. As the executive director of the Woodlawn Foundation, she’s charged with making sure the foundation’s efforts to improve Woodlawn’s housing, education and overall community wellness stays in sync with what Woodlawn residents want for their neighborhood. We recently talked with Sally about her passion for Woodlawn and her love for the city. Welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham, Sally Mackin!
As executive director of the Woodlawn Foundation, what is a typical week like for you?
I think the one constant in this work is inconsistency. I know that’s cliché, but it really is different every day. And it depends on what our priority focus is — whether we’re working on a huge education initiative or an event or a loan closing or construction project. But we also have a lot of ongoing relationship-building with the residents, with our partners, with the city, with the county, with the education board members and the central office. So the consistent part of the work is really the relationship building.
What do you think is your primary role in all of this?
My primary duty is to make sure that our long-term strategy and vision is in alignment with the residents’. We’re here to support the revitalization of the community with the residents of the community, not to come in and implement our own plan. And a lot of times, even if you think you are partnering with people, it’s hard to not go in different directions on vision. So it’s really about keeping that constant focus and listening and paying attention.
Your job seems tough, but you’ve stuck with it for six years. Why?
I would like to think that I do it because it’s the right thing to do. I always say if I don’t do it, who will? Again all those sound cliché, but I think when you look at all the problems that we have in our neighborhoods in our city, we have to have more people involved to try to solve these problems. It’s easier to just say, “I can’t do anything about that as an individual because they’re so huge.” But I guess my approach is, if nothing else, I can bring awareness. I might not be able to solve the problem, but I can at least raise some awareness and advocate for smarter people than me to come up with a solution.
What are some examples of things the Woodlawn Foundation is doing to improve housing, education and community wellness in the neighborhood?
As for housing, we are trying to catalyze a market for a healthy, mixed-income community. Whether you make $12,000 a year or $70,000 a year, we want to make sure there is high-quality affordable housing for everyone that wants to live in the community.
In education, we are directly working with five of the Birmingham City schools that make up the Woodlawn feeder pattern. The goal is to improve educational outcomes and that can look a lot of different ways: providing additional professional development for teachers, providing additional coaching for the leaders and providing after school summer programs through our partners.
And education helps with community wellness. A lot of the students in our schools have issues that they’re dealing with other than academic issues, so we have site coordinators in each of the schools that are on the Woodlawn Foundation staff that work alongside the principals, teachers and parents to identify those non-academic needs and bring in partner organizations that can meet those needs at the school site. Examples would be vision screening, hearing, dental, food access, mental health services — all of these things that could potentially prohibit a student from succeeding in the classroom.
During your six-year tenure, what changes have you seen in Woodlawn?
There’s a perception and a reality that it’s more safe. You see more people out walking, jogging, biking, walking their dog or sitting on their front porch. That was not happening 6 or 7 years ago. One thing that has not changed is the familiar faces, which is a good thing. I still see the same people. There’s still a great sense of community and a huge sense of pride in the neighborhood.
What changes would you like to see?
Even more safety — I think our city as a whole is struggling with increasing crime, and I definitely want to see that improve. Also, I want more of our students graduating, and I want more of them ready for the next step, whether it be kindergarten, first grade, eighth grade, college or career. I want all of them to take that next step with a sense that they are prepared.
How do you think improving Woodlawn helps the city as a whole?
I look at a city like a body, and it’s only as healthy as all of its parts. Whether we chose to work in Woodlawn or somewhere else, we have to make sure that all of our neighborhoods are healthy in order for us to have a holistically healthy city.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Juggling so many different balls, it’s really easy to get distracted and unfocused, but at the same time, that’s what keeps it really interesting, and that’s what keeps me going. I thrive on problem-solving and challenges.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part is just the thought that maybe we’re improving lives. It could be one, it could be 10 — just the slightest hope that we’re making a difference in individual lives and then how that might make a difference in others’.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I love to read. I usually read three to four books at a time. I just finished the Ken Follett trilogy. I love really long, epic series. I love spending time with my kids. I love to kayak. I love exercising. My latest obsession is Orangetheory. It’s really intense and really fun. I love to cook. Cooking is like my therapy, and it’s cheaper than paying a therapist.
What are some of your favorite places in Birmingham?
I really love the industrial history of the city. I love the old factories, steel mills, Continental Gin, Sloss Furnaces — all of the old industrial buildings along the rail line. I’m fascinated with that.
What’s something people would probably be surprised to learn about you?
I grew up playing classical piano, yet I love Rage Against the Machine and everything in between.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Alone time to think, being outside near water and music.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
To never let fear or your current circumstance stop you from living your life as you feel led to do. That came from my dad. The second best advice I’ve gotten was to never give advice, and so that’s the advice that I always give.
Thank you, Sally! Learn more about Sally’s work and the Woodlawn Foundation at woodlawnunited.org.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the fabulous photos of Sally at the offices of the Woodlawn Foundation and in front of the future site of the James Rushton Early Learning Center.
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