For 23 years Samuetta Nesbitt has been making Alabama a better place to live through her work at the United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA), one of the largest United Way chapters in the nation. As Senior Vice President of Public Relations and Community Affairs for UWCA, she says she’s “the brand police.” She’s charged with guiding communications to the media and the community at large to be sure everyone understands how the UWCA changes lives. With the money raised through its annual campaign, the United Way of Central Alabama allocates funds to more than 80 partner agencies serving Blount, Chilton, Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, and Walker counties. Even in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, Samuetta and her team came out on top, meeting fundraising goals for the year and continuing to support these organizations at a time when Alabama residents needed them most. We’re honored to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Samuetta Nesbitt.
How did the pandemic affect the United Way of Central Alabama?
We actually had developed a plan to function in a disaster because we are in tornado territory. Our goal was always to be prepared to be able to work off-site should a tornado destroy our building. So when COVID hit we were prepared and equipped to work from home. We have a great IT department. They are visionaries, and they had already started training us on Microsoft Teams. When they sent all of the employees home and closed the building, we had a laptop and we had training. We had everything we needed to function from home.
Did the pandemic make fundraising more difficult or make it harder to serve the agencies under the United Way umbrella? How were you able to still meet your fundraising goals?
Our niche is being able to go into a company and make a personal presentation to the employees. So we had to do those through Zoom or whatever virtual platform that company was using. We also made videos to present to those that we couldn’t reach. What helped us was that we really didn’t have to convince people there was a need. They could see it everywhere. Everybody was impacted by this pandemic in some way. We just had to inform them that because of their past contributions we were ready to spring into action, and we hoped their future contributions would help people recover.
The first thing we did before we even started campaigning was to support our agencies because they were hit the hardest. So we set up a fund for our agencies and asked, “What do you need to keep the lights on?” And they literally needed to keep the lights on. We gave grants to them to take care of those basic needs to keep them operating.
Is there anything about the work that United Way of Central Alabama does that you think most people don’t know?
People don’t understand the poor. They have an antiquated image of what a poor person is. A poor person is anybody who lacks the means to obtain the basic necessities in life that are needed to survive and thrive. People used to think that the poor didn’t have a job. I think we’ve done a good job explaining that you can have a job and still be poor. You can have a job and still not be able to provide good housing, good schools, good health care, or enough food for your family. We really want people to expand their definition of poor. They may be poor and not know it.
Some people think they have not been touched by United Way services. They say, “I’m not going to give because I don’t need those services.” And I’ll immediately say, “Wasn’t your child in Boy Scouts? Wasn’t your child in Girl Scouts? Doesn’t your mom go to the senior center?”
People think they don’t need our services because they’re middle class or wealthy, but you may have the basics but somebody in your family may need mental health services. And the Red Cross is there to serve everybody.
I would hate to see what our community would look like without those 80 agencies out there covering everything from brain injuries to literacy to scouting to the YWCA and the YMCA. I’m sure we’ve touched almost everybody in the community in some way if only to make their community better.
What inspired you to dedicate your life’s work to serving the community?
I’m from Montgomery, so there’s a lot of civil rights history in my family. We had marchers stay at our house for the Selma to Montgomery march. My parents weren’t the foot soldiers. They were the check writers. That’s a category that’s always left out of history. There were a lot of people who were somewhere between the foot soldiers and leaders.
My mother, my aunts, and my dad belonged to these social clubs and their purpose was to primarily do public service work. That was my environment growing up. At that time, the civil rights movement was a huge thing but the community still had needs and that’s where they came in. I could see where the gap could be filled.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I like relaxing on a vacation. I take time to travel. I really miss theater and going to musicals. I love playing restaurant critic with my friends, and Birmingham is a great place to do that. Some of my favorite local restaurants are Post Office Pies, Chez Fonfon, Rodney Scott’s BBQ and also Surin because of the good food and memories. I love spending time with my three grandsons. At ages 5, 3, and 2, they’re of the age of having conversations with their GiGi now. They’re very interesting people with their own worldviews.
I enjoy the diversity of my community service. I’m on the board of Grandview Medical Center and the Shelby County Planning Commission. I walked on without very much knowledge in either area but it’s allowed me to grow and to learn about their industries and then also be a source for what are the community needs. I’m also on the board for the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center and I do community service through my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Incorporated, and The Links.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
The best advice from my mother was, “Everything comes at the right moment. Be patient.”
And a close friend told me once to just keep moving. Sometimes in your career or life, you pause and you overthink it too much. But just keep moving and doing something toward your goal.
Other than faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
Food delivery services, my dog Ella, and my cell phone.
Thank you, Samuetta! To learn more about United Way of Central Alabama, visit uwca.org.
To meet more inspiring Birmingham women, visit our archives.