By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Kelli Solomon, vice president (VP) of operations and programs for the Birmingham Urban League (BUL), knows what it’s like to be raised by her community. She compares her upbringing to that of a “military kid” because she and her family moved to different parts of the city.
“I was born in Ensley, and we lived in Center Point, Crestwood, Irondale, and Homewood,” she said. “It was a constant move. I was in and out of the Birmingham City and Jefferson County [school districts], and I’ve even gone to Shelby County Schools. So, when it came down to experiencing metro Birmingham, I’ve seen all sides of it.”
Those experiences have helped shape what Solomon does for others.
“It’s not about status. It’s not about skin color,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s about good Christian, unconditional love. I am giving back to the same community that raised me, and that’s why I do what I do every day.”
In her role as VP, Solomon, 37, was at the forefront of several programs that helped provide food and other necessities to more than 2,000 single mothers and senior citizens affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some people had a reduction of income. Some people lost income,” she said. “What we were trying to do was make sure that children did not go hungry, while we also being supportive of the families.”
Recently, Solomon had a hand in the Emergency Rental Assistance program, an effort launched in late May to help area renters who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 and need help with bills.
“There were a lot of people who were about to lose their homes, … and the [BUL] did our part. … We answered when people called and asked for help, making sure people are whole and [receiving] basic needs to give them the desires of their hearts.”
As the BUL’s VP of operations and programs, a position she has held since December 2017, Solomon’s job is to develop initiatives that assist the community at large, which include the spring 2020 onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We never stopped any of our services when COVID-19 hit, but we layered on the food and clothing drives because at that time a lot of people had lost their jobs and many had lost housing,” she said. “Grocery stores were [hit hard], too. … Even those people who had money [were not always] able to walk into the grocery store and get what they needed, like necessities.”
Being on the ground during the pandemic, Solomon saw firsthand how dire the situation was.
“I remember reading about the Great Depression and learning how states and cities were crumbling because there were so many people in need at one time. That’s what happened here,” she said, noting that the BUL quickly partnered with other organizations to distribute food.
“It was important that children and seniors remained fed, and that’s why we decided to target single mothers, starting with households of three, meaning there had to be a minimum of three people in the [home],” Solomon explained. “We started gathering information to see how we could actually continue to help those families.”
Several food drives were held at BUL building downtown Birmingham, as well as in North Birmingham. Larger food drives were held at Legion Field and area churches.
“I wanted to make sure we were providing volunteers for other people providing resources to the community because we can’t just ask for their help if we’re not willing to lend a helping hand ourselves,” said Solomon. “I have no problem getting in and rolling up my sleeves … I was reminded that everybody needs somebody for one reason or another.”
Solomon, a Birmingham native, is the daughter of the Rev. Dr. Gregory L. Clarke, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in West Birmingham, and Minister Brenda Clarke. The fact that Solomon grew up all over town proved to be an advantage.
“I always made it a point in my life to be versatile,” she said. “My father is a pastor, so I grew up in the church. Growing up in the church, you meet people from all walks of life, you hear people’s stories, you become acquainted with the fact that there are people in need and it is your duty and responsibility as a Christian to help.”
Solomon graduated from Pelham High School in 2002. She enrolled at Auburn University then transferred to University of Montevallo, where she majored in mass communications.
“I left Auburn because I wanted a smaller, more-close-knit environment. Montevallo provided more of what I was looking for,” she said. “I pledged Delta Sigma Theta [Sorority Inc.] at Montevallo, and that was a highlight for me. I graduated in three years because I was very intentional about going in and getting out.”
Solomon graduated from Montevallo in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and got her start in politics, working as a secretary for former Jefferson County Commissioner George Bowman in District 1.
“I quickly moved into an office manager position,” she said. “When [Commissioner Bowman lost his seat] and William Bell was elected, I moved into an interim chief of staff position [with Bell].”
“My Brother’s Keeper”
When Bell ran for mayor of Birmingham in 2013 and won, Solomon was appointed executive assistant to the mayor and remained in that position until she was named director of the My Brother’s Keeper program in 2016.
“My Brother’s Keeper was an initiative that [was instituted] under President Barack Obama. … It was an effort to ensure that African American men were given avenues and streamlines for success,” she said. “It was my duty and responsibility to set forth and plan for the city of Birmingham.”
The program was also near to Solomon’s heart because she is a mother of two boys, Kaileb, 12, and Logan, 7, and she has a stepson, Jace, 14.
“Raising my boys as best as I could and providing opportunities and avenues for them was extremely important to me,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to give them a pretty steady hand in life, but I realized that everybody isn’t given that opportunity.”
Even though she worked as director of My Brother’s Keeper for only about a year, Solomon was proud of her work.
“I ran that program and a basketball league, [for which many of] the coaches were firemen and policemen,” she said. “I spent months with these young men who were not only playing basketball but also meeting and huddling once a week with their mentors. … It was a way for me to bring everybody together.”
Solomon’s next stop was at the BUL, after William Barnes, president and CEO of the local organization, recognized her work with the city.
“It was my job to make sure we had vibrant programs by reaching out to the community and meeting their needs,” she said. “[I also was tasked with ensuring that the organization was] operationally sound and able to efficiently administer these programs.”
In addition to overseeing food drives and rental assistance programs, Solomon has been responsible for programs like Save Our Sons, a safe-schools initiative launched with Birmingham City Schools (BCS).
“We took it a step further by doing rallies for students, as well as sitting down and having conversations with them,” Solomon said.
Under that program, the BUL went to all seven high schools in the BCS system and talked to students about crime and the issues they face as young people. Solomon said the work is rooted in her upbringing in the church.
“We have begun to not see others as humans—it doesn’t matter what the color of their skin is, their income bracket, or what they have been through,” she said. “When you think about the Bible, its stories, and how God healed the destitute and gave them life again, it is not our responsibility to judge anybody. It is our responsibility as a people to help others be successful and pull them up as we move up. … That is how we’re successful.”
For more on Birmingham Urban League services call (205) 326-0162 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.