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Renew Birmingham Aims to Curb Violence, Connect Neighbors

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Gerrel Jones, is executive director of Renew Birmingham, a faith-based organization that revitalizes underserved communities, primarily Ensley, by connecting residents to resources and services while empowering them to help themselves through community service. (Provided)

By  Alaina Bookman | abookman@al.com

This is another installment in Birmingham Times/AL.com/CBS42 joint series “Beyond the Violence: what can be done to address Birmingham’s rising homicide rate.” Sign up for the newsletter here.

Gerrel Jones, executive director of Renew Birmingham, said he is putting the neighbor back in neighborhood by empowering residents to give back.

Renew Birmingham is a faith-based organization that revitalizes underserved communities, primarily Ensley, by connecting residents to resources and services while empowering them to help themselves through community service. Renew offers residents mental health resources, transportation services, groceries, educational and career opportunities. In exchange, Renew asks residents to contribute volunteer hours to local projects.

“Community has to be a collaborative effort, there has to be an investment, a desire for people to invest in one another,” Jones said.

In 2012, Jones was released from prison and got to work becoming the change he wanted to see in his community.

“My story involves having become a drug addict, a violent criminal, committing a homicide, spending a big sentence in prison and then spending 20 years looking inward. I built communities in prison, because I realized I was going to die there and it was up to me to change my environment and I knew that it would have to be one relationship at a time.”

According to Jones, it is up to Birmingham residents to create the communities they want their children to live and thrive in.

Social Enterprise

Patrick J. Murphy, Goodrich Chair of the J. Frank Barefield Jr. Entrepreneurship Program in the Collat School of Business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said social enterprises, organizations created to benefit society, can help curb violence.

“Social enterprise is probably the best way to engage these kinds of problems in the community,” Murphy said. “A problem like violence, or food deserts, or hunger, or crime or education, you have to serve these problems based on the needs of your community. You have to get to know your community and engage with it. Individuals that are served by a social enterprise will go on to serve others. Now you have, truly, a community helping itself.”

Murphy has worked with social enterprise organizations across the country, such as Sweet Beginnings in Chicago. He said its method of providing employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people in exchange for entrepreneurship workshops, created a positive impact.

Sweet Beginnings saw a reduction in recidivism rates and an increase in monthly income and credit scores among its workers.

Murphy said social enterprise is becoming a more popular way to help communities across the country.

“Social enterprise doesn’t give handouts. It’s like giving communities a hand up through engagement, giving people tools to develop and grow,” Murphy said. “Social enterprise is powerful. It can do things that the government and for-profits can’t do. It’s great for engaging problems that communities face. Social enterprise helps a community help itself.”

Community Engagement

Jones said Renew engages with community members to better understand what resources and services they need.

When new neighbors move in, Jones makes sure to stop by to welcome new residents with gift cards, needs assessments and volunteer opportunities. He said he wants to make sure that families who move into Ensley do not feel isolated.

“In underserved communities, helping people understand civic and social responsibility is important,” Jones said. “We immersed ourselves in the community and we limited our service area so we could saturate it with resources.”

“Instead of waiting for the community to come to us, we canvas. We knock on doors, we call, we visit, we send support in the mail, we do yard parties to incentivize residents, so if our residents have a need, we’re going to know about it.”

For every $100 given to a community member, that resident must contribute five hours of volunteer work within the community.

“When you get people to work together, you give them a common goal, which will help to build a healthy community,” Jones said.

“Cultural attitudes have to change in order for people to have an appreciation for life. If people are working together, interacting with each other, you’re creating opportunities to move in a more positive direction and create a more positive outcome through the culture that they’ve built.”

Renew works with Wylam K-8 School and Minor Elementary School to let parents know there are resources available for their families.

Renew also has worked with Jackson-Olin High School Principal Nicole Davis-Williams to give student athletes community service opportunities like helping neighbors with yard work and setting up community events.

“To get children accustomed to contributing to and appreciating their communities, versus feeling isolated, particularly when they come from trauma, [Renew] puts them in cohorts,” Jones said. “If we can affect the children, they will change the next generation. With Jackson-Olin being a high school and those children having so much trauma from violence, we want to change the culture and help those kids develop a sense of hope, dignity and responsibility.”

In July 2023, Renew hosted the Ensley Renaissance Festival to bring community members together and honor the students that participated in the community service project. Alexandria Daniel, a Jackson Olin student athlete, was awarded a $2,500 scholarship for being most improved.

With the money the students earned from working in their community, they were able to buy their own sports uniforms.

“We teach them about financial literacy, how to invest in their communities and why it’s important. We want them to leave here and take what they’ve learned back to their school,” Jones said. “We believe that overtime, this will help to change the culture and help children to interact with each other in healthy ways.”

“Real Transformation”

Tommy Jones Jr., a pastor at Greater New Beginning Apostolic Church in Ensley, began working with Renew in 2023 and recently participated in a four-day workshop for Jackson-Olin students in February.

“We had an opportunity to work with Renew on some team building with at-risk youth from Jackson Olin in a four-day conference for young men where they were provided food and all types of health resources. They were given practical aid during this time of self-reflection, self-empowerment, self-affirmation. They received prayer if they wanted it. We did a lot of bonding as men. It was actually a very fruitful and productive time,” Jones said.

“To experience genuine love and care will cause real transformation. Those young men, they got to see some people love them. Being able to see love is what’s going to help us with gun violence.”

In March, Renew did a similar workshop for 15 young women from Jackson Olin. Credible messengers, business owners and a city of Birmingham staff member guided the students through workshops.

“Renew Birmingham, even though they help people by giving them resources and things, they empower people at the same time. You can’t just get your problems solved without also participating in the solution and giving back to their communities,” Jones Jr. said. “Renew is equipping people with practical ways to be self-sustaining. I’ll forever work alongside them.”

For more on Renew Birmingham visit www.renewbham.org