The Birmingham Business Resource Center celebrated Black History Month by hosting the 15th AG Gaston Conference in Birmingham, Alabama, February 12-13, 2019. The theme of this year’s conference was “Bringing to the Forefront the Discussion of African American History, Economics, Politics and Quality of Life.” Convening governmental, corporate, nonprofit, and civic leaders of Birmingham, the conference organizers used the life and legacy of AG Gaston as a foundation to discuss African American enterprise and economic empowerment in an effort to move the city forward.
Author George Gaston was a prominent businessman, philanthropist, and community leader in Birmingham during the 19th century. Born in 1892 the grandson of enslaved individuals and inspired by Booker T. Washington’s teachings of industry, self-help and self-determination, AG Gaston built a multimillion dollar empire that spanned various industries—communications, real estate, insurance, banking, funeral homes, hotel, broadcasting, and construction. He even had a soft drink—”Joe Louis Punch ‘It’s a Knockout!’” Gaston also founded the Booker T. Washington Business College and built a Birmingham affiliate of the Boys Club of America. Due to his incredible business acumen, on his 100th birthday Black Enterprise Magazine named AG Gaston Entrepreneur of the Century.
Understanding the importance of recognizing and celebrating such an influential pillar of the Birmingham community, Bob Dickerson, Executive Director of the Birmingham Business Resource Center, created the AG Gaston Conference. According to Dickerson, the foundation of the conference is based on four pillars: 1) a platform for leaders and business owners to share their expertise; 2) an environment of celebration, challenge and empowerment; 3) a place for learning and developing better business practices; and 4) an opportunity to inspire the next generation. Mr. Dickerson explains his vision of the AG Gaston Conference further:
“It is a conference that highlights the fact that when enterprise grows in our community, the entire community is better off. Enterprising communities—whether those enterprises be small businesses, larger companies or just enterprising nonprofits—make life better for its citizens. Enterprise is what capitalism feeds off and the more enterprise we have in our communities the better.” – Bob Dickerson
As Mr. Dickerson explained at this year’s conference, it takes much more than a vision to make an idea a reality. He acknowledged that he had the vision of the conference for years, but that it was not until he shared his notebook, which included the blueprint of the conference, with the dynamic Gaynelle Adams Jackson that the vision began to unfold. Mr. Dickerson credited Ms. Adams Jackson for taking the idea and making it reality. (Isn’t it always a woman who makes it happen?!!)
The AG Gaston Conference featured several panel discussions that explored a variety of topics: the legacy of AG Gaston, politics and economics, civic innovation, and corporate social responsibility. Although all of the discussions were informative, I found the discussion on civic innovation particularly enlightening. With its new mayor, Randall Woodfin, the City of Birmingham is instituting a comprehensive strategy and holistic approach to economic development. The city’s action plan focuses on developing talent, connecting individuals to quality jobs, advancing entrepreneurship and attracting big business. As explained, economic growth is not inherently inclusive. Its byproducts often create geographical and cultural displacement as well as limited accessibility. In their economic development plan, however, the Birmingham’s Mayor’s Office wants to make sure that economic growth touches all citizens and that the city retains its soul and culture in the process.
The conference also included two keynote speakers Angela Rye and Dr. Boyce Watkins.
Angela Rye “Bringer of Truth” discussed the importance of African Americans working together to create social, political and economic change. She argued that in order for the African American community to accomplish our collective goals, we must move forward beyond the slave mentality and dismantle barriers of working together.
“We must harness our own collective power to create change.” – Angela Rye
Economist Dr. Boyce Watkins focused his message on the power of cooperative economics.
“Economics is both a competitive sport and a team sport.” – Dr. Boyce Watkins
He also advocated for African American business ownership. Using AG Gaston as an example, Dr. Watkins argued that African Americans must learn to build businesses to create economic power in the African American community, explaining that being employed benefits one person, whereas owning a business benefits many people. Business ownership, therefore, multiplies African American success.
Above all, the AG Gaston Conference personified community and what community is all about. First of all, the conference celebrated AG Gaston, one of Birmingham’s own African American heroes. The conference demonstrated the fact that even small communities don’t have to look outside of themselves but can look inside to recognize and pay tribute to their own heroes. This is extremely affirming. Secondly, the conference exemplified the importance of African American entrepreneurship and business ownership and their value to the economic and political advancement of the African American community. Enterprise is key to community empowerment. Third, the conference demonstrated the value of bringing every aspect of the African American community together to address issues comprehensively. Challenges that face the community are linked and, consequently, require all-inclusive solutions. Every sector, therefore, must be at the table and contribute in their unique way. Lastly, and most importantly, the conference illustrated that African Americans must embrace our own power to ensure the economic, social and political advancement of our community.