As a young, gay man at Birmingham’s Huffman High School, Amer Rice was subject to intense and humiliating bullying. Despite being a strong student, it made him question his self-worth and his ability to succeed in the wider world.
But Rice’s journey took a life-altering turn for the better when he signed up for The Birmingham Promise, a program for Birmingham City School students that provides paid internships and up to four years of tuition assistance for college, based on student performance.
During his senior year at Huffman, Rice jumped at the internship opportunity. After interviewing with several organizations, he chose to intern in the Office of the Provost at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). There, he worked closely with Gwynne Mountz, administrative director and executive assistant to Pam Benoit, UAB senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.
It was an experience, Rice said, that fired his mind and opened his eyes to a completely different world – one where he was judged solely on his abilities and his potential. The internship not only expanded his knowledge about the myriad academic and career paths a major university can offer; it also gave him an opportunity to learn and ask questions, and build relationships with experts in a host of fields.
“It was like real life,” Rice said. “It showed me that, the time is now. That my real life was about to begin.”
The Birmingham Promise is just one of several programs that fall under Prosper, a sweeping initiative launched in 2021 with Mark Crosswhite, the outgoing president and CEO of Alabama Power, as board chair.
Among Crosswhite’s interests during his eight-year tenure as the company’s chief executive was to help provide educational and economic opportunities for young people in underserved communities across the state. Another was to help nurture small businesses and startups in Alabama, particularly those headed by minority and female entrepreneurs.
These challenges, he knew, couldn’t be tackled in a vacuum. Rather, they demanded coordination and partnerships with people and organizations that had expertise. The Prosper initiative has quickly become a model for bringing together the power of multiple organizations and talents to help drive equitable growth in an Alabama community.
Prosper describes itself as a coalition of community, civic and business leaders “committed to creating a more vibrant, racially and gender inclusive economy” in Birmingham and Jefferson County with three focus areas: job creation, job preparation and job access.
Partners include Alabama Power, Shipt and Regions Bank; UAB, the city of Birmingham and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama; the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and the Women’s Foundation of Alabama; Protective Life Corporation, Encompass Health and many others.
“This region can do better in providing opportunities to its residents, especially the Black community,” Crosswhite said at Prosper’s unveiling. “Prosper will work to align key priorities: growing quality jobs, preparing workers and investing in communities. We know that – together – our impact can be exponentially greater.”
Prosper leaders say their intent is not to duplicate the good work already being done in the region, but to better align existing resources for greater impact and results. To date, Prosper has put its multipartner muscle behind four key areas: supporting scholarships, apprenticeships and internships for Birmingham City School students through The Birmingham Promise; accelerating the growth of Black-owned businesses; creating job opportunities for diverse candidates in the city’s burgeoning health sector through its Health Tech Accelerator; and providing business advisory services to help minority- and women-owned businesses expand through the Supplier Scale program, in partnership with the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA).
Considering the short amount of time that Prosper has operated, the accomplishments are impressive. In the first three quarters of 2022, Prosper has raised more than $10 million for its initiatives. During that period alone, The Birmingham Promise awarded more than 780 scholarships and provided nearly 150 work-based learning opportunities for Birmingham City School students at 80 host sites.
Since its inception, Prosper’s Magic City Match program has distributed $500,000 in grants to support Black-owned businesses in the city and its newly launched Path to Wellness pilot program has already produced 14 graduates. The first graduation ceremony, held this September at Innovation Depot, followed a four-month course designed to move historically marginalized candidates into living-wage jobs in the local health care community – a sector that struggles to find qualified employees.
J.W. Carpenter, Prosper’s president, said Crosswhite’s guidance and insights have been pivotal to the organization’s success.
“Prosper would not exist without the vision, commitment and leadership of Mark Crosswhite,” Carpenter said. “The impact of his role as our board chair – helping bring together corporate and community leaders to launch our organization, focusing on economic development with inclusion at the forefront – only pales in comparison to his undeniable legacy at the helm of Alabama Power. Our city, state and region are all the better because of Mark Crosswhite.”
Carpenter pointed to several other positive outcomes for the city in which Prosper has had a hand. They include:
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who has been closely involved in Prosper, said Crosswhite has been vitally important to the initiative.
“Mark Crosswhite is an amazing thought leader who cares deeply about his community and has always pushed for equity and inclusion,” Woodfin said.
“As chair of the Prosper board, he worked tirelessly to foster teamwork and trust among its members. His drive to build a better Birmingham was infectious and his leadership will be missed at Alabama Power.”
As for Amer Rice, his internship experience through The Birmingham Promise reaffirmed his intent to continue on to college. He took advantage of the Birmingham Promise scholarship, which is covering his tuition at Jacksonville State University (JSU). The 18-year-old freshman is studying criminal justice, with plans to go on to law school. Rice’s sister, who graduated from Huffman the prior year, is also at JSU with the support of a Birmingham Promise scholarship.
The children of a single mom, the scholarships mean Rice and his sister can concentrate on being successful in their studies versus worrying about how to make the next tuition payment.
“I would do this program 100 times – over and over and over again,” Rice said. “I can’t even put into words how much it helped me.”
He said conversations with the relationships he built during his UAB internship helped him focus on how to move forward.
“Talking with them, adults with advanced degrees, I could ask them: ‘You’ve done this – what do I need to do?’ It helped motivate me to be the person I want to be.
“They saw me as a high school scholar – someone who is smart and will make it in life,” Rice said. “It was like, I got my strength back.”
Learn more about Prosper at prosperbham.com.
Anthony Cook contributed to this report.