When Randall Woodfin was 15 years old, he worked at a supermarket bagging groceries.
“I was classically trained in customer service,” he says, only half-jokingly. He went on to Morehouse College (alongside PA State Senator Sharif Street) and Samford University School of Law before working as an attorney for the city of Birmingham for eight years. But his early lessons in putting customers first never left him.
In fact, when he was elected mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, in 2017, his first order of business was to create five core values for his administration—and the first is customer service. There’s also transparency, efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability, but they all start with customer service, in which every city employee now gets trained (and, in the spirit of the other values, reviewed).
“I think city government has to move to a point where if and when people have an issue, if they have to call 311, 911—if there is a pothole, if we missed picking up their trash, whatever the issue is—we have to be in a position as city employees on the frontline making sure we address the issue,” Woodfin said during a virtual chat with Citizen co-founder Larry Platt on Wednesday night. “And how we address that issue, how we listen, how we talk to them, is very important as well. And customer service is the backbone and foundation of government and how we should deliver services, period.”
That guiding philosophy was just one among many refreshing approaches Woodfin shared with the crowd via Zoom. Below, a few more.
His roots keep him grounded
“I was born in the city, I was raised in the city, and I love this city,” he says.
He had the unique experience of growing up in a multigenerational household and learning at the feet of his 100-year-old great-grandmother, who taught him two of the traits that guide his governing: patience, and empathy. “When you are raised in a household where you have a one-year-old all the way to a 98-year-old, you have to have a lot of patience, empathy, understanding. And all of things have been applicable in my position as mayor.”
He knows government can’t solve problems overnight, or alone
Less than three years into his term, Woodfin is not one to dwell on congratulating himself for the progress he’s made so far. “There’s so much more work to be done,” he says.
He believes the key to true city transformation lies in public/private partnerships. One innovative example is Birmingham Promise, a program he installed that provides paid ($15 per hour) workforce development training to high school students and full tuition to graduates of city high schools who go on to public colleges and universities in Alabama. “The best investment to make is in your youngest generation,” he says.
He believes in working through differences to achieve change
As a Democrat with a Republican governor, creating change can be challenging. “You have to have pragmatism, you actually have to work with people you disagree with because you have to deliver for the residents you serve,” he says. “And if everything is a fight, then no one wins.”
He’s also willing to dig in his heels when he knows it’s the morally right thing to do, as he did recently when he saw to the removal, despite the State Attorney General’s protests, of a confederate monument in the city’s Linn Park.
“It was the right thing to do from a moral standpoint,” he says. “We are all grieving, we’re all mourning and we’re all in sadness over Congressman Lewis’s death. But he spoke to ‘good trouble’. That night, walking into that crowd and looking at our residents attempting to take this monument down, I asked them to give me the opportunity to finish the job for them because it was the right thing to do. And [if I would get] in trouble for a civil fine [or] criminally, it was worth it because it didn’t belong.”
His top priority is the safety of his citizens
At a time when police reform is a hot-button issue, Woodfin is staying level-headed. “The number-one job of any mayor in America is public safety,” he says. “Every decision we make in the public safety realm has to be measured and balanced; it can’t be knee-jerk, it can’t be reactionary.”
He sees this fraught moment in history as “an opportunity for police and community to come together and say how should this be?” To that end, he created a community task force comprised of police and citizens, and he’s eager to hear their recommendations.
How, one attendee at the virtual chat asked, does the mayor keep level-headed despite the chaos of our times? He prays, he works out, he consults mentors and fellow mayors. “In a crisis,” he says, “We don’t have the luxury to overanalyze.” Leaders must be decisive, and leaders must act.
One can only wonder if (hope that?), in time, Woodfin will take his level-headed, citizen-centric actions to a national stage.