Foreword: Adrienne Knight

Adrienne and I began our discussion at one of Montgomery’s most attractive sites, The Riverfront Park, located in the downtown area of the city where we both reside. This park sits along the southern bank of the Alabama River, a 318 mile strait once used as primary medium for transportation into the city. After its founding in 1819, Montgomery grew as a central Alabama hub for imports, however, the ships docking at the Alabama River weren’t simply importing goods such as vegetables or spices. These ships carried slaves. Later, slaves would be taken from the dock and marched up what is known today as Commerce Street, where they were sold on an auction block.  By the 1850s, Montgomery was just the 75th largest state capitol in the country yet the city had the second largest slave population in the United States. Thousands were separated from their families and sold once again to the next buyer right in the heart of this city. A century later, the very grounds these slaves walked would become the epicenter for a civil rights struggle that would forever change this country.

It was no surprise that as I opened the interview, Adrienne first spoke about the rich history of her hometown: “The history…that’s my favorite thing about this city. It’s the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, it’s also the cradle of the confederacy – something I will never celebrate – but this was a place that was deeply divided with opposing viewpoints. It was right here where people stood up. People were afraid and threatened but it was right here where people shaped history.”

It’s a history often clouded today by the negative stereotypes surrounding Southern life and culture but it’s also a history Adrienne knows well and grew up celebrating. While her family roots extend to other areas of the country, Adrienne claims the title as the one true Southerner among them and she carries that with pride. Montgomery is her home and she’s not ready to see this history easily erased.

As we spoke, we looked out across the calm river on a sunny, cool day. Everything about the South seems to carry its own grace and eloquence. It’s in the drawl of our speech, the pace of our walk, and the harmony created between the wind softly whisking through the trees and the birds skimming the surface of the river. It was so hard to imagine that this beautiful site was also once a channel for terror and inhumane alacrity. This juxtaposition presents a challenge that for many in the Deep South, especially people of color, can be difficult to reconcile. Adrienne tells me she has hopes that the Southern identity can become more than the worst of our history. More than the worst of us.

“I defy stereotypes,” she says. Adrienne recalled seeing this statement on a t-shirt and felt it applied to how she sees herself today as a young black woman living in Alabama.

“People lump southerners into a category but we’re diverse. Our culture is diverse and has been influenced by so many ethnic groups. There are so many unique communities and people that make up Southern culture. I think there’s a lot of us defying the stereotypes but we aren’t being depicted.”

For Adrienne, a new face to the Southern identity looks as colorful as the streets of cities like Montgomery, Birmingham, and Atlanta are in reality today. “There’s always been two depictions of the South: either we’re poor, country, and under-educated or we’re affluent, traditional, and just own land,” she stated, “We’re more than that.”

Admittedly, Adrienne recognizes that Alabama is still a deeply flawed place with much work to be done. It’s in her own day to day life as a social worker that she is confronted with the real effects of broken systems and unmet needs.  She argues the focus of our leaders is misplaced today, stating, “[Leaders] are not focusing on the things that people need that are important in life like a quality education, nutrition, mental health services, and other medical needs. We need to be investing in the people. Where are we seeing that investment?”

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Further, she makes the case that those progressive values which united people in the streets of her city over just over 50 years ago are still necessary to accomplish what those she cares most about need today:

“We’re a little slower, including when it comes to change, and there’s a lot of frustration about that; however, something about that [slowness] also fosters opportunity for collaboration – people have been collaborating to make things happen here all along – and we’re the only ones with a true blueprint for what the country needs right now.”

Since Donald J. Trump took office as the 45th President of the United States, Adrienne has spent a great deal of time reflecting on how the Civil Rights leaders and activists that took direct action during the movement would respond today. “Steady, motivated, and patient”, were the three qualities she says must guide the country at a time when many may feel powerless and are losing hope.

“Anyone from the South can tell you that you have to be persistent. When I think about the Voting Rights Act and the work it took to pass that law – it’s amazing. They didn’t give up. Some may say “'Well, it was a different time,' but was it really? It’s going to take that same level of work today.”

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Adrienne’s biggest concern is what her community stands to lose. Throughout her experience growing up in Montgomery, she has had to confront time after time the realities of our most disenfranchised communities losing out. “This city has shifted,” she remarks. The south side of the city was once vibrant with business and community. Now, as the racial make-up of Montgomery has changed and white flight has pushed more neighborhoods and development east, local business has followed...and so has the city’s investment.

“I think it made people feel like no one cared about their neighborhood. Folks were still there but they were left behind. Businesses that had come and turned their dollar just left and afterward no one replaced what those communities had. That developed a sense of ‘I’m not on the right side of town’ and you can see it because there’s no true investment [in those communities].”

Adrienne remains motivated and is committed to doing the work that she knows her clients, her community, and even more deserve. When asked what keeps her driven, her answer was simple: “I want to be helping others improve their situation.”

Every day, Adrienne is working in a medical health clinic that specifically serves patients with HIV/AIDS. Nearly 50 percent of all new cases of HIV infection in the U.S. are in the South, and African-American men and women currently comprise 75% of HIV patients. While taboo, she points out that topics like sexual health, mental, and emotional wellness cannot continue to be stigmatized or ignored in the Black community.

“As a social worker you realize that anything can touch anybody. No one can say what will and won’t happen to in their life and what circumstances they might find themselves in. A lot of people don’t realize that and it contributes to the us vs. them mentality,” she explains. “People assume my clients are just sexually promiscuous but what we know is their stories are much deeper than that.”

Another pillar of strength and source of motivation for Adrienne continues to be her church family. She attends Resurrection Catholic church and has been a member there her entire life. At a time when six in ten Millennials who were religiously affiliated during childhood are leaving the church, Adrienne is proud to call say her home church is a community that has supported the issues that are important to her and as she puts it: “we are not falling silent.”

Adrienne notes that the faith-based community has always held a prominent role in social justice and activism throughout the Deep South. Today, she tells me, faith leaders simply must speak up on the issues that are on the hearts and minds of millennials in order to sustain this role. “Of course when topics like HIV come up – they are taboo in the church – but when it’s affecting your community -- the Black community – you need to be addressing it,” she adds, “I don’t think there’s enough real discussion about mental health that extends beyond prayer rhetoric in the church either. Of course, I believe in the power of prayer and healing but we need to get people all the information and care possible. Today, we can’t afford for the church to overlook these issues or only address them in the same way."

Adrienne credits remaining close and connected to those who have raised her, invested in her, and supported her along the way for her passion to serve others. “Safety, acceptance, and family…I feel that everywhere I go in Montgomery”.

It’s that deep connection to this city and love for community that places her at the forefront of a new wave of millennial leadership in the Deep South.  A new generation of game changers like Adrienne are in the trenches and remain committed to honoring the richness of the Deep South’s progressive history while paving a new path for growth and evolution. She tells me, “I want change and someone has to do something.”

Adrienne’s story represents faith, family, and the plight of those who dare to run at our most pressing challenges head on. She is bold. She is Southern and she is here to stay.

       D. N.