I Create Birmingham: Brian Hawkins, aka Voice Porter

“I’ve been called talkative, loud, the ringleader, and a lot of other things pertaining to the use of my voice, but my favorite one was “the Representative” my assistant principal at Ensley Magnet High School called me that just before we staged a school walk out.”

Name: Brian Hawkins, aka Voice Porter
Occupation: Spoken Word Poet, Activist, Entrepreneur
Creative Industry: Performing Arts/Culinary Arts

1. Voice Porter is elemental to who you are and what you do. If you’re willing to share the history of that name, we think it will immediately create a connection for our readers.

Where do I begin? I’ve been called talkative, loud, the ringleader, and a lot of other things pertaining to the use of my voice, but my favorite one was “the Representative” my assistant principal at Ensley Magnet High School called me that just before we staged a school walk out. Sometime in college I began to perform spoken word and emcee the events. At one of the off campus events I was told that I had “a free voice” because I “said whatever the hell I wanted to say.” The next time I attended that event the emcee announced me as AFreeVoice. He had it written as one word. Every subsequent visit was the same and the moniker stuck. Most people would shorten it to Free or Voice when I was off the stage and it was who I am. Since Porter is already one of my given names, I just added Voice and here we are.

2. What came first for you in life, the artist or the organizer? Are those two parts of your work fully integrated or do you sometimes find yourself in one role but not the other?

I’m not really sure, I can’t remember a time when one of those parts was missing. I remember organizing my brothers and cousins against the tyranny of our parents and I remember that we always created. We were either making music or drawing or sculpting or telling stories. We used to play a game called “Make me laugh” where you had to tell a story that was funny enough to make the judges laugh and you couldn’t sit down until you accomplished your goal. I think that the two are seamless now. Creativity and art are the heart of loving a community.

3. You created Bards & Brews, which seems like a simple concept now, but it was novel and completely untested when you started. What is it and can you share a bit about its growth?

I didn’t actually create Bards & Brews, I just happened to be in the perfect space to get in the driver’s seat. Bards & Brews (B&B) is, actually, the brainchild of Haruyo Miyagawa, a librarian in the main library downtown. Haruyo created B&B as a way to get more people to visit the library. B&B started as a poetry slam (a slam is a spoken word poetry competition) and beer tasting, it has grown to incorporate an open mic format in order to include more of the creatives that wanted to give spoken word a try. I think that the biggest factors for Bards & Brews growth is that we have created a space for creatives and lovers of creativity to feel safe and invited. The event is building so much momentum because people are curious and just pop in to check it out, absolutely Love what they experience and bring all of their friends the next time. Word of mouth has been great for us. We don’t have billboards, radio ads or tv commercials. People just enjoy themselves and tell other people.

4. You’ve been active in both Norwood and Ensley redevelopment, but in somewhat different capacities. Tell us about that.

In both places I’ve been blessed to have the most amazing people working with me. People who will listen to my craziness and give me solid advice and direction to get me moving. I started my community development life in Norwood at the Norwood Resource Center (NRC). I ran into Melodie Echols (Executive Director of the Norwood Resource Center) at a neighborhood association meeting where we were discussing the Carraway Hospital property and She asked my opinion on some of the discussion, so I dropped by the Resource Center and talked her ear off. There is a lot going on in Norwood. The NRC is responsible for the creation of the Norwood Learning Gardens (4 community gardens headed by certified Master Gardeners), The Norwood Market at the Trolley Stop (a farmers and vendors’ market), The Boulevard Blast 5K, the Junior Master Gardener Certification classes, helping to revitalize the Norwood School, finding-cataloging and/or distributing resources to neighbors in need. I owe Melodie and the NRC so much gratitude for shaping who I am as a community development activist. We are working to make Norwood one of the best residential neighborhoods in Birmingham and these programs, intended to address food inadequacies, income disparities, and education gaps, are the lifeblood of the neighborhood and help strengthen the North Side Community.

In Ensley there is a safety perception problem, an obesity problem, a diabetes problem, and a food accessibility problem amongst other things. Bettina Byrd-Giles (Executive Director, Bethesda Life Center) reached out and asked if I had any ideas on how to address health equity. I had an idea, but it needed some fine tuning. We put our heads together along with Brian Gunn and developed “The Color Project: Ensley”. The Color Project’s (TCP) goal is to create outdoor spaces that feel safe and inviting and will allow people to be active and interact with their neighbors. The Color Project combines public art (murals, sculptures, landscape design, etc.) with community gardens, lighting and a soundscape. Phase one of TCP – one mural, one pathway, one garden has been a success and has already been host to countless photo shoots, awe inspired selfie takers and group events. We have identified 95 spaces and locations for subsequent art/gathering places in downtown Ensley and we’re in fundraising mode to move the project forward. The Color Project isn’t working in isolation in Ensley. Ensley Alive and #EnsleyAlive has become a movement. The Color Project, Kuumba Community Art, The Bethesda Life Center, Oasis Gardens and many other organizations and individuals are active and engaged in the cultivation of a better perception of Ensley.

5. You’ve been on the road speaking at a couple of conferences lately. How did that come about?

The engagements that I’ve done and the ones yet to happen have come about because a few people took the time to listen to me and believe in me. This allowed the space for others to do the same. Melodie Echols believed in me and helped me to believe. That led me to Ensley. Bettina Byrd-Giles believed in me and pushed me to expand my boundaries. It was after much work that Bettina submitted my name to the University of Massachusetts’ SEED Symposium to be a presenter for my work in community development. I was accepted to speak. That led to being called back and calls from other places. Having someone believe in you and being able to see your potential, even when you can’t see it yourself is one of the most amazing things that can happen in a person’s life.

6. You went through CO.STARTERS this summer to begin working through a business concept. Can you share your concept and how it fits into the big picture of your efforts to this point?

Thank you Create Birmingham!, for bringing CO.STARTERS into my life. I envisioned a place that the people in Ensley could go to relax, gather, be informed and entertained. I believe that place should be IN Ensley. I asked people in Ensley what they thought was missing in the community and one of the things that stood out was a coffee shop. I want to create a space that is as much community gathering spot as it is local, maybe regional, watering hole. I submitted my idea for a coffee bar, where the signature alcohol cocktails were coffee based or coffee flavored to The Big Pitch by REV Birmingham and PNC Bank.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought that coffee cocktails would be a hit so I made it to The Big Pitch Finals and took the main stage and presented Tabú, a coffee bar. Tabú gained a lot of steam from our presentation and we’ll be doing some pop-ups in the late winter and early spring while we’re working on acquiring our physical location. In preparation for Ensley having a gathering space like Tabú; WordSpeak, We Are Artists (WAR), and REV Birmingham are collaborating on a poetry and music series at the Ensley Jazz Listening House called “Third Thursdays”.