Creating Stronger Communities Through Equality And Conversation

Originally posted on Forbes.com

Growing up in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, Cathy Sloss Jones witnessed the heartaches and hardships faced by a city in conflict. She also saw the exceptional leadership and critical dialogues all necessary to move a community forward.

This upbringing inspired Cathy to play a part in moving the community forward by genuinely listening to the needs of all citizens and supporting everyone equally. As a believer that authentic connections build the healthiest and happiest places, she wanted to make this happen in the place she called home.

Today, Cathy is the CEO of Sloss Real Estate—an agency that focuses on smart urban development and revitalization that support diversity, balance, and inclusivity. She’s received many awards, including Birmingham Businesswoman of the Year, Women Who Make A Difference, ULI Atlanta Award for Excellence, and Executives of Influence: Birmingham’s Most Influential Executives.

Cathy’s mission as an urban development leader is to repair our broken societal and governmental systems made to separate people based on income level, race, religion, and more by creating better places for everyone to call home.

Learning by Listening

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been born in a city like Birmingham, Alabama,” says Cathy. “It’s a city that has changed the world in terms of our Civil Rights history.”

Her hometown has given her far more than just the opportunity to watch American history unfold outside her door. Cathy also listened and learned from some of the world’s most prolific Civil Rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Desmond Tutu. “I’ve just been sitting at their feet listening and trying to learn as much as possible,” she says.

And more than anything, it’s the lesson of listening to others that guided Cathy’s work in community building—something especially important as a white woman living in a majority Black city. “It’s time to listen and to educate ourselves…and then have a deeper conversation. It’s really important in healing this country,” she says.

Through these conversations, Cathy uncovered more about the “real history” of the United States and the many broken systems ingrained into our society. This includes systems built for her industry of urban development within Birmingham.

“We have systems that don’t work,” she says. “They’re just broken.” For example, Cathy has witnessed how city planning often groups people of similar income levels into the same neighborhoods. This creates financially unbalanced communities, leading to unfair economic disparity, unequal access to education, and neglected outdoor spaces.

“We’ve got to be thinking creatively about how we can fix these broken systems with something that works for everybody,” says Cathy. And that’s just what Cathy and her team did when they took on a major urban development project meant to revitalize what was then one of the lowest income neighborhoods in Birmingham.

Building Better, More Equitable Neighborhoods

When Cathy and her colleagues at Sloss Real Estate received a new project to tear down and rebuild a blighted, low-income neighborhood in downtown Birmingham, they had a choice. They could raze the troubled area, displace the current residents, and turn it into whatever they and the local government wanted. Or, they could talk with those who actually lived there to see what they envisioned for their community.

They chose the second option and dedicated themselves to designing a more balanced neighborhood built around the current residents’ needs. But before deeply diving into planning, the team went into the community and talked in-depth with as many residents as possible.

“It was so important to listen to the neighborhood and what they wanted,” says Cathy. “It was their neighborhood and where they lived. We were just the facilitators to help them think about how this neighborhood could be rebuilt.”

Through those conversations, they heard that residents sought more opportunities to connect. Currently, with no communal green spaces, youth centers, or other common areas, this was a challenge. They also wanted a nearby school as well as an outdoor space for gardening.

The team took every word to heart and created a new neighborhood that they called Park Place. “We were able to put in place a program that brought everyone together. This was about bringing families together,” says Cathy. The once impoverished area now boasts mixed-income housing, a great school, a YMCA, parks, urban gardens, shops, and more. It truly stands as a shining example of healthy, balanced, equitable urban development.

“For me, it’s a model in how we should remodel all urban neighborhoods,” says Cathy.

People-First Leadership

Park Place is just one example of how Cathy and her Sloss Real Estate team have helped revive Birmingham’s previously overlooked areas. Others include Pepper Place, a former Dr. Pepper bottling place that is now Birmingham’s community and entertainment hub, and Sloss Docks, which flipped a shipping center into a creative space for innovative local businesses.

With such people-centered projects, Cathy is a leader who thinks about more than financial return—she cares wholeheartedly about her beloved community. She wants to create spaces to help Birmingham flourish.

It’s a mentality that she hopes leaders everywhere will emulate, no matter the industry. And when asked which leadership qualities she values the most, Cathy ties it back to compassion, empathy, and understanding. “We need to have leaders who genuinely love and care about the place they [lead],” Cathy says.

After all, a leadership decision genuinely made to benefit those it’s supposed to serve can ultimately turn into more than immediate financial success. It can grow into something that ripples further—like a young girl growing up in a once-blighted but now revitalized neighborhood. What great things will she accomplish for her community, or even the world, with this newfound opportunity?

It could all begin with a leader focusing on the happiness and success of people first and designing a place made with her bright future in mind.

“I remember working on a project,” Cathy says. “I wrote in the wet concrete—kindness matters. I think it’s the most important thing to carry with you through life. That is the best we can do.”

The conversation with Cathy Sloss Jones continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast! Learn about her favorite resources on equality and social justice, how she believes the government can better serve our local communities, her philosophies on balanced urban planning and more!

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