5 reasons why Birmingham needs to know Brian Voice Porter Hawkins

Brian Voice Porter Hawkins at Starbucks
Brian Voice Porter Hawkins at the Starbucks Community Center in 5 Points West. Photo via Sharron Swain for Bham Now

In 2004, Brian Voice Porter Hawkins came back to Birmingham (he spent part of his growing up years in Ensley, then left for a while) and has been making a difference here ever since. From community development to art, poetry and gardening, he’s a man on a mission.

One recent foggy morning, I drove for the first time on some of the (very high / amazing / slightly terrifying) new 59/20 bridges over to 5 Points West where we met up for a coffee and a lovely chat. Here’s what I learned.

1. You might have seen Brian Voice Porter Hawkins on the Starbucks app.

About a year ago, people from Starbucks were in town working on starting up a new Starbucks Storytellers division. What better place to come and look for people to help them gather stories from local stores than Birmingham?

The first person the folks talked to for this project just happened to be Voice (his stage name). I thought maybe it was because he was the coolest looking person in the room, with his long dreads and infectious smile.

Turns out some of the people who worked at the Starbucks Community Store in 5 Points West (which has basically been his home away from home since it opened a couple of years ago) might have tipped them off that he’d be a good guy to chat with.

Long story short, that led first to this article. Then, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson decided he wanted to have an animated video of the poem “To Be Human” play right before his keynote speech at the 12,000 participant Starbucks Leadership Experience.

Kind of an amazing rise, don’t you think? What’s more, Starbucks flew him up to Chicago where he and Kevin spent about an hour chatting in a booth about their unusual journeys to where they are currently in their lives. Niiiice.

2. Brian Voice Porter Hawkins is one of four founders of Ensley Alive.

Founders of Ensley Alive
The four founders of Ensley Alive (l-r Bettina Byrd-Giles, Brian Gunn, Dierdre Clark and Brian Voice Porter Hawkins). Photo via Facebook

Ensley Alive was born from a desire to “be the media” for Ensley. Voice and Bettina Byrd-Giles, one of the other co-founders, happened to be listening to the radio at the same time when someone called in from Ensley. The DJ thought it would be funny to play a clip of machine gun fire. Not cool.

Voice explained how a long time ago, Ensley was its own city, separate from Birmingham, and was much larger than it is now. Then when the City of Birmingham annexed Ensley, it shrank down to six quite small neighborhoods. But, the streets signs stayed the same, with “ENS” on them, indicating Ensley.

Ensley Alive poster
All credit goes to Larry O. Gay Photography for this awesome shot of one of the Ensley Alive giant posters hanging around the Ramsay-McCormick Building.

Ever since, when people have reported on crime in the large area that used to be Ensley, which includes parts of Fairfield and unincorporated Jefferson County, they’ve tended to just lump it all under the heading of “Ensley.”

So, despite having one of the lowest crime rates in the Birmingham metro area for a number of years in several categories, Ensley is still painted with the broad brush of negative stereotypes.

Ensley Alive is all about changing that, highlighting some of the good things that are happening in the area in the arenas of culture, health, economic development and more. They are committed to changing the story about Ensley and opening up new possibilities for the good-hearted people who live there.

3. Brian Voice Porter Hawkins painted a bunch of murals in Birmingham with his cousin and the Birmingham Museum of Art when he was a kid.

Brian Voice Porter Hawkins in front of a mural at The Bethedsa Life Center
Brian Voice Porter Hawkins of We Are Rtists in Ensley, recipient of the Game Changer Spear Award. Photo via Vulcan Foundation

So first, Brian Voice Porter Hawkins did not actually paint this mural, which is on the side of The Bethesda Life Center. Ukuu Tafari did. Isn’t it gorgeous?

But when he was a kid, Voice and his cousin Sherman Benton headed up teams of young people painting murals all over the city with the Birmingham Museum of Art, starting at Lee Elementary School.

In college at Mississippi State, without the BMA paying for art materials, he realized that painting was very expensive. So he switched his focus to poetry.

4. Have you heard of Bards and Brews?

Bards & Brews
Beer and poetry at the downtown library. Yep, it’s a thing. Photo via Bards & Brews’ Facebook page
  • What: a once a month poetry and beer tasting aka open mic and free beer
  • When: 1st Friday of most months
  • Time: 6:30PM live music, 7-9PM poetry
  • Where: Birmingham Public Library

This is a super-popular event featuring both poetry readings and poetry slams, and is free and open to the public.

Wanna get in on the ground floor?

Voice is also planning to start a new event that focuses on three artists at a time: a musician, a poet and a visual artist. He’s looking for people who’d like to get involved in these ways:

  • Event space
  • Funding
  • Support

Contact Voice at voiceporter.me or voiceporter@gmail.com.

5. Finally, there’s a garden at The Bethesda in Ensley that could use some love.

Garden at The Bethesda Life Center in Ensley
Want to help grow food in Ensley? You can. Photo via Enley Alive’s Facebook page

Voice is also a Master Gardner and has a garden at The Bethesda that needs some love in these forms:

  • Weeding
  • Planting
  • Soil

All efforts will go toward growing healthy food for people in Ensley. You can contact Voice via voiceporter.me or voiceporter@gmail.com.

Brian Voice Porter Hawkins’ Birmingham Favorites

Here at Bham Now, we always like to ask people about some of their Bham faves, and why they love them. Here’s what Voice had to say about his.

Bar: The Atomic Lounge

Atomic Lounge Birmingham
Atomic Lounge Rachael Roberts and Feizal Valli. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now
  • Feizal’s whole staff is filled with amazing people.
  • The bartenders can make a drink based on what kind of taste you have. Everywhere else in the country, bartenders ask for the name of a specific drink. Not at The Atomic.
  • The atmosphere is really good—good music, good people to talk to, great space.

Coffee Shop: Starbucks Community Store in 5 Points West

Bham Now Starbucks
Mayor Woodfin with the Starbucks employees at the new Starbucks at Crossplex Village in Ensley Five Points West. Photo by Billy Brown for Starbucks
  • A fantastic place—Voice spends the majority of every working day here.
  • It’s a hub—everybody comes through here.
  • It really is a community store.

Restaurant: Surin West

Birmingham, Surin West, Surin, Surin 280, Birmingham restaurants, Valentines Day
Surin West in downtown Birmingham. Photo via Facebook.
  • The kitchen is super-accommodating.
  • Tony the server is so good at what he does so the experience is always amazing.

See, aren’t you glad you met Brian Voice Porter Hawkins? If you want to get involved with Bards & Brews, follow them on Facebook and just show up. If you want to get involved with the garden at The Bethesda or the curated artists’ event, contact Voice at voiceporter.me or voiceporter@gmail.com.

Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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