By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
For many in the community, the summer of 2020 will remain a tumultuous memory – a time when many felt trapped in their homes and downtrodden in society in more ways than one.
Nevertheless, some good came out of it.
For Mountain Brook resident Kevin Cornes, father of three Mountain Brook City Schools students, one of those silver linings was the birth of MB Listens. Cornes is founding chairman of the grassroots nonprofit organization, made up of residents committed to making the community a safe and accepting place for everyone.
They accomplish this by delving into the history of Mountain Brook and reasons the community lacks diversity. They promote introspective education to learn how to be better neighbors and support people in the community who are marginalized for any reason.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind that I’d like to do something to raise awareness – number one,” Cornes said. “Number two: help people who feel like they may be marginalized – especially youth – feel that they are not alone.”
It was the months of May and June in 2020 that provided the push Cornes needed to get started.
“A lot was going on, nationally as well as locally,” he said. “There was an anti-Semitic incident that happened that involved maybe some Mountain Brook High School kids and other kids as well.”
He first reached out to now-Vice Chairwoman Laura Steele to help develop his idea for a grassroots group that meets in living rooms or other intimate settings.
“And that’s how it started out,” he said. “We started putting word out to friends and family and we had to cut it off to 20 because the response was so overwhelming.” It was a great problem to have. It meant they needed to step things up.
Board members and advisory board members began meeting virtually, breaking into groups to take a closer look at what MB Listens should seek to achieve.
“We started looking at things like school diversity, how we could raise awareness through a speaker series, could we develop a website, could we develop a Facebook page – just trying to raise awareness,” he said. “All on a shoestring budget.”
The organization opened to the public with its website on Nov. 20 and in late January earned its non-profit 501(c)(3) status.
“We’re just trying to make ourselves better and help people feel accepted and welcomed,” Cornes said. “If we lead by example and if we do a good job of that, other things might happen. Perceptions, outside of Mountain Brook especially, may start to shift. Perceptions of ourselves in Mountain Brook might start to shift. We may see that we can do more to be good neighbors.”
He noted that, realistically, there may be people who want to believe that the group is doing more. They may see MB Listens as the type to spark a protest or drive big policy change, but that simply isn’t its mission. It is focused on the individual.
“If you are gay and you feel like you can’t tell your family or your church, just knowing that something like MB Listens exists might be helpful,” he said. “You know that there are people who accept you just as you are. If you are part of a religion not in the majority and you are being teased or not completely treated equally, we want you knowing that there are people in the community that accept you for who you are.”
Membership into the organization is free and the community does not disclose member names as a rule.
“Year one is all about raising awareness and trying to draw attention to those who may be marginalized and want to feel accepted and welcomed and supported,” Cornes said.
It’s all about educating ourselves, he added. Everyone from board members to those following the movement are first working on how they can better educate themselves and recognize issues in the community that lead to people being marginalized.
“A lot of people these days are focused on things like race and religion, because it’s probably where the most attention is drawn to these days,” he said. “It’s very important to us that it’s not just about race and religion. It’s everybody.”
MB Listens uses the term “grass ears” to describe “the 8 identities” that the community is focused on.
These are gender identity, race, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, ability and religion.
“We are really fortunate in that we have a phenomenal advisory board with people like Valerie Boyd, who heads the Sage ministry (at Canterbury United Methodist Church), who has given us great advice and guidance on how to support older adults,” he said. The board list also includes local professionals including Robbie Lee, public relations director for The Exceptional Foundation; Mike Wilson, founding principal of the Magic City Acceptance Academy; and Danny Cohen, CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation.
MB Listen’s first speaker event, held virtually Jan. 30, featured advisory board member and local speaker and activist T. Marie King. She spoke on the topic of how to understand implicit bias and how to become more empathetic.
“If number one of what we are trying to do is be accepting and welcoming to the community as a whole, then 1-a is being introspective and working on ourselves,” Cornes said. “Trying to help ourselves understand our own biases and help ourselves be more empathetic so we can build bridges and not be divisive as we understand each other within the community.”
He noted that the entire board was blown away by the number of people who signed on for the first event.
“We didn’t know if it would be 10 people or just the 20 founding members who would show up for that and it ended up being 96,” he said.
Cornes noted that the board has not been one to set arbitrary goals for themselves but is more focused on letting things flow naturally. “We are running a marathon,’ Cornes noted.
In the near future, the organization plans to host more virtual speaker events, but the ultimate goal is to return to that original grassroots idea – meeting in person and having face-to-face conversations – once it is healthy and safe to do so.
In the near future, MB Listens is working on setting up a Youth Council for ages 16-25. Those interested can email their resumes to firstname.lastname@example.org. For future updates, visit mblistens.com or follow the organization’s Facebook page.