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How Three Ramsay HS Grads Turned Their Dreams Into A Successful Business

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — They all are 24 years old, attended Ramsay High School and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)—and together they started a movement. Micah Lewis, Jerrod Dukes, and Joshua Echols are the team behind Vibestreet Photography and Recording Studios, a rental space near Five Points South that opened this year and hosts a broad range of photo shoots, videography, art shows, meetings, and even served as a site for a local reality show.

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From left: Joshua Echols, Micah Lewis and Jerrod Dukes in front of Vibestreet Studios. (Photo by: Ameera Steward |The Birmingham Times)

By Ameera Steward

They all are 24 years old, attended Ramsay High School and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)—and together they started a movement.

Micah Lewis, Jerrod Dukes, and Joshua Echols are the team behind Vibestreet Photography and Recording Studios, a rental space near Five Points South that opened this year and hosts a broad range of photo shoots, videography, art shows, meetings, and even served as a site for a local reality show.

“Vibestreet is a conglomerate,” said Lewis, the founder. “It’s a lot of moving parts.”

It’s also an example of what can happen when young African-American creatives pool their talents and resources to form a business that was not around when they were coming of age.

“I wish there had been a Vibestreet when I was 16 or 17, a place I could rent out affordably and just try [things],” Lewis said. “… A lot of people that come here, it’s their first time … and they really get to shoot. We always try to take pictures of them taking pictures, so they can use that to promote themselves. Everything is about helping people and being what they need earlier on.”

He added that it was important to start in Birmingham because it’s a growing city with many different kinds of people.

“I love it here!” he said. “Being that we are from here, I think it’s important to have a platform here. … As much as Vibestreet has done, there is nobody in front of us helping us do that. We can be a platform that does that. Who knows how far this platform can send kids who are 4 and 5 now, when Vibestreet gets bigger and they’re older and trying to do something.”

The studio already has become a gathering place for people throughout the city.

Echols, chief financial officer, said, “Some of the people we call our friends now, we go out to eat [together]. We just had a pretty big dinner in August with a lot of people who came into the studio. … That friendship, just bringing people together through the community is what [Vibestreet] does for me.”

Coming of Age

Vibestreet started with a variety of events, including art shows and a business that sold apparel, such as hats and T-shirts.

“It’s always been a passion of mine to give people in the community a platform where they are able to express themselves because I’ve never been somebody who’s big on taking a lot of credit for myself; it’s always been about putting other people in a better light,” said Lewis. “That’s what Vibestreet at its root has always been.”

Lewis and Echols met in the sixth grade at the W.J. Christian K-8 School.

“We all played basketball a lot,” Lewis said. “I lived really close to the school, so after school we would walk to my house and play basketball before everybody went home.

“When you’re younger you just kind of hang with people who have similar interests. … Even if we have differing opinions, … [Echols and I] always have similar core values, … [so] we can have civil disagreements. It comes down to I know there are some things Josh would never do and I would never do. That’s why you never really have to worry. … There’s always a mutual respect.”

Lewis and Echols both lived in the Roebuck area, so they rode the same bus every day during high school.

“I call him ‘brother’ because we’ve known each other for so long,” Echols said. “We started out hooping in his backyard. … I’ve always been around. Even since his days at the Grand, [a club where Lewis was a DJ], I was always there supporting him.”

Lewis, who had a residency at the now-closed Grand, started DJing when he used to play the music video game DJ Hero. His mom thought it was funny and bought him his first turntables when he was 16.

“I really liked it,” said Lewis, who kept moving up to the next set of turntables.

Click to view slideshow.

Meeting of the Minds

Lewis and Echols attended Ramsay High School, where they met Dukes, who is Vibestreet’s operations coordinator.

“We weren’t as close as we are now,” said Dukes, who is from Pleasant Grove.

All three graduated from Ramsay in 2013 and made their way to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Dukes graduated in 2018 with a degree in business administration. Echols graduated the same year with a degree in computer science. Lewis studied audio engineering at UAB but left due to family issues, and that pushed him to focus on his dream.

“I always wanted to open a recording studio, … to have a multiuse space. That’s what [Vibestreet] is,” Lewis said. “When we started out, it was a recording and photography studio where people could also host events. Everything kind of led up to having a home base even before we had this studio. There was always an intention to have maybe a workshop, … to have an address, and to venture out and do other things. That was always the goal.”

When Dukes saw what Lewis and Echols were working toward, he wanted to be a part.

“I like these guys, so let me try to help any way I can,” said Dukes. “If that means selling merchandise, if that means helping out at whatever event [or] venue we might be at, it just seemed like the natural thing to do, to help out people out you like.”

Dukes has a behind-the-scenes role at Vibestreet, which he finds exciting.

“I really like making sure everything goes the way it’s supposed to go,” he said. “If you ever see me at any Vibestreet function, you’ll probably see me roaming around, checking to make sure everything goes right, checking in with [Lewis] if he’s DJing, checking in with Josh if he’s at the door.”

Limitless

Even while running Vibestreet, each member maintains employment elsewhere.

Dukes has a position in the UAB logistics department, where he works with teaching specialists that develop science and math curriculums for counties across in Alabama; he’s been in this role for four years. “My managers are very understanding,” he said.

Lewis, who has worked with the UAB parking company for five years, also has support from his managers.

“I haven’t worked a weekend in years because I used to DJ, so they set that up for me,” he said. “At the day job, … I work on graphics and things like that for Vibestreet. Everything feeds into the studio. I see my day job as a part of this.”

Echols has been an implementation consultant at the information technology (IT) services company everis USA for a year.

Still, all three devote a lot of time to Vibestreet, which Echols described as “limitless.”

Dukes agreed: “I think what the future holds for us is literally whatever we can imagine. … Because the space is as big as it is, it can be as big as your imagination. So, as much as we can put into it, as much hard work, as many buildings as we can get, … it’s all just about how much effort we can put it in to help it grow and help other people.”

To get more information about Vibestreet Studios or set up an appointment, visit www.vibestreet.com or email info@vibestreet.com. The photography studio can be booked for $35 an hour, and events can be held at the space for $50 an hour. 

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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Children’s Defense Fund: State of America’s Children Reveals that 71 Percent of Children of Color Live in Poverty

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.

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Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

Part One of an ongoing series on this impactful and informative report.

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

The child population in America is the most diverse in history, but children remain the poorest age group in the country with youth of color suffering the highest poverty rates.

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Dr. Wilson’s remarks come as the Marian Wright Edelman founded nonprofit released “The State of America’s Children 2021.”

The comprehensive report is eye-opening.

It highlights how children remain the poorest age group in America, with children of color and young children suffering the highest poverty rates. For instance, of the more than 10.5 million poverty-stricken children in America in 2019, approximately 71 percent were those of color.

The stunning exposé revealed that income and wealth inequality are growing and harming children in low-income, Black and Brown families.

While the share of all wealth held by the top one percent of Americans grew from 30 percent to 37 percent, the share held by the bottom 90 percent fell from 33 percent to 23 percent between 1989 and 2019.

Today, a member of the top 10 percent of income earners makes about 39 times as much as the average earner in the bottom 90 percent.

The median family income of White households with children ($95,700) was more than double that of Black ($43,900), and Hispanic households with children ($52,300).

Further, the report noted that the lack of affordable housing and federal rental assistance leaves millions of children homeless or at risk of homelessness.

More than 1.5 million children enrolled in public schools experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year, and 74 percent of unhoused students during the 2017-2018 school year were living temporarily with family or friends.

Millions of children live in food-insecure households, lacking reliable access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food, and more than 1 in 7 children – 10.7 million – were food insecure, meaning they lived in households where not everyone had enough to eat.

Black and Hispanic children were twice as likely to live in food-insecure households as White children.

The report further found that America’s schools have continued to slip backwards into patterns of deep racial and socioeconomic segregation, perpetuating achievement gaps.

For instance, during the 2017-2018 public school year, 19 percent of Black, 21 percent of Hispanic, and more than 26 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native school students did not graduate on time compared with only 11 percent of White students.

More than 77 percent of Hispanic and more than 79 percent of Black fourth and eighth grade public school students were not proficient in reading or math in 2019, compared with less than 60 percent of White students.

“We find that in the course of the last year, we’ve come to the point where our conversations about child well-being and our dialogue and reckoning around racial justice has really met a point of intersection, and so we must consider child well-being in every conversation about racial justice and quite frankly you can only sustainably speak of racial justice if we’re talking about the state of our children,” Dr. Wilson observed.

Some more of the startling statistics found in the report include:

  • A White public school student is suspended every six seconds, while students of color and non-White students are suspended every two seconds.
  • Conditions leading to a person dropping out of high school occur with white students every 19 seconds, while it occurs every nine seconds for non-White and students of color.
  • A White child is arrested every 1 minute and 12 seconds, while students of color and non-whites are arrested every 45 seconds.
  • A White student in public school is corporally punished every two minutes, while students of color and non-Whites face such action every 49 seconds.

Dr. Wilson asserted that federal spending “reflects the nation’s skewed priorities.”

In the report, he notes that children are not receiving the investment they need to thrive, and despite making up such a large portion of the population, less than 7.5 percent of federal spending went towards children in fiscal year 2020.

Despite Congress raising statutory caps on discretionary spending in fiscal years 2018 to 2020, children did not receive their fair share of those increases and children’s share of total federal spending has continued to decline.

“Children continue to be the poorest segment of the population,” Dr. Wilson demanded. “We are headed into a dark place as it relates to poverty and inequity on the American landscape because our children become the canary in the coal mine.”

Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children.

The $1.9 trillion plan not only contained $1,400 checks for individuals, it includes monthly allowances and other elements to help reduce child poverty.

The President’s plan expands home visitation programs that help at-risk parents from pregnancy through early childhood and is presents universal access to top-notch pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“The American Rescue Plan carried significant and powerful anti-poverty messages that will have remarkable benefits on the lives of children in America over the course of the next two years,” Dr. Wilson declared.

“The Children’s Defense Fund was quick to applaud the efforts of the President. We have worked with partners, including leading a child poverty coalition, to advance the ideas of that investment,” he continued.

“Most notably, the expansion of the child tax credit which has the impact of reducing poverty, lifting more than 50 percent of African American children out of poverty, 81 percent of Indigenous children, 45 percent of Hispanic children. It’s not only good policy, but it’s specifically good policy for Black and Brown children.”

Click here to view the full report.

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She Bought Freedom for Herself and Other Slaves Today a Park is Named in Her Honor

Alethia Browning Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” attucksadams.com researchers surmised. 

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Alethia Browning Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

In her early years, Alethia Browning Tanner sold vegetables in a produce stall near President’s Square – now known as Lafayette Square – in what is now Northwest Washington, D.C.

According to the D.C. Genealogy Research, Resources, and Records, Tanner bought her freedom in 1810 and later purchased several relatives’ release.

She was the first woman on the Roll of Members of the Union Bethel AME Church (now Metropolitan AME Church on M Street), and Turner owned land and a store at 14th and H Streets, which she left to her nephews – one of whom later sold the property for $100,000.

Named in her honor, the Alethia Tanner Park is located at 227 Harry Thomas Way in Northeast DC.

The park sits near the corner of Harry Thomas Way and Q Street and is accessible by foot or bike via the Metropolitan Branch Trail, just north of the Florida Ave entrances.

“The first Council legislative meeting of Black History Month, the Council took a second and final vote on naming the new park for Alethia Tanner, an amazing woman who is more than worthy of this long-delayed recognition,” Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie said in 2020 ahead of the park’s naming ceremony.

“[Her upbringing] itself would be a remarkable legacy, but Ms. Tanner was also active in founding and supporting many educational, religious, and civic institutions,” McDuffie remarked.

“She contributed funds to start the first school for free Black children in Washington, the Bell School. Feeling unwelcome at her predominately segregated church, she & other church members founded the Israel Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When the church fell on hard times and was sold at auction by creditors, she and her family stepped in and repurchased the church.”

Born in 1781 on a plantation owned by Tobias and Mary Belt in Prince George’s County, Maryland, historians noted that Tanner had two sisters, Sophia Bell and Laurena Cook.

“Upon the death of Mary Pratt (Tobias had predeceased his wife) in 1795, the plantation, known as Chelsea Plantation, was inherited by their daughter Rachel Belt Pratt,” historians wrote.

“Mary Belt’s will stipulated that Laurena be sent to live with a sibling of Rachel Pratt’s while Sophia and Alethia were to stay at the Chelsea Plantation.”

Tanner sold vegetables at the well-known market just north of the White House in Presidents Park. It is possible – and probable – she met Thomas Jefferson there as he was known to frequent the vegetable markets there along with other prominent early Washingtonians, according to historians at attacksadams.com. 

“There are also White House records suggesting she worked for Thomas Jefferson in some capacity, likely doing various housework tasks,” the researchers determined.

Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” attucksadams.com researchers surmised.

“Self-emancipation was not an option for all enslaved peoples, but both Alethia and her sister Sophia were able to accomplish this, almost entirely through selling vegetables at the market,” the researchers continued.

“Alethia Tanner moved to D.C. and became one of a significant and growing number of free Black people in the District. In 1800, 793 free Black people were living in D.C.

By 1810, there were 2,549, and by 1860, 11,131 free Black people lived in D.C., more than the number of enslaved peoples.”

Historians wrote that beginning at about 15 years after securing her manumission, Alethia Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

All in all, Tanner would have paid the Pratt family well over $5,000. All accomplished with proceeds from her own vegetable market business, they concluded.

“Alethia Tanner, it’s an amazing story of resilience, hard work, and perseverance,” D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter said at the park’s dedication.

“I just learned about this history through this, so it shows how when you name a park, you really educate people on the historical significance.”

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