By Maria Saporta
A most valiant effort to unite the state of Georgia continues to prosper despite a lack of visible support from its top leaders.
GeorgiaForward, which will hold its fourth annual forum in Atlanta on July 11 and 12 at the Georgia Tech Conference Center, has built a grassroots following of civic, business and political officials from all over the state who seek to bridge the various forces that divide our state.
Those include Atlanta versus the rest of the state or perhaps more importantly — urban versus rural versus suburban; income divides, racial and ethnic divides, generational divides and political divides.
The goal has been to build consensus on a shared vision for where and how we want our state to evolve.
Unfortunately two of the state’s top political leaders — Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — have not yet become engaged in GeorgiaForward, an organization which began in 2010 out of concern of the growing polarization between metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.
The relationship between Deal and Reed actually embodies the spirit that GeorgiaForward hopes can spread throughout the state. Deal, a Republican from Gainesville, and Reed, a Democrat from Atlanta, have found a way to collaborate — especially in trying to get federal support to deepen the Savannah port’s shipping channel.
“We’ve always invited the mayor and the governor,” said Amir Farokhi, GeorgiaForward’s executive director. “We have an open door for everyone to participate. This is a fantastic platform to demonstrate the type collaboration that they have exhibited and to set that kind of collaborative tone for the rest of the state.”
For the first GeorgiaForward forum outside of Macon, it was during the gubernatorial election. Both Deal and former Gov. Roy Barnes participated via video-conferencing.
But Deal did not attend the next two annual forums in Callaway Gardens in 2011 and Athens in 2012. And although he’s been invited to the Atlanta forum, Farokhi said it has not been put on the governor’s schedule.
Mayor Reed also has been invited to all the previous forums as well as the upcoming Atlanta forum. But apparently he will be unable to attend even though the forum is being held in his city.
Fortunately, the mayors of Columbus, Augusta, Macon, Savannah and a host of other cities across the state have been able to attend the forums and forge strategic relationships with each other.
The potential of GeorgiaForward was highlighted at the first forum in 2010 when Anita Brown-Graham, director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at the North Carolina State University, addressed the group.
The Institute was started by former Gov. Jim Hunt as a way to position North Carolina towards the future — be it in education, transportation, energy, economic development or other pressing issues facing the state.
Hunt brought together a wide array of leaders from around the state to work on building a consensus on those issues, and then sometimes they would even draft legislation to present to lawmakers as a done deal.
Due to the consensus-building effort over decades, North Carolina has been able to leap-frog over Georgia in several categories.
Brown-Graham will be making a repeat appearance at this year’s GeorgiaForward forum — giving the keynote luncheon speech on Thursday.
The theme of this year’s forum is: “Homegrown: Strengthening Georgia from Within” — focusing on how Georgia can remain a great place to live, learn, work and plan through homegrown strategies, Farokhi said.
Among the topics that will be addressed at the 2013 conference will include: health and education; energy and environment, growing rural Georgia, technology and place; agriculture, health and economic development; youth and civic engagement; technology and education; and soft power.
In the past three-and-a-half years, GeorgiaForward has focused its efforts in three areas — the annual forums, a new program to appeal to emerging leaders under 40 — Young Gamechangers; and the Georgia Civic Health Index — a measuring stick to see how engaged Georgia citizens are in their communities.
GeorgiaForward has developed key partners — the Georgia Municipal Association, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, NewTown Macon, among others. But again, it still has not generated the kind of robust support that it would need to move the needle in a similar way that the Institute of Emerging Issues has in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, as soon as the forum is over, GeorgiaForward will be saying good-bye to Farokhi, its founding executive director.
On July 22, Farokhi will become chief operating officer of a national nonprofit — the National College Advising Corps (soon to be changing its name to the Advising Corps), which works to increase college access for minority, lower income, first generation college students.
The nonprofit is based in Chapel Hill, N.C., but Farokhi said he will be based in Atlanta. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation has given the Advising Corps a $1 million grant to expand in metro Atlanta.
Stepping in to fill in as director will be Howard Franklin, who has his own public affairs consulting business.
“I have attended every GeorgiaForward forum, been an enthusiastic supporter and I have gone through Young Gamechangers,” Franklin said. “What Georgia needs is a catalyst for innovation. This is an awesome opportunity.”
Just imagine how much stronger this effort would be if Georgia’s top leaders would jump on the “one Georgia” bandwagon.