By Maria Saporta
Atlanta prides itself as being the birthplace of the civil rights movement and a place where people of different races can succeed.
But it’s hard to reconcile that truth with the harsh reality that Atlanta in the 21st Century has had the largest, most rapidly growing gap between rich and poor of any major American city.
In a similar vein, Atlanta has the second-lowest rate of intergenerational social mobility of all major American cities – second only to Charlotte, N.C.
The “opportunity gap” in Atlanta is a red flag to the kind of city we want to be.
Ideally, all residents in Atlanta would have ample opportunities to succeed in life – no matter where they lived or where they went to school or what their family life was like.
When the Brookings Institute in 2015 once again identified Atlanta as the city with the greatest inequality in the United States, the Corporate Volunteer Council of Atlanta – composed of companies with civic engagement strategies – decided it was time to act.
“This was the tipping point that made us realize that we must bring together leaders from the corporate, nonprofit, foundation and public sectors to work better collectively to affect positive change,” said Cheryl B. Kortemeier, executive director of the CVC of Atlanta.
“Our members have been doing good in the community for years,” she added. “That said, several of our long-time corporate leaders have regularly stressed that we need to do more as a business community to address the “root cause” of Atlanta’s most pressing societal problems.”
The Corporate Volunteer Council met with Alicia Philipp of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and Chris Allers of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, and they agreed that better educating Atlantans of every age would be an effective cornerstone for improving Atlanta.
So they decided to invite Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam to talk about his best-selling book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” which features his research on Atlanta’s opportunity gap.
“We envisioned a half-day symposium that would highlight Atlanta’s unique challenges and identify specific skills and tools needed to do something about it,” Kortemeier said. “We also wanted to help foster new cross-sector relationships.”
Putnam visited with a diverse group of Atlanta leaders on Feb. 29, when he encouraged them to focus on the “opportunity gap” problem facing our city.
Putnam spoke of when he was growing up in the small town of Port Clinton, Ohio where “how well you did would depend on you and now how well your parents did.”
Putnam warned that “we are becoming two societies” – the poor and the affluent. And the children in the two societies are treated differently.
“All kids do dumb things,” Putnam said. “When an affluent kid does bad things, the airbags inflate. Poor kids have no airbags. Our poor are suffering from doing exactly what the affluent kids did, but they need airbags.”
Putnam provided a series of ideas of how to address the growing economic segregation in the United States.
Boost jobs and wages. Reform the criminal justice system. Provide high quality early learning opportunities for all children. Help parents with family leave and coaching. Invest in public education, and end pay to play for extra-curricular activities. Pay top teachers more to teach in low income schools. Provide more intensive mentoring of kids. And open up new opportunities for kids – community colleges, vocational training and apprenticeships.
Putnam concluded that if we are going to fix this problem, “it’s going to happen at the grass roots level.” Then he spoke specifically to the Atlanta leaders. “I think you would make a major difference to America if you followed up on this.”
The Corporate Volunteer Council is following through with various partners.
“At this point, several law firm representatives serving on our symposium planning committee recommended that we bring in Boston’s FSG to teach us how to best leverage the Collective Impact model,” Kortemeier said. “Our hope is that the CVC’s “Bridging the Opportunity Gap: The Power of Collective Impact” program helped arm participants with new tools for collaboration that will help them more effectively attack Atlanta’s problems at their core.”
Kortemeier added that participants are eager to jump in, and the Council is encouraging them to get involved with one of Atlanta’s existing collective impact initiatives such as Learn4Life, Neighborhood Nexus, and GEEARS.
“Strengthening Atlanta and lessening our income inequality gap will take time,” Kortemeier said, “but we are hopeful that the CVC’s program will serve as a springboard for great things to come.”
Right after Putnam spoke to the Atlanta leaders at the Loudermilk Center, the Rotary Club of Atlanta was being addressed by Jeff Rosensweig, an Emory University business professor, who spoke about the international economy and its impact on Atlanta.
One of the last slides that Rosensweig shared with his fellow Rotarians projected a population growth of 1.67 billion people between 2015 and 2040.
China actually would lose population by .02 percent. The “advanced economies” – which includes the United States and Europe – would grow by 3.5 percent. Latin America would grow by 6.8 percent. India would grow by 19.2 percent. Other countries in Asia would grow by 25 percent. And the population in Africa is expected to grow by 46.3 percent.
Atlanta can do its best to bridge the “opportunity gap” within our city.
But we need to also be concerned about the growing global divide between the affluent and the poor around the world. We can’t forget we are living in the wealthiest nation on earth – even considering the “opportunity gap” that exists here at home.
If we can bridge the gap here, we can then seek to build bridges of opportunity with people living in less fortunate nations around the globe.
We’ve got to start somewhere. It might as well be in our hometown.