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Region Matters Thought Leadership

5 Q’s for ARC Executive Director Doug Hooker, Who Plans to Retire Next Year

By Paul Donsky

Doug Hooker, who has served as Executive Director of the Atlanta Regional Commission since 2011, has announced that he will retire in March 2022.

Hooker has led the agency through a dynamic period of growth and change. We recently sat down with him for a Q&A in which he reflected on his nearly 10 years leading ARC and talked about what lies ahead.

Looking back on your tenure, what are you most proud of?

The thing I’m most proud of, quite honestly, is the culture change journey that all of us at ARC took together. We’ve strengthened our relationships with each other and positioned the agency to be in an adaptive, forward-looking relationship with the communities we serve. We’re now always asking ourselves, ‘Are there better ways we could be of value to our communities, and are there better ways that we could do our work?’

We’re also consistently supporting each other. Ensuring our colleagues’ success is our guiding mantra. That’s the most important thing to me, because it leaves the agency in a stronger position, whether I’m here or not.

Where is the Atlanta region today compared to 2011, when you arrived at ARC?

I believe that the Atlanta region has a much stronger collaborative leadership culture than it had in November 2011. When you think about that time, we were looking forward to the July 2012 T-SPLOST referendum, and there were a lot of elected leaders around a table debating a project list they could sell to residents. There was a lot of give and take, but not true collaboration, in my mind.

I actually think the failure of the referendum in our region, coupled with the fact that our local economy was still feeling the effects of the Great Recession, caused a lot of community leaders, including myself, to work more collaboratively and steward resources in a way the community can trust and build upon. We couldn’t let that be the end of the great Atlanta story but instead had to launch a new chapter of the great Atlanta story.

What are the key regional challenges that remain and will be facing your successor?

I see three key challenges from a regional perspective.

The first is education. Our children must gain fundamental education skills and develop strong lifelong learning and trade skills so they can be resilient and adapt when the next disruption comes along. We also must focus on our children’s learning loss because of the pandemic, in particular children of color who were hit harder and were already starting behind even as we entered the pandemic.

The second challenge is workforce development, which ties closely to education. Many adults in our region are in need of education, training, and re-skilling in order to re-enter the workforce. That’s more important now than ever, because the rise of automation threatens many jobs. The questions are urgent: How can we give people the skill sets they need to get back into the workforce? How can we ensure that more of us are able to obtain decent-paying jobs that help strengthen families and children?

The third challenge is equity, which is threaded, really, through all of our challenges. We must seriously address the systemic obstacles and barriers that have prevented many residents – primarily black and brown people and women – from having equal opportunity to access the resources needed to make a better life and provide for upward mobility.

As the traditional home of the Civil Rights movement, I say Atlanta has to lead the national equity conversation. And we must not just talk, but have conversations toward change. That will take constant attention among leaders, and it will take commitment. It’s not 5 years or 10 years, but likely it’s multi-generational.

Talk about your decision to retire. Why now, and was it a hard decision?

It was a very hard decision. And even up to the night before I first talked to (ARC Board Chairman) Kerry Armstrong about it, I was debating whether to put it off and hold on a little bit longer.

This job has been the best job I’ve had in my career. It’s provided the platform for me to contribute to this region that I love. Having had this privilege, the honor of leading this organization, I think it’s time to leave when things are well, when I’m not burned out, when I’m still loving the work. That’s the time to go.

What’s next for you?

I can declare affirmatively that I want to stay engaged in the community and in civic matters. I can’t say what form that will take. Once I step down, I’ll spend a few months resting and then see what calls to me and what opportunities arise.

Personally, I have a lifelong love for music and want to devote more time to that. I play the oboe and have been composing music over the past 25 years, but I have never formally studied music composition and music theory. I have a lot of musical projects in my head I’d like to explore.

Then, my wife and I are going to travel. We still have some things on the bucket list we’d like to get to before we get too old. And we are looking forward to spending time with our grandkids.

 

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