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A conversation with Nathaniel Smith of the Partnership for Southern Equity

Nathaniel Smith, founder and Chief Equity Officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity photo provided by P.S.E.

By King Williams

In 2019, Metro Atlanta is prospering, but that prosperity has come with an increase in inequality for many. Depending on what zip code you are born into, you have a 4.5% chance of escaping poverty, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project.

Nathaniel Smith, founder and Chief Equity Officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity photo provided by P.S.E.

In seeking Nathaniel Smith, founder and chief equity officer for the Partnership for Southern Equity is attempting to address the challenges of inequity and attempting to of making metro Atlanta prosperous for all. His organization is working to advance the charge of equity for all through public policy and advocacy.

This interview is a part of a longer series on equity, inclusion and economic development in Atlanta.

This conversation comes in advance of the partnership’s upcoming two-day conference, the Just Opportunity Summit at Morehouse College at the Shirley A. Massey Conference Center on June 20th and 21st.  

Saporta Report: Some people may know of you from an incident that happened three years ago…

Nathaniel Smith: [slight laugh] It’s always funny to me when I talk about the decision to resign from the Beltline Partnership board. I always preface it, ‘Do you remember that time when you read in the paper that Ryan Gravel [Atlanta Beltline creator] resigned from the Beltline [partnership] with that other guy? I’m that other guy!’  

We saw some fundamental issues in terms of the trajectory of the Beltline. We served on the Beltline Partnership board which is primarily responsible for raising dollars.

But this [the Atlanta Beltline Partnership] is the public facing component of the Beltline. And we were becoming frustrated with [the Atlanta Beltline’s] inability to ensure that the people who envisioned the Beltline would be able to stay and benefit from it.  

It was a moment in time, but we must keep pushing for a more equitable city and state.

SR: So, what is your new organization, the Partnership for Southern Equity?

NS: PSE is a non-profit organization, we are a racial equity organization, in which we see structural racism is the central driver for many of the injustices we see in communities.

SR: What does “chief equity officer” mean and what does one do?

NS: When I came up with the title, my board had heartburn, they told me ‘you’re a chief executive officer’ and for me I understood that equity is a way, not a what. The chief equity officer, i’s to embody what equity should be in the context of the broader community.

Mirror view of Edgewood Ave
photo by Kelly Jordan

SR: It’s 2019 and Atlanta is in a much different place than it was even five years ago regarding inequality. What keeps you in the fight?

NS: It’s because of the great leaders who’ve come before us – who understood Atlanta is a special place and a real opportunity to realize what Dr. King called ‘The Beloved Community’.

It’s the commitment to that cause that keeps me in the race.  It’s also the future, people like my daughter, young people… people who never know what it’s like to be connected to those icons. We owe it to them to show them the way.

SR: To switch gears a bit: In speaking on gentrification…gentrification has been in Atlanta’s history for a long time, but in particular the last 10 years may have been the most intense we’ve seen in Atlanta… Going forward, what does that mean for [PSE] with meeting equity goals?

NS: We have to play a role in organizing a multi-racial coalition around the challenges we [Atlantans] face regarding gentrification. Gentrification isn’t just a black issue. It’s affecting whites too. You have other communities being affected by gentrification too. We really have to begin to look at the broader implications of markets, and how markets are beginning to make value statements on people in general.

SR: People get equity and equality mixed up. Can you explain what those two things are?

NS: When we talk about equality, we’re primarily talking about parity. When we talk about equity, we’re being sensitive to where a person is at a particular point [in their lives] and how they got there.

SR: Yourself and PSE speak a lot on equity goals. In your opinion, what could Atlanta be doing right now to meet those equity goals?

NS: I think first a foremost, we have to get a handle on our housing affordability challenges. We’ve got to have a real trust fund that has the capital to produce the amount of housing needed and to protect the housing we already have.

We need to have the non-profit and community development corporations (CDC’s) strengthened. We need to have policies that increase affordable housing like a mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinance.

We need to really think hard about what’s our economic inclusion agenda. We continue to be number one in income inequality; we can’t stand for that anymore.

SR: You speak truth to power, but in a city that talks a good bit about speaking truth to power but rarely addresses it… what has been the most difficult thing that you’ve had to deal with so far ?

NS: People say that Atlanta is a “city too busy to hate” but it’s not too busy to plan. All we do is plan in this city. We have community benefits agreement plans, we have equitable development plans, we have affordable housing plans, so we do a lot of plans in the city but not a lot of policy in the city.

We need to begin the process of creating more policy that will enable the plans that we come up with because time is ticking away to truly build an inclusive city.

Just Opportunity Summit, June 20th and 21st at Morehouse College.

SR: What is the event that is happening on June 20 and why should people attend?

NS: The Just Opportunity Summit is being convened by the Partnership for Southern Equity and the Just Opportunity Circle, which is a coalition of organizations in Metro Atlanta that have come together to advance an economic inclusion agenda in the region. To bring together the best thinking on how to bring a more inclusive economy in Atlanta.

We’re going to be talking about everything from opportunity zones, to how to men and boys of color show up in the economic development discussion from micro enterprise, public finance and procurement. Our hope is that were in the process of organizing the community around real policies were everyone is looked at as an asset and not a liability.

If you would like to know more on Nathaniel or the summit please click here for more details. The summit takes places on this Thursday, June 20th and Friday, June 21st.  

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King Williams

King Williams is a multimedia documentary film director and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. King’s documentary “The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification” will be released this Summer. He is an associate producer on the upcoming Sara Burns (daughter of documentarian Ken Burns)/Dave McMahon’s 2019 documentary – ‘East Lake’ – on the former East Lake Meadows housing project. King can be reached at [email protected] or @iamkingwilliams on Instagram and Twitter. His number is: 470-310-1795.

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