A conversation with TransFormation Alliance’s Odetta MacLeish-White
By King Williams
The TransFormation Alliance (TFA) is a diverse collaboration of 30 plus partners – ranging from nonprofits, government agencies, business partners and MARTA. They work in advancing equitable transit-oriented development as a pathway to opportunity for every resident in Metro Atlanta, especially in minority communities. Odetta MacLeish-White is their managing director.
King Williams: What does the Transformation Alliance do?
Odetta MacLeish-White: Transformation Alliance is a 33-member collaborative, that has agreed to meet together once a month to strengthen community through transit while promoting racial equity.
We also know that racial equity and all the decisions based on race and racism have resulted in tremendous disparity in terms of climate- and health-caused inequity, so we try to solve them.
The two things that hold a 33-member group in focus are 1) the centrality of transit and 2) the honesty in which they are approaching race and racism. My members want to be on the side of closing disparity gaps, and I think that’s one thing that’s helped us grow.
KW: You and the [TFA] are a part of this wave of equity organizations in Atlanta; however, I think the vast majority of people in the city are unaware of what you do or the impact of your work. How do you deal with that?
OW: That’s a challenge… One of the reasons we meet and work together is to make a new Atlanta way in opposition to the old Atlanta way as you’ve mentioned before…
You have to have authentic community connections and residential experience, or you will be sucked into the system that you are trying to subvert.
So when we do mini-grants to residents in the partner communities that we’re in, we want to just say “What do you want to do with this money? You tell us.” When we are working on a piece of property in Oakland City, we are having regular meetings with the homeowners association there. They helped us design the conceptual modeling of what that piece of property could look like.
KW: You’re not from Atlanta originally. What was your perception of the city when you first came here?
OW: I came in a family way, my son turned one here, my husband got his first post-graduate job at the Morehouse School of Medicine. Shortly after we arrived, we had the APS scandal and that added to how my husband wanted to live, we moved into the suburbs.
But I have strong connections to urban living and urbanism. I moved to New York City [from Boston] when I was 12, so I find I’m trying to construct parts of Atlanta into something of an urban experience. But we live in East Cobb… so my perception of Atlanta is a duality.
To come into the city to do work and then go out to Cobb, where they want the exact opposite – where they don’t want transit and they don’t want income diversity and don’t want housing tenure diversity and they only want single-family [homes] is eye-opening.
So for me, the experience of Atlanta is the feeling a lot of binary things, and I know there are many different ethnicities but it’s hard to find them when you first arrive. So, I feel most at home when I find out about what’s going on along Buford Highway and seeing the Korean church signs.
KW: You’ve been in Atlanta for ten years. What has been the most pressing issue you’ve seen regarding your work?
OW: The refusal to explore and break down the power and privilege dynamics that I think are holding up the disparities that we all say we want to undo. It’s definitely blocking progress. One of the hard questions I’m trying to explore is who benefits from not solving the problem?
KW: And what problem is that?
OW: The problem here in Atlanta is that resources have been negotiated and maintained in certain groups. Be that black upper and middle class or white upper and super-rich class levels.
There were bargains made decades ago as to what black people would except in Atlanta, and I think echoes over and over again. Resources are held in certain places and not allowed to be distributed in or to other places… we say we don’t want to be the city with the highest level of income equality city, but what are we actually doing to change that?
KW: For people like me and you who’ve been in this equity and affordable space for a minute, it seems as if these topics are slowly creeping into the everyday Atlanta conversation. Do you think that it’s too little too late?
OW: For the last cycle it probably is, but there’s usually another cycle coming. So the way that I sleep at night is to think about is how the current affordable housing crisis we’re facing would’ve looked very different 10 or 20 years ago had the city and Fulton County been investing in innovative practices for the land bank authority.
KW: And what is a land bank authority?
OW: A land bank authority is a legal entity that can hold property off tax records. So, once a land bank gains control of a property, it is no longer taxable but they become stewards of the property.
The authority can maintain the land, invest in upkeep, find interim uses for it or put it back into the market later as part of larger redevelopment efforts.
The market is so hot and can move so quickly that nonprofits and other community developers have a problem with site control and having enough time to come up with a plan for the land.
With development, time is money. You want to go quick quick quick and get to your profit motive. Community development is all about taking some time, talking to people, talking to them twice, talking to them ten times – it’s slow and deliberate, so how do you drag two completely opposite things towards each other?
KW: Thinking specifically about transit, if you could change anything about Atlanta, what would it be?
OW: I wish the first-mile, last-mile experience was better for more people. This means improving the sidewalks and the experience of the way people who get to transit from their homes or schools.
I love this effort to make transit more robust. Community hubs… like the fresh markets, soccer initiatives, the community gardens at Five Points – that’s something that smart cities do.
KW: In regards to that, for the TransFormation Alliance if money was no object…is there is something you could improve right now, what would it be?
OW: I would love to invest in more grassroots organizations. TFA members, several of them work in direct service provision and work with residents directly, but we need more robust advocacy groups. A housing justice league should be healthy, well-funded and at every table. There could be more groups like ATL is Ready and the Turner Field Community Coalition – organizations that grow organically from people’s concerns. Those are the groups that need to be stronger because, without them, we have an unbalanced community ecosystem.
To learn more about Odetta MacLeish-White and the work The TransFormation Alliance is doing, click here.