Atlanta’s Civic League part of new communities experiment

By Maria Saporta

Communities are at a critical juncture as modern technology is changing the ways that decisions have been made for decades.

But how the new decision-making model will emerge is still being formed, according to Chris Gates, one of the nation’s pre-eminent observers of communities.

Gates served as president of the National Civic League for 11 years, and now he is the first executive director of PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement).

Gates was the keynote speaker at Thursday night’s annual dinner of the Civic League for Regional Atlanta: What’s Right with the Region.

“Clearly and collectively, we’ve abandoned the old model of decision-making, but we have not figured out what the new model should be,” Gates said. The old model was a top-down approach dominated with authority figures.

As Gates sees it, the new model is going to showcase community decision-making.

“If there’s a common word that emerges…is interdependence,” Gates said. “People understand that they can’t succeed without their neighbors and friends succeeding.”

Gates, who often facilitates community discussions, said that when he’s in a room with people who can’t talk to one another, he starts with the following questions:

“Who here thinks our schools are just too darn good?” No one raises their hands.

“Who here thinks that we have too little traffic?” No one raises their hands.

“Who here thinks we have too little crime?” Again, no one raises their hands.

“As divided as we might get, one of the things that holds us together is how we define a good community,” Gates said, adding that the new model of community is really a new model of democracy.

Gates said there are five aspects of the new model:

1. Leadership takes a different form from the authority model to leaders who listen and can facilitate agreements;

2. The public agenda is now jointly held — government alone can’t solve society’s problems. The philanthropic, private and civic sectors also have to be engaged;

3. Collaboration is no longer a luxury but a necessity and fundamental to a healthy community;

4. Coalitions and share value solutions will rule the day — communities can focus on areas of agreement rather than discord;

5. The region is emerging as the most importing nexus to solving community problems.

The most successful communities in the country are those that have been able to work together on a regional basis. Communities are finding that they can hold on to their individual identities while working on regional solutions.

Then speaking directly to our own Civic League, Gates said: “You are part of this grand national experiment.” Later he added: “I want to thank you for being part of the Civic League and making the Atlanta region part of this grand experiment as we rethink what democracy means in our communities.”

The dinner, held at the Twelve in Atlantic Station, also recognized four institutions or individuals for its Regional Excellence Awards. They were given to the Atlanta Regional Commission Area Agency on Aging; the Center for Pan Asian Community Services; Horace Sibley for his service as chairman of the Regional Commission on Homelessness; and Trees Atlanta.

Then the top award of the night — the Founders Award — was given to Jim Rhoden, chairman and principal owner of the Futren Corp. Rhoden has been a valiant leader working to build regional relationships for nearly two decades.

“Sometimes Jim can be a handful for any of us,” said his close friend and community ally Bill Bolling, head of he Atlanta Community Food Bank. “But at the end of the day, you can depend on Jim to do the right thing, to keep his word. No one has consistently invested as much time, as much money, as much back-office support to building the Civic League and building the social capital in our region than Jim Rhoden.”

(One of the funnier lines of Bolling’s talk was: “We don’t always agree on politics, but we might have Jim voting for a Democrat in this next election.” — an obvious reference to former Gov. Roy Barnes current campaign for governor).

Lastly, the Civic League, in a standing ovation, thanked Myles Smith, a retired urban planner from Georgia Power, for serving as its executive director for the past year for only a $1 salary.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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