By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Oct. 28, 2016
Two top Atlanta business leaders have launched a new initiative aimed at healing strained race relations, with hopes it could spread to other cities.
Bill Nordmark, an Atlanta business consultant and former president of the Rotary Club of Atlanta, and John Grant, executive director of the Celebration Bowl and former CEO of 100 Black Men of Atlanta, have formed the Atlanta Friendship Initiative. The concept is to pair up two people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds and have them become friends. They agree to get together once a quarter, and then once a year to bring their families together in fellowship.
Nordmark and Grant have already enlisted 47 pairs of friends that includes 94 of the city’s top business and community leaders who have made the pledge to help bridge over the divides that separate our community.
It was the words of philanthropist and retired Georiga-Pacific CEO Pete Correll that spurred Nordmark into action to start the Atlanta Friendship Initiative.
Correll, in a recent talk to the Rotary Club of Atlanta, said race relations is still a major problem in the city. “That hurt my heart,” Nordmark said.
So Nordmark, who is white, approached Grant, who is black, to see if they could take their acquaintanceship to the next level and become friends.
“Leadership in Atlanta has evolved and grown up because of relationships in the business community,” Grant said. “They were able to make things happen. Over time, Atlanta has become a transient city. We rely more on technology. We’re less connected.”
So Nordmark told Grant of his idea to launch the Atlanta Friendship Initiative. The concept is to pair up two people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds and have them become friends. They agree to get together once a quarter, and once a year they will bring their families together in fellowship.
“John didn’t even blink,” Nordmark recalled. “He said, ‘I’m in. Bill I feel God’s hand in what you’re saying today, and I’m in.’ I said, ‘take another day or two to think about this.’ He looked at me and said, ‘What don’t you understand about ‘I’m in?’ I knew then that this was a friendship I wanted forever.”
Since that visit in September, Grant said, “We have been talking almost every day.” They also have been reaching out to other “friends” to join their cause. “It’s refreshing to see the responses,” Grant said. “To a person, no one has said no. The responses have been ‘thank you for doing this.’ ”
Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, president of Morehouse School of Medicine, was approached by Bill Todd, a professor at Georgia Tech who used to be president of the Georgia Research Alliance and the Georgia Cancer Coalition. They already have been meeting, and they have agreed to spend time in each other’s classrooms and institutions.
Retired BellSouth executive Frank Skinner teamed up with Felker Ward, who once co-chaired the now-defunct Atlanta Action Forum, a business group many people credit for helping steer the city through the difficult days of social and economic integration.
It started in 1971 with eight white businessmen and eight black businessmen meeting in private to discuss the issues of the day. It later expanded to 20 leaders from each race, and included its first woman member in 1991.
Ed Baker, former publisher of Atlanta Business Chronicle and now an executive in residence at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business, remembered when the decision was made in the late 1990s to disband the Atlanta Action Forum because of a sentiment that it was no longer needed. At the time, Baker strongly disagreed with that decision.
In visits with Nordmark over several years, Baker would bemoan the scarcity of friendships and relationships between black and white business executives in Atlanta.
“At the end of the day, Bill put it together,” Baker said. “I think it’s a brilliant idea.”
When Nordmark recently told Baker that he didn’t know how to handle the organizational support that the Atlanta Friendship Initiative could require, Baker and the Robinson College of Business stepped up. “We will be a founding partner, and we will handle the administration,” said Baker, adding that he hopes the concept will be expanded to include students becoming part of the business friendships.
“We are standing on the shoulders of the Action Forum and Mr. Skinner and Felker Ward,” Nordmark said. “Why this will work is because if you want to enjoy your life, you have to live your life with purpose and deliberate intention. This can be a game changer. There’s a need to connect a new generation of leaders.”
But when Nordmark worried about the Atlanta Friendship Initiative having no resources, Grant quickly said, “We have all the resources in the world.”
But Nordmark explained that the Atlanta Friendship Initiative has no budget. “It doesn’t cost you anything to be friends,” Grant said.
Although the Atlanta Friendship Initiative is apolitical, Nordmark and Grant both mentioned the lack of civility around today’s elections. Grant lamented how Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t even shake hands during their last debate.
Nordmark said he has become distressed over the clashes around the country between police and citizens in the past year, even though he said Atlanta had been fortunate to have had relatively peaceful protests.
“We are not planning on this being just an Atlanta program,” Nordmark said, adding that it has reserved domain names for the America Friendship Initiative and the International Friendship Initiative. A website has been launched at www.atlantafriendshipinitiative.com. They hope businesses, nonprofits, churches, colleges and other organizations may want to adopt the model of the Atlanta Friendship Initiative.
“It is going to happen based on the responses that we are getting,” Grant said. “There’s a genuine desire to connect at a human level.”
Both Nordmark and Grant said the concept builds upon Atlanta’s legacy of racial tolerance and inclusion. During the 1960s, Atlanta stood out as the one Southern city to embrace integration rather than resist it. Relationships between civil rights leaders and the Atlanta business community were integral to helping the city shine.
As Nordmark said, “What better place to start this than Atlanta.”