Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin finds a new purpose
By Maria Saporta
Friday, September 2, 2011
As former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin sees it, she is coming full circle — returning to her first love of transforming communities.
Recently, Franklin became CEO of Purpose Built Communities, an organization that partners with local nonprofit organizations to transform struggling neighborhoods in various cities.
Purpose Built was the inspiration of developer Tom Cousins, who wanted to replicate around the country the successful transformation of Atlanta’s East Lake community. For Purpose Built, Cousins has partnered with two other philanthropists — Warren Buffett and Julian Robertson — and they have agreed to cover its operating costs.
“I enjoyed every day of being mayor, even with the challenges,” Franklin said in a recent interview. “It was exhausting work, but rewarding. I like the balance that I have now. At 66, my life is not over. I’m very excited about the work I’m doing now. Purpose Built Communities is an ideal place where I can bring my public-sector work into other communities.”
In addition to her work with Purpose Built, Franklin is serving on two corporate boards — Delta Air Lines Inc. and Mueller Water Products Inc. She also is board chair of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and co-chair of United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta Inc.’s Regional Commission on Homelessness.
Even before Purpose Built was founded three years ago, Cousins called on Franklin at City Hall.
“When you finish your term in office, I hope you’ll consider coming to help us spread the gospel about East Lake and how East Lake could be used as a national model,” Franklin recalled Cousins telling her. “Before you talk to anyone else about what you do next after you’re mayor, I hope you’ll consider coming to work on our initiative.”
Franklin said her commitment to Cousins was “that I would talk to him first — not that I’d do it.”
In fact, when Franklin left office, she was exhausted and wanted some time to recalibrate her life. So she took on a full-time teaching job with Spelman College — a position she held until this past May.
Meanwhile, Franklin did agree to become board chair of Purpose Built Communities last December. And then as the organization evolved — it began to look like a replica (in miniature) of her City Hall administration.
Greg Giornelli, her former chief operating officer, became president and COO of Purpose Built Communities. That was not a stretch. Back in the 1990s, Giornelli and Franklin got to know each other when he was running the East Lake Foundation — tapped by his father-in-law, Tom Cousins.
It was in 1997 when Giornelli hired Franklin’s consulting firm to help strengthen ties with the East Lake community and to spearhead the creation of the Drew Charter School.
Earlier this year, Purpose Built also hired Luz Borrero, former deputy COO of the city of Atlanta during the Franklin administration. Already on board at Purpose Built was Carol Naughton, former general counsel for the Atlanta Housing Authority and former executive director of the East Lake Foundation.
“We’ve been together a long time now,” Giornelli said of Franklin. “She has always had a heart for the issues central to Purpose Built and East Lake — how to break the cycle of poverty and how to transform communities. So much of what we do is about kids and education, and that’s very close to her heart. And people like to work with people they like. We have a good team, and I think that helps.”
Franklin said there’s a flat leadership structure at Purpose Built where various team members, depending on their skills, work in different communities.
“Think of us as a group of technical and management consultants,” Franklin said. “It’s not a pyramid.”
For example, Franklin and Borrero are working together on projects in three cities — Omaha, Neb.; and Flint and Detroit, Mich. Purpose Built also has comprehensive redevelopment initiatives under way in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Galveston, Texas.
The approach is novel. Purpose Built is a consulting firm.
But it also can provide seed funding to the local lead organization as well as gap financing for housing and educational facilities.
Purpose Built also works with local partners and stakeholders, linking communities with other experts, funders, developers and organizations. All of its services are provided free of charge.
Gironelli said Purpose Built screens potential partner communities to make sure they have all the necessary ingredients for success.
Those include the opportunity to replace a failed low income housing development with a high-quality, mixed-income housing community; available federal or state funding for the low income housing portion of the mixed-income project; the ability to create a neighborhood charter school; the ability to raise significant philanthropic dollars; and the presence of a lead nonprofit organization with business and civic leaders that will take ownership of the project.
Those were the ingredients that existed at East Lake. And compared to 1995, East Lake has been transformed from one of the most crime-infested, poorest communities in Atlanta with underperforming schools to a community with 90 percent less violent crime with 99 percent of fifth grade students meeting state math standards.
“East Lake has been very successful. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all model,” Giornelli said. “East Lake was not cheap. But it was the best investment that any foundation could make. That being said, you need a $20 million to $30 million fundraising campaign and a commitment of resources to make these work.”
Given its high-profile backers and skilled team members, Purpose Built hopes to have 25 partner communities within five years.
“I would like to prove that in five years, we could have 25 Purpose Built projects that would impact thousands of people and demonstrate that there’s another model for community development that actually can break the cycle of poverty,” Franklin said.
The former mayor also has had contact with key members of the Obama administration, which is adopting a similar comprehensive approach to combine mixed-income housing, quality education and economic development.
“One of my great loves is community development,” Franklin said. “That’s what I studied in college. It’s why I care about public service. I took a side track to become mayor. What I care about is the grass-roots work to help people change their lives. I feel like I’ve come full circle.”