Partnerships are Atlanta’s greatest tool for change
By Guest Columnist SAGDRINA JALAL, senior director of Community Innovation at the Center for Civic Innovation, with JENNIFER HIRSCH and DORI PAP, of the Georgia Institute of Technology
Black women are pioneers of social innovation, and their long history of working to create community – even when exhausted, even while being ignored, even as credit goes to others – should be recognized.
For the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI) and for Georgia Tech’s Center for Sustain-Learn-Serve (SLS) and Institute for Leadership and Social Impact (ILSI), a shared belief in the importance of supporting innovation led by Black women provides a rare example of how large institutions can propel the work of community leaders forward by playing supportive, rather than leading, roles.
Today, despite its historical narrative around equality, Atlanta is America’s most unequal city. In Atlanta, where a person lives and who they are is still the greatest determinant of their social and economic well-being. There is a 96% chance if you are born poor in Atlanta, you will die poor in Atlanta. Recent crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, didn’t create Atlanta’s inequality – they exposed it. Atlanta needs solutions that reflect both the needs and the voices of the people who call our city home.
As SLS’s first Signature Partner – a designation for organizations that partner regularly with SLS and commit to serving as co-educators of their students – CCI works with SLS and ILSI on a broad set of initiatives designed to support and foster social innovation in the Atlanta region. The partnership, in the truest sense of the word, leads to shared learning and action that lasts well beyond the initial engagement. In connecting students to the fundamentals of social innovation work through community leaders, philanthropy and equity work is brought to life with insight and inspiration from the people who are actually doing the work every day.
Beyond programming centered on addressing inequality and celebrating innovation, one of the most important elements of the CCI/Georgia Tech partnership is the commitment to honoring and uplifting subject matter experts – in this case, Black women. By partnering with social entrepreneurs and leaders who have long been doing sustainability and equity work in Atlanta, students have the opportunity to see real impact, driven by real leaders, to illustrate the larger social innovation ecosystem.
For organizations and individuals who work to develop community-driven solutions to Atlanta’s widening inequality gap, the complexity of the work coupled with historical funding challenges creates unnecessary hurdles. For Black women and other women of color, Atlanta’s unwillingness to listen to them, invest in them, and take their lead leaves our city woefully unprepared to address many of the critical needs in our community. It’s for this very reason that CCI takes an intentional and thoughtful approach in every facet of the organization to be respectful of Black history and Black ingenuity. The Georgia Tech partnership is in large part successful because of this shared value.
“Georgia Tech’s partnership with CCI has developed organically over the past five years, to mutual benefit,” said Jennifer Hirsch, director of the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain at Georgia Tech.. “CCI has helped us develop a unique approach to social innovation and, as co-educators, teach that approach to our students. They also serve as a key connector to community entrepreneurs and guide us to the best ways to support their work via our programs. With close partners like CCI, Georgia Tech is learning how to be a strong anchor institution that lifts up the city and the region in ways that support us all.”
Through SLS Buzz Courses, which are short, two month, non-credit courses on social innovation, students are introduced to female entrepreneurs – mostly women of color – who are working in their Atlanta neighborhoods to tackle large-scale challenges in new and creative ways. Many of them are alumni from CCI’s Fellowship Program. In an innovation of its own, the Buzz Courses are also open to, and regularly include, faculty and staff from Georgia Tech and other Atlanta area universities and colleges as well as community partners.
Social ventures run by two CCI alumni offer a glimpse into how these social innovation partnerships work. Akissi Stokes, founder and president of WUNDERgrubs, and Mamie Harper, founder of Carrie’s Closet of Georgia, first began working with Georgia Tech through the Fall 2019 Social Innovation Buzz Course, leading teams of five students, including undergraduate and graduate students, in working collaboratively on mini-projects.
WUNDERgrubs aims to increase nutrition in the Southeast Region with protein enriched food products using sustainably farmed, edible insects. The WUNDERgrubs Buzz Course team researched business-to-business opportunities and made recommendations for product lines and markets. Carrie’s Closet of Georgia works to improve the lives of Georgia’s most vulnerable and at-risk children by providing them with clothing and advocating for their rights. The Carrie’s Closet of Georgia Buzz Course team researched and proposed improvements for clothing donations and distribution.
The Buzz Courses are only the start. SLS and ILSI are committed to working with partners over the long-term. To do this, they shepherd projects into other programs, to provide students with boots-on-the-ground experiences led by some of Atlanta’s most impactful social ventures, while giving their founders much needed support. For example, the projects that WUNDERgrubs and Carrie’s Closet of Georgia started in the Buzz Course transitioned to the Leadership Minor capstone course taught by ILSI, where interdisciplinary student teams researched policy best practices to inform the writing of a Foster Children’s Bill of Rights in Georgia for Carrie’s Closet of Georgia and designed and tested a new logo for WUNDERgrubs. Support for these projects then continued throughout the following year through the SLS Summer Internship Program and eventually, student teams entered both projects in ILSI’s Ideas to Serve Competition, which rewards students for intensive problem discovery work.
“SLS has changed my life. I came into Georgia Tech with a passion for the environment, but with no clear idea of how to combine my passion with my skill set in a way that would truly be effective,” said Rachel Dekom, a Georgia Tech student who met Harper during the Buzz Course and then interned with Carrie’s Closet of Georgia the following summer as part of the SLS Summer Internship Program. “[SLS] has taught me that creating sustainable communities means first listening to the actual needs of those communities, being willing to let go of preconceptions and ego to really figure out what the problems are and what solutions are actually viable.” Dekom is now on staff at Carrie’s Closet of Georgia as their first paid employee.
“With respect to the status of Black women innovators and entrepreneurs, many of us work full-time jobs while addressing the injustices of the communities we serve through our organizations,” said Mamie Harper, founder of Carrie’s Closet of Georgia. “My Buzz Course team and our intern, Rachel, allowed me to take a deep dive into the operation of my business while still supporting myself. The pairing of me and Rachel was so perfect, she became our first employee! Carrie’s Closet of Georgia would not be where it is today, and we would not be growing and serving at the capacity that we are, if not for the SLS program.”
“The partnership with Georgia Tech was instrumental in helping our business not only weather the advent of COVID-19, but also continue to successfully meet the needs of our beneficiaries,” said Akissi Stokes of WUNDERgrubs. “Partnerships with such dedicated groups of students at Georgia Tech allowed us to successfully transform our company with the deployment of a digital toolkit for use by smallholder farmers and communities to grow edible insects as a protein food source. Access to such talent allowed our company to expand capacity immediately and accelerates our growth potential tenfold. This type of development would easily have taken our companies two to three more years to accomplish with a much higher price tag. We are grateful for the opportunity to shape and learn from future leadership.”
Social innovation work is both critical and imperfect. Perhaps one of the most synergistic elements of the CCI and Georgia Tech collaboration is that both organizations recognize that they must be intentional allies to those who are doing the work. In particular, the mission-driven work led by Black women has a much longer history than either organization, and the brilliance of that work must be both uplifted and preserved. In this partnership, CCI provides capacity-building assistance and support to the entrepreneurs, ensuring that the projects are advancing their ventures, while Georgia Tech ensures that the students and other participants are both contributing and learning. This division of labor ensures mutual benefit.
“So many of the women we work with do whatever it takes to show up for our city every single day,” said Sagdrina Jalal, senior director of Community Innovation at CCI. “CCI’s partnership with SLS and ILSI demonstrates what can happen when we listen to our leaders. It is such an honor to be a part of their amazing work.”
Sometimes, the work to bend the moral arc towards justice in our city feels overwhelming and lonely. Yet the synthesis between CCI’s community-based approach combined with Georgia Tech’s educational expertise provides a framework for the types of solutions necessary for our communities to meaningfully address inequality in Atlanta. As we collectively work to foster the new guard of leaders in Atlanta, we look forward with hope.
Note to readers: Sagdrina Jalal serves as senior director of Community Innovation at the Center for Civic Innovation. Jennifer Hirsch directs the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain and serves as an adjunct associate professor in the School of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech. Dori Pap is the Managing Director of the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact in the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech.