The Fulfillment of Du Bois’ Dream
By Frank Brown, Esq. CEO, Communities in Schools of Atlanta
You’re nothing but a poverty pimp!
That’s not an attack I would expect to be leveled against me, much less at a gathering of metro Atlanta leaders. While said in a moment of anger, it was a teachable moment for me and others who witnessed the ill-informed outburst.
What’s the lesson? Fighting for yourself and for those not in the room is a constant battle against the soft bigotry of low expectations. And the fight is tougher, the work compounded if you’re a minority, yes, even for a non-profit executive working in the heart of the Black Mecca.
This struggle cannot be ignored.
At Communities in Schools of Atlanta, we pour our hearts and souls into the very children society is waiting to write off as inevitable statistics in the making. Students like Antonio, a young man who for much of his youth was raised in the state’s foster care system. Underneath his hardened veneer was a soul in desperate need of someone to help him beat the odds. Through effective case management, one-on-one mentorship, and meeting basic needs like food and clothing, we have been able to help Antonio set his sights on a life where he can break the cycle of his surroundings.
An alumnus of our program, Antonio enrolled in a four-year college in neighboring South Carolina. While on a hiatus this semester, the CIS Atlanta family continues to support this first-generation student. With a spirit of resilience and the support of a village that continues to stand up for him, Antonio is bravely writing a new future for himself and his younger siblings.
Our work is difficult and emotional, not bound by office hours or job descriptions. It’s about doing whatever is necessary so these children have the mindset and the playbook to succeed.
Last year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published a poignant piece that unmasked what leaders of colors face in the world of philanthropy. Their struggles mirror mine – the tasking effort required to make people aware of their bias (particularly those who identify themselves as progressives), fundraising and volunteering (especially to take on the effort to help the Antonios, not just the Ivy League-ready student in need of a gentle push), and the braveness required to practice radical honesty.
Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity’s Nathaniel Smith, featured in the article, noted, “If we want to see a new world, we have to be willing to speak it into existence — and talk about what we don’t want to see in this world.”
What would a new world look like for metro Atlanta? For non-profit leaders of color, for students like Antonio, for educators, for employers, for you and me?
We have the power to create the possibilities we seek. An Atlanta child born into poverty today ought to have a village surrounding them throughout their life to cultivate their elevation to run any of the dozens of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in this region. Better yet, a child born into poverty in Atlanta should be an anomaly, not a common acknowledgment often greeted with apathy or resignation.
Sure, the path of least resistance is easy but transformational change requires exposing and addressing hard truths. It’s not something we often embrace in Atlanta.
More than 100 years ago, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois published his essay “The Talented Tenth,” a call to build a brighter future for all Black people through education and the elevation of exceptional Black leadership.
In a speech, he remarked, “If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen. Effort or means so invested will pay a thousand per cent interest. These efforts will be twice blessed—blessing him that gives and him that takes.”
Du Bois challenged Atlanta’s power structure to bank the city’s future on investing in those omitted from the narrative of a welcoming city. Indeed, it is the ethos of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, of which Du Bois was a member, as am I, to use intellectual activism to challenge the indifference we see and give Black and brown Atlantans the resources and support to soar.
At last year’s State of the Region breakfast hosted by the Atlanta Regional Commission, one of the speakers remarked that today’s decision-makers look much like the ones there at the start of her career 30 years ago. This static leadership approach must change now. The longer we kick the can of hard conversations and new actions down the road, the longer we deprive our region of undiscovered talent and heart.
It’s time Atlanta’s leaders coalesce around a 21st-century approach to Du Bois’ call to action so we may comprehensively and fervently address head-on the inequities we all see on display from the homeroom to the boardroom and beyond.
Photo Caption: CIS Atlanta’s CEO Frank Brown shares with Antonio the joys and struggles of being a first-generation college student.