By Alicia Philipp, president, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta
I recently announced that in 2020 I will retire after 42 great years leading the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. As such, this is a time of reflection. I was privileged to have witnessed significant challenges and collaborative solutions, such as when a coalition came together to formulate Atlanta’s early response to the growing HIV/AIDS crisis in the early 80s. I was also called on to help when, through the leadership of then-Mayor Shirley Franklin, a team came together with a plan to purchase the Martin Luther King Jr. papers, securing them to remain here in his hometown forever.
These are examples of how diverse groups came together to solve a big challenge. But problem solving in our region hasn’t always been collaborative. It has been concentrated among a small set of power players that was one-dimensional, and mostly white. Still today, the seat of power doesn’t reflect the region’s diversity.
Over the years, through the work of the Community Foundation, I’ve worked with others to change that picture. It will take the concerted actions of all the region’s leadership to truly bring change. To do that, we have to face some tough realities.
We have all the ingredients to be the land of opportunity where people come to pursue the American Dream. But we are falling short. More than one quarter of families in metro Atlanta do not have $400 on hand in case of an emergency. And one-third of families pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, making it difficult to afford food, clothing, transportation or medical care. Data point after data point proves this disparity.
We must address race. We may tell ourselves we’re the city too busy to hate, but we are more divided than we are united along racial lines. The tentacles of race branch out to many pressing issues – education, employment, health outcomes and housing. In education, data from our regional education collaborative, Learn4Life, shows that white and Asian students consistently outperform their black and Hispanic peers on every measure, from third grade reading to completing the first year of college.
To change the tide, decision making has to change. We have to be truly inclusive and regional in scope. Decisions can’t be made just inside the perimeter, or just outside of the perimeter. The future is not one dimensional. We don’t all look the same, and the center of power should look like all of us, not some of us.
People like to talk about “The Atlanta Way,” this nostalgic idea that we’re somehow special, that there’s no such thing as racial lines or gender barriers in the way we work. Sadly, that’s not true in my experience. While the Atlanta Way may have worked for some, it worked only marginally for others. It’s time for a new Atlanta Way, a promise all our neighbors deserve, not just a privileged few.
We proudly proclaim that we are “the city too busy to hate,” but that is a low bar aspiration. The opposite of hate is not love, but indifference – even if we don’t hate people different than ourselves we are often indifferent to their opportunities, well-being and pain. It’s time we reject indifference to make more of a difference in our region. That is my wish for 2020 and beyond.