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Philanthropy Thought Leadership

Theory and practice with Ayana Gabriel

Atlanta Skyline at dusk, Georgia. USA.

Ayana Gabriel joined the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta recently as Vice President, Community Impact. To celebrate her first 30 days with the Community Foundation, Erin Dreiling, marketing and communications manager at the Foundation, sat down to interview Ayana on her perspective on community work and grantmaking. Here is that Q&A to help others get to know Ayana, her career journey to date and her thoughts on how philanthropy can help build communities.

Your vocational journey is inspiring. How do you think your past roles will contribute to your new one as the vice president, community impact?

Who I am and how I have experienced this world dramatically shapes my approach to this role. I am a Black woman and a first-generation American. I grew up in Houston, Texas and education was so important to my family. My parents wanted to maximize every opportunity for my brother and me. Today we have six degrees between the two of us!

That journey was not easy – growing up as a daughter of a construction worker helped me to understand the gaps and the opportunities in our society. I never went to school in my neighborhood, I was bussed to the “better” schools in other neighborhoods. When I went to Spelman for college, I took a Greyhound bus with my stuff in a suitcase.

That is partially what drove my early career. I trained as an engineer, but I was usually the only woman and definitely the only Black woman in the room in those days. I left that path to become a teacher. I used to tell my students, most of whom were Black children, that if just two of them went into that career, I would have doubled myself. But the experience that I think has the most bearing in this role is not necessarily on my resume, it’s in the volunteer community leadership I have done. I understand the theory and practice behind community work, and it is what excites me most.

Can you tell us more about that community leadership?

A defining moment for me personally has been my community leadership on the Westside, my home. I live three miles from the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Bellwood quarry. I know what it is like to drive social impact on the grassroots levels. I know what it is like to show up at a meeting with strangers who have autonomy over your life. Many years ago, I was a member of a group that received a grant from the Community Foundation’s long-time program the Neighborhood Fund. We had so many assets in the neighborhood but we needed to aggregate our power. We needed to pull together. The Neighborhood Fund grant helped to shape a neighborhood master plan. That initial grant had a domino effect – from those efforts, programs and community gardens and even small businesses have sprung.

As an impacted resident, I started going to Atlanta BeltLine meetings in 2006 to learn more about what the project entailed. Since then, I’ve volunteered to cut kudzu on neighborhood lots and am now on the board of the Beltline. In addition, I am a founding board member of redefinED, an organization that seeks to transform educational outcomes for Atlanta’s students.

What draws you to service and community work?

I truly believe that we get our best solutions when communities have agency. Community members can – and should – be problem solvers in their own lives. What does it mean to be able to replicate and scale that, to give our communities agency so they are deeply engaged in changing their own lives? That is my theory of change. There is so much talent in the community and we need to leverage it.

You often hear about the public and private sectors and I think that “people” need to be a part of that. It should be the public, private and people sectors working together to really get things done. I have spent time trying to understand issues from the perspective of each lens.

How do you think philanthropy can make an impact in Atlanta and our community?

This is a critical moment in time for the Community Foundation, for metro Atlanta and for our country. We are more connected now than we have ever been. Even before the pandemic, which highlighted existing inequity, it was clear that our social problems center on systems that have existed for centuries. Structural racism is the root of so many problems and issues. It is hard – it’s not how we want to see ourselves or our country but we need to talk transparently and plainly about it. That is the first step.

Philanthropy has so much power and wealth in our society. Through philanthropy, you get to see the best of our society and the worst of it. It is unique and there is no other space where that happens. How do you leverage the power of philanthropy in partnership with community to make the most impact? How do you pair the good intentions and wealth of our donors with the input of the people most affected to increase the agency they have in their lives? How do you harness all of that energy for systemic change? Philanthropy has both the dollars and social capital to make that happen.

What is your favorite book right now?

I have always loved science fiction! In it, we truly create a new world. Dystopian sci-fi is a warning but so much of it is hopeful and about what the world has the potential to be. Right now, I am reading the Dreamblood duology by N.K. Jemisen. As a shameless plug, my brother, who I am so proud of, just came out with his first novel. Check out A Master of Djinn by P. Djèli Clark.


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