By Guest Columnist HATTIE DORSEY, president of HBDorsey & Associates and former president of Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership (ANDP).
The AJC wrote an article last week about the “disaffected voters” – those who seem to believe that no matter who is elected in the current campaign, their quality of life will continue unchanged, if not ignored.
In mulling over this subject and thinking about last year’s national elections, I thought of Pearl Cleage’s poem, “I Speak Your Name”. My take on why disaffected voters feel the way they do is that they simply do not hear their name in the messages spoken by this year’s candidates.
A critical run-off election will take place on Dec. 1 for the Mayor of Atlanta and the City Council, and, this time, the national media is watching for the outcome. The turnout is again expected to be very low. And in almost all precincts, turnout will likely be the key factor in the outcome.
Why, it is asked, did fewer than 24 percent of Atlanta voters show up to vote?
Why did so few African Americans not seem to care and failed to respond to the possibility of that population being on the brink of losing the Office of the Mayor for the first time in 36 years, even while still holding a slim residential majority in the City?
Given so critical issues facing Atlanta, many of which have long-term consequences for the all populations, why did so many ignore their responsibility and stay home or go to work? Is it perhaps that no one heard their name?.
“I Speak Your Name” was written for an affair given by Oprah Winfrey a few years ago. It sought to recognize the contributions of outstanding women having a wide range of interests who made a difference in various endeavors.
Oprah Winfrey wanted to salute them, to speak their names for all to hear and applaud their achievements.
Last year, messages delivered by candidate Barack Obama while running for the presidency, likewise crossed the lines of politics, race and gender, and especially called out to the young who often are not considered an important constituency.
He talked about a fading middle class, of many who felt shut out and ignored. He addressed our job lost due to the many plant closings and jobs relocated overseas. He addressed the many families that live on one or no income because of unemployment and the ending of unemployment checks. His own experience in Chicago moved him to understand what it was like in declining neighborhoods, where homes were lost and families displaced due to bank foreclosures and predatory loans.
And he spoke to those living on the edge and the near homeless. He spoke there names in his quest to bring about an equitable society that for so very long has been out of balance, touching what mattered for families and individuals who are being pushed aside.
In the remaining days of this election, there is still the need to speak directly and clearly to those in need, to
• the unemployed and underemployed who listen for ideas on jobs now being created by new workplaces in the City;
• the need for better education, for retraining and the opportunities offered through City programs;
• concern about the future of MARTA and better transit which would enable more people to get to jobs and to social and health services;
• those who are being displaced because of a lack of affordable rental housing and many who must move from the City;
• residents living in deteriorating neighborhoods and who are concerned about public safety for themselves and their children, and cry out for a positive police presence;
• the homeless or those close to it who require, not simply a place to sleep, but also supportive services: mental health and job counseling, and the presence of someone one cares about them; and
• those who need to be assured of adequate and continuing health care when the public hospitals are slowly narrowing or eliminating services to the uninsured and uninsurable.
To many average Atlantans, their name is often missing from the messages of those seeking their vote. What they hear are political figures who vow to address problems but, once in office, are unseen, disparage those who oppose them, and fail to even returns calls about an errant water meter, a missing garbage can or a dangerous pot hole, not to mention larger issues which must consider regionalism, equity, transportation and balanced development.
Respected researchers, such as Georgia Tech’s Thomas Boston, state that crime will increase in neighborhoods that have considerable concentrations of poverty, elevated rates of vacant housing and high unemployment. What candidate has reviewed such research as Dr. Boston’ studies that foster mixed-income communities, equitable development, and job creation?
There is little reference to these important works, but they have rarely been mentioned in their literature or brought into the current debates. Yet, this could be a firm basis for their advocating for strategies to deal with crime, for fixing City finances, and for addressing other problems.
I responded to President Obama because I felt that we had something in common. His work as a community organizer, working at a community’s grassroots, seem to have given him an understanding of the socio-economic issues facing those on the margin – what the lack of quality housing and the absence of basic services has had on people in neglected neighborhoods.
The importance of preparation for holding onto jobs, the value of adequate police protection and a good education gave him the insight that a city or community that did not work to bring its poor into the middle class, would not succeed.
In the remaining days, perhaps the two candidates running for Mayor and those in run-offs for City Council would take the time to listen to the citizens about what concerns them.
We understand that the infrastructure is important, and so are the people who comprise a city. We have seen how Shirley Franklin took the risk and tackled it by rebuilding the sewers and water systems. We also want to know that the candidates will focus on public safety in low- and moderate income neighborhoods as well as in affluent areas.
What I still want to hear is a more specific discussion about a transportation strategy that would allow individuals who do not have automobiles to reach the job centers, the need for strategies on attracting new ways to create jobs and job training programs that prepares the workforce in new fields, such as bio-medical and health care.
This will require improving and supporting public education to assure that the curriculum prepares our youth for new technological fields and bridges the gap between education and the world of work.
I want to hear how our neighborhoods that were beginning to see signs of revitalization continue to survive and not be left to absentee investors seeking a good investment, but who do not feel responsible for the continued survival of a community.
If we want City Hall to move us towards a more livable future, let’s begin with responding to the challenges mentioned above. If we, as citizens of Atlanta, hear any of these messages, I truly believe that we will show up to cast a vote for those who will look out for ‘me’ because you called my name.
Hattie Dorsey also is a former 1st vice chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia and a former member of the Democratic National Committee.