What Does Equity Look Like?: A Southern Perspective
Ahmaud Arbery. Rayshard Brooks. Voter suppression. Mask ordinances. John Lewis. The headlines from Atlanta have become a regular, often disheartening, part of our national dialogue. But the fight for equity and justice in Georgia’s capital city is more layered, complex and vibrant than most of the country realizes. Among large US cities, Atlanta ranks first in income inequality and last in upward mobility. The city’s Black and Brown communities have been disproportionately impacted by years of de-urbanization and economic decline. Yet despite (or because of) these challenges, a bold and creative cohort of visionaries are doing the hard work to reimagine what a truly equitable Atlanta should look like, and how it can be achieved.
In this panel discussion, we’ll unpack how civic engagement, public spaces, economic reinvestment and more are being upended and rebuilt on a foundation that is truly equitable and inclusive. We’ll examine how unexpected forms of communication are centering the experiences and realities of Black and brown Atlantans — opening new conversations and forging new alliances critical to lasting social change.
Hey, everyone! Welcome back to the final day that we will be together live. Everything that we’ve done together, as I hope you know, will be up on the platform where you are seeing me. A lot of it already is. If for the next hour or two, I know you will stick around, but in between if you want to catch up or come back to it, we invite you to do so. Everything will be up here live or on tape, I guess. Then we will eventually, we will make everything, everything will be up on YouTube so anybody and everybody can do that. Just give us a couple of weeks to make that happen. I am incredibly grateful to bring you all back.
It would be a mistake for me to ignore what’s been happening while I’ve been in my basement. What’s been happening in the country this week. It is a lot and I know an email was sent too. One thing I take hope and comfort in is the idea that this group is together and we are all seeing what we are seeing and feeling what we are feeling. And we understand, and I was just saying this to all of the folks for the equity panel. If you could see it and name it, then you can change it. And I was reminded yesterday in a conversation I had, I cannot remember if it was before or after the amazing conversation with Nicole and Stacey, Dr. Jones and I were having a chat. And he reminded me because I was reflecting on all happening around the world and my deep distress, and I think everyone shares, about Breonna Taylor. If not us, who? And if not now, when?
You are in for an extraordinary series of conversations today. So I want to get to it. You’ll either be watching the conversation from R.E.M. with Dr. Jeanine Abrams McLean and Rebecca DeHart. Good news, overnight there was a judge ruling that the United States census will continue. And I’m not an expert at the courts, I’m sure some might be, there is an initial ruling. There could be a fight up to the courts. Right now, it looks like the United States census will proceed through at least the end of October. Which is good news because we don’t want to leave anyone behind, part of our values is that we don’t leave anyone behind. I have a feeling there are deep lessons to be learned and we’ll get to that in a quick minute.
Today you will have Susan Vandergriff, she’s extraordinary. She lives in the southeastern part of Tennessee. I’m a Virginian by birth so I know it’s in the corner of our state. The area she works in, Chattanooga, and she has just done some extraordinary work. Having some conversations. I was talking to my wife and she says, you are still talking about that now, really?
We also have the impact awards, they built bridges around this so if you’re interested I highly recommend making time for that. Then we will close out the day with — I would like to have you indulge me for a quick moment to take us out with a piece from Joy. I opened this week with one of these and I would like to close it out. It is quick. Some on Twitter were complaining, but you know what? Listen, take a breath, this is good for you. This is called “Road.”
We stand first in our minds, and then we toddle From hand to furniture Soon we are walking away from the house and lands Of our ancestral creator gods To the circles of friends, of schooling, of work Making families and worlds of our own. We make our way through storm and sun We walk side by side or against each other The last road will be taken alone — There might be crowds calling for blood Or a curtained window by the leaving bed It is best not to be afraid Lift your attention For the appearance of the next road It might be through a family of trees, a desert, or On rolling waves of sea It’s the ancient road the soul knows We always remember it when we see it It beckons at birth It carries us home.
Thank you for joining us today! You are joining us for the Equity Panel: a Southern perspective. This panel is meant to provide some Southern insight on equity and how unexpected forms of communications are centering the experiences of Black and brown folks here in Atlanta. We are coming to you today with an amazing panel of thought leaders and practitioners and activists who work through — How do we tackle this conversation? But more importantly, how do we dismantle some of the ways that we have all thought about the injustices that plague our society, and how to begin to liberate our thinking? How do we begin to liberate our practices, with our mindframe? I’m super excited to introduce this panel.
And we also come to you today, I will personally take moderator privileges, I am coming with a heavy heart this week. As we — not just for Breonna Taylor, who is at the center of the forefront of my mind, and her family, and she is not able to speak on behalf of herself. But all the voiceless and no-longer-here Black and brown girls that have been taken from our communities. Whether it is acts of violence at the hands of folks that are supposed to protect us, or those folks are you know, family, friends, strangers, all of those brown girls out there. I am coming to you today as one and I am coming to you today holding all of that in my heart.
I’m really excited to introduce this panel of leaders and I will start with, I will introduce them and then we will go right into the conversation. We have Janelle Williams, senior advisor at The Reserve, we have Heather Infantry, executive director at The Generator, and lastly we have Rohit Malhotra, the founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation. This is an amazing panel! You know, we had prep conversation as we got started — and actually, I’m forgetting one of the most important people, Ernie Suggs, who is a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution focused on race relations. Ernie had to be pulled away today to report on the Trump visit that will be in one of our counties today. So he is sending his spirit of welcome and love. But he is definitely doing good work today of being a reporter for the AJC. We send our thoughts.
As we think about, one of the things we talked about in the prep session was how we begin to frame the conversation on equity, particularly for Atlanta. We have several iterations of what we wanted to do. What kept coming up, and you will see these in the articles that were shared prior to the session, how we branded ourselves as a Southern city. And how we communicate that and how it not only resonates externally, but how it shows up in the city and our work. Atlanta has a few taglines. One is, a city — most recently we heard about the popular slogan for our mayor, whose name is Keisha. And another way we branded ourselves is having the Atlanta way. Many places have a “way,” but the Atlanta way, in the Southern context, has always been around how Atlanta has been able to quiet some of the uprising through Black and brown private conversations — I’m sorry, Black and white private conversations. Those privately to kind of make sure that Atlanta stays in its place and particularly Black Atlanta stays in its place. We will interrogate that conversation today.
And we will not talk about, just about what is equity, one of our equities talks about this a lot. Equity is not just a what, it is a way. Not only is it a way, inequity is a way. Janelle, can you talk to us about the tale of two cities that plague Atlanta? And why our brand may or may not explicitly share the two tales of Atlanta?
Yeah, good morning, everyone. Thank you so much, Communications Network, for inviting me to participate in this discussion. Thank you for really helping to curate an authentic, this is a deep call to action. I am Janelle Williams with Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. I am from Trinidad and Tobago originally but spent half my life in the city of Atlanta. Many of my people, we have come to call Atlanta home. I think that context is really important as we have a conversation around, what does Atlanta really reflect, represent, and stand for?
You know, like many of you, we all have heard this narrative of a city too busy, and Atlanta has been considered one of America’s greatest Black Meccas. And nestled within that, realities within our city, we have a city where almost 80 percent of Black children live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. We are in a city where we have one of the highest densities of Black-owned businesses, yet Black business value is worth 11 times less than white business value. And I say that because as we have this broad narrative of a city that offers hope and promise, embedded within that are deep systemic issues that Black children, Black families, Black communities are in poverty. An understanding that the word “black” is also not — understanding the intersection of class and race and how they compound to create those inequities is important.
I’m glad to have this conversation today, particularly nestled around, What does it mean for our narrative? What does it mean for a narrative shift? Because for too long we’ve romanticized resiliency. We put the burden of responsibility on people have been locked out of opportunity without acknowledging the role of other systems that have created this uneven playing field. For far too long we have put responsibility on communities that have experienced historic disinvestment. So I’m interested in being part of a conversation where we interrogate the narrative that we are using to discuss these issues. We are honest around complacency involved in perpetuating some of this.
And the other thing I’d love to lift up, I’m so excited about this conversation. There is a necessary national shift happening right now. And a national narrative around race, racism, economy, democracy, opportunity, freedom, and hope. But the South has something to say. And how this is pronounced and experienced in the South is persistent and real. And I think it is really important, even as we think about these major metropolitan areas, we hold that with almost four out of five children, Black children in the city living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, it is very comparable to what we are seeing in other areas of the Deep South. And I think it is really important if we want to have this national conversation, we pay closer attention to what is happening in the South because the South does have something to say. Thank you for having me.
Thank you. I am revisiting, kind of, I’m thinking through the spaces and conversations that I would have with Heather recently and over the years. She’s always been thinking through who and what we are as a city. Whether it’s using the word “non-black” or thinking how we insert the conversations around the creativeness. Talk to us about what you are seeing, can you react to Janelle’s conception of the Black Mecca and how you are seeing that and your thoughts on that?
Yes thank you. Thank you for having me. Another term I am using as of late is “people of no color” too. I like to throw that out. Janelle is speaking to a problem because Atlanta is always the majority Black urban center, with a highly visible Black community. Have Black political leadership, we have well-to-do people, the latest being Tyler Perry, who has such a great national platform in terms of the work and success he has enjoyed. Which has really skewed the reality of what it’s like for everyday folks in Atlanta. The duality of this, impoverished Black community and the well-to-do, particularly in the music sector, is at odds with itself.
And with all of this, Atlanta swaps between first and second. Much of it has to do with the language and how we tell the story of the city. And I really began to sort of interrogate this with the data being told. Even though we tell the story about how Black children in certain ZIP Codes have a difficult time mitigating poverty. It is rare that we ever speak directly to the culprits — why this exists. Right? What are the actual institutions at play? — and more than institutions, who are the folks with these policies and practices?
I was in a training yesterday that the Atlanta Regional Commission here in Atlanta was convening around equity. We went through this animated short video, talking about systemic racism, and they were looking specifically at redlining as it relates to this. At the conclusion of the video, the narrative says systemic racism is really hard to pin down because we don’t know who to blame for it. The best we can do is be aware of our implicit bias. And that is a complete fallacy. Right! It is racism, and there are people that are engineering the racism, and they are reinforcing these policies, and if we can’t get to a place in this moment of truth and transformation where we can call people, specifically, the individuals behind this, to say you’re doing wrong and creating harm, then I don’t think we have any chance of actually creating any sort of change or transformation. It is not a matter of, Are you racist? It’s really a question of, How could you not be? Given that since the inception of the country, our foundation was built on it.
And so, I think that is what leadership in Atlanta, Black, white, and other — because even as a Black person I have painfully been made aware of the ways in which I have been very complicit in anti-Blackness. I have been very complicit at silencing Black voices and upholding white supremacist practices. We all need to sort of take pause and take personal inventory of the ways we have been shaped and molded. Because it is essentially the air we breathe, and it starts with how we talk about this work.
I am curious, I spent 20 years in the field of philanthropy. I too have come to very clear realizations around my role in upholding certain systems. And how, even in my best work, I have had to kind of push the institutional way of getting certain work done in philanthropy. As a leader in the nonprofit sector, can you talk a little bit about ways in which you see these practices show up? On the nonprofit practitioner side. Not necessarily your experiences, but ways in which people can become aware of what they are doing. Because sometimes we are blind to it, and we just don’t know, because were part of the system and think we are doing good.
I think the challenge with philanthropy and the way we approach it — because we don’t really understand the complicated nuances of how things have come to the way that they are, because of the way we tell the story, right? You are presented with data often about how Black folks are very specifically Atlanta. Very specifically Atlanta. How they lag behind in education, you know, in their ability to move up the socioeconomic ladder, as it compares to their white counterparts. This data creates an imbalanced perspective — that one can walk away and think that these things are sort of specific and terminal to the Black community, in that it warrants our charity rather than investment.
If we were to step back and look at practices and policies, which philanthropy does, if we look and say it was financial institutions at this point in history that made very deliberate and intentional — bank loans and real estate agents were marginalized in communities that then became impoverished because it could not access the diversity of a broad tax base to support the communities. When we look at the systems, we begin to shift the conversation to say, It’s the policies that are played that created the data points. And then we place the emphasis on the policies versus on the outcomes.
We have so many terms to talk about Black folks. We are marginalized, disenfranchised, low income, they’re intersectional and as of late now they are POC and BIPOC. When it comes to philanthropy there is no scrutiny, there is no interrogation as to whether the way that they were deploying their resources has any sort of efficacy, was tackling the problem. All of the benefits and privileges bestowed upon those that give their money away for the tax benefits, the confidentiality that they have, was so that nobody needs to know about them — that they have all this power to do what they want, and those of us that were on the receiving end were to graciously accept it, even though oftentimes it is fraught with all sorts of bias and racist attitudes and more often than not, it is not what we need, it is not enough, the actual resources that begin to chip away the problem. That power imbalance continues to perpetuate the same thing. In a city like Atlanta, we’re continuing to lag behind in this city. Something is amiss!
I think this is a great way to talk. Rohit Malhotra, you’re not just thinking. One of the things that happened in Atlanta, we’ve come together to say we want to address rapid response to COVID, and deployed resources to the community, to help, you know, mitigate, you know, whether it is the spread or thinking through, How can we provide support? and all of these great things that philanthropy has come together to do. You have shined a light on, even our best intentions, we are exacerbating injustice and inequality even through our benevolence.
Can you talk a little bit about how you are articulating in the way that you have gone about, particularly from your seat, what drew you to this, I will use the word “expose.” But highlight the inequity and how you are working with Black and brown voices, and white voices, to help hold philanthropy and others accountable.
I appreciate the question. There are folks I consider mentors in this space. I think, for me, I grew up as a kid of an immigrant parents, and so in an immigrant household, your obligation is to understand and weed through the history of the country that you are in. And it is so complicated. Because the first time you heard about the history is through the lens of your parents and family on, like, what the country is about and what it is for. And then you have to learn history in this country to protect your parents. Because you see them go through pain and hurt. I came to this work because I could no longer watch my parents collapsing to the floor. An absolute pain and hurt from how badly this country has treated people who look like them. And to watch them blame themselves. And at the same time, for them to look at the children and tell them they are excellent.
I grew up, my parents came to the country, was born on the south side of Chicago. I came to Atlanta at a really young age. And coming here I did not know anything but Black excellence because every Black person I was around also had parents who told them that they were excellent and they were the best and they meant everything, never knew what that meant. And Atlanta is so interesting in that way, because unlike other places, you don’t have a monolithic view on a Black person. You have names for people who are Black. You have the person who helped with your science homework, the person who helped you with your math homework, the person who promised to select you on the basketball team. Like, those are my friends! That I grew up with. I don’t call them names that philanthropy has called Black people. I never viewed it as charitable.
I remember the first time my parents ever got a box on the doorstep of clothing. From a well-to-do family that wanted to give back to us. And I went into the box of clothing and I was so excited because there was some dope clothing in there! I was like, This is going to be amazing! I remember trying to put it on and my mom slapped me across the face. She said, “Put that back in the box and put the box back where it came from, we do not take charity!” And it was a feeling of, I work every single day, I work 36 hours a day! And if I cannot afford to give my children clothing or food, I don’t need turkey giveaways, I want enough damn money to afford turkey!
My view on charity is one of a person who’s already rejected it from a really young age. And as a student of history, what you have to look at is, when you look at COVID-19, it is a disease that is disproportionately affecting Black bodies. And I did not hear that from the news. I heard it from a partner who’s an emergency physician, who called me crying on the phone saying, “The emergency room and the ICU is packed with Black women. And I’ve never seen this before in my life. It is packed. Not the emergency room, the ICU!” Meaning the people who are going to die look a very specific way. And that is unusual. And so, when I saw that, the first thing I started to think about — when you’re an executive director of a nonprofit organization, the first people you think about is your community and your team. You don’t really care what other people think about you or what’s going on, you call your team, Are you OK? I had staff, community members, friends who were hurting and scared. Like, Am I going to end up in the emergency room? What does this mean for me?
So immediately, I started to reach out to these philanthropic institutions that were meant to protect and repair — especially in moments like this — to say, This is a disease that is absolutely going to impact Black bodies. We have known that Atlanta is already set up to fail Black people. So what are we going to do in this moment to make sure that this is not yet another thing Black families are going to have to persevere for? This is not an academic argument, it’s a “I’m thinking about the people I love” argument. And I don’t know how to help because I don’t have enough money myself. And I got radio silence for months on this! And then, I started to watch money start to go out. And when money started to go out, I watched it go to the same institutional things that it’s gone to for years and years. And we can make the argument that institutional things are the things you have to put money into first because they are stable, they have higher reach, they can get into more communities. But truth is, what a lot of communities needed and had already were Black leaders ready and prepared to take care of themselves, but they were fighting for scraps of resources to be able to do it. And had to be dependent on these institutional places in order to be able to survive.
… The COVID-19 fund, which is what you asked about, is, we did an evaluation of where the dollars go during crisis. And they go to large institutional, white-led, male-led organizations. And it’s because of proximity to the dollars that your network affects, they can pick up the phone and say, I need these dollars here. It also has to do with that these organizations, well before crisis, are better prepared, meaning that they were given more money during the times when there was not a crisis to have access. You have organizations with hundreds of millions of dollars of access. In the organizations … in Atlanta, you have 76 percent, 74 percent of them were white-led. Not a single white-led organization, male-led or white-led organization, had debt on their companies. Yet there are Black-led organizations with multimillion dollars of debt on their companies. We are setting up Black organizations to fail from the beginning. This was not to call out COVID-19 response, that would be silly! It was to show that even in a time of crisis, when we know something affects Black people, and you have intentional Black leaders, putting practices and procedures in place to actually account for equity, even with that effort, you could not break 400 years of systems that have continued to fail people in the first place. We have to do better. Philanthropy has to do better. It is a broken system designed for someone that does not look like anyone on this panel.
It is killing people.
First of all, thank you. To all of you. I am a native of this lovely city. And this region. And I am often heartbroken at the way we have responded, collectively, to folks that looked just like me, that I have grown up with, my family. You know, my — personally speaking, both my parents had COVID. It is very personal to me in terms of the healthcare response in this moment. And you know, by the grace, they are not only doing well, they are in a position to do well. And I know that is not the case for so many families. We are still dealing with a pandemic. We are on a Zoom situation right now! It is very much the realities of our day-to-day.
But we are doing, on top of this, we are in a time of opportunity to do our work differently. To show up differently. To voice things that we’ve never been able to voice confidently. We’ve been able to voice them quietly in certain rooms and corners. I can speak for myself in that way. But now, I think that there is a microphone and we can really hold people accountable. Heather, you’ve been able to do this in ways that I think, not just call it out, but help lead how this sector can do things differently. Can you — not just the mechanics, but the relationships and how you went about that, how did it impact you on holding a major institution accountable, but also thinking through, what is the solution and how you brought others into the conversation?
So, this is a callout I made for The Greater Atlanta, which is one of the larger philanthropic institutions in Atlanta. They did a specific round of emergency funding for the arts and cultural community. In the first round of funding they neglected to include any Black organizations, in the initial round of funding. At that point, we were well aware of the impact that COVID was having disproportionately on Black communities. And so, the callout really did not come as part of any intention to advocate for change in response to this. It was really just to express a growing frustration. It was starting to fester for a lot of us.
A week after the initial callout we would learn about George Floyd and … cities with violence, and there would be subsequent examples of Black lives being murdered very publicly in broad daylight. It just became, How could I not speak out? By email and over the phone and sharing their experiences — not just sharing their experiences in the organization, but the impact this was having on them personally. I think what philanthropy tends to neglect, particularly dealing with Black communities, is just the ongoing sort of messaging that we get, that continues to devalue our lives, our intelligence and competence. And we internalize that.
So, philanthropy makes a huge statement on the folks that they support, but they also make a big statement on those that they don’t. And that stuff weighs on people. And because organizations aren’t supported and funded and valued and held up, these folks are doing, you know, they are really struggling to make ends meet. Impacting their ability to support themselves and the people that they are responsible for. How could I not? And it comes at a great risk to speak out in a place like Atlanta, where institutions really insulate themselves from any kind of critique at all. We do not value dialogue and discourse. We do not value agitation, we silence it.
And that is what initially happened in this situation when I did the initial callout. The foundation did their sort of, like, sterile statement saying, like, we are inclusive of everybody. That was the initial response. No accountability, no acknowledgment of, Yes, you are right, we did neglect to include Black organizations. And I would say it is only because of the pandemic, it is only because of Black Lives Matter, that we found ourselves in a moment where they could not deny us. They couldn’t! This was just not the moment to be on the wrong side of, this moment. And the community foundations themselves found themselves, like so many other institutions and companies, having to put out some sort of statement of solidarity that explicitly lifted up Black. Not the other terms, whatever they are. They had to talk about Black Atlantans and they did so. That became the opportunity to leverage, to use race, really, to leverage an advocacy effort that would bring them to their knees in the kind of way that would move money that has never been moved before.
And over the course of three months, galvanizing the community [with a] unified voice in this effort, calling on particular allies to sort of quietly weigh in and influence and provide pressure, where I knew the community foundation had to be responsive. So that at the end of the three months we could arrive at $1 million plus, now being redirected to Black organizations — many of whom had never received, not a dollar from the community foundation. Not one red cent.
This brings a few things. We are seeing across the country, we have to respond differently and it gets super uncomfortable. We are also seeing, you know, institutional nonprofits as well, all of us think differently. … I will talk to Janelle about this, what she has seen and prior to the work, but what I’m seeing, conditions in Atlanta are similar in other cities. I was on a call and meeting with folks in Chicago and New York, and also of the part of the South that are challenging. The Southern experience around racism and classism is not unique. It is something that, while it may look different in other places, the underlying conditions of white supremacy plague philanthropy in general. …
I was on a call with a foundation, it was Indianapolis or, I can’t remember right now. They were lifting up a fund in response to COVID. They were getting extreme backlash and the leader did not know why. He was like, you know, I have my African-American leader, leading this fund, and the community feels like this person is co-opting their strategy and they don’t feel heard, and I’m just really confused. Can you help me through this? And maybe it was a different set of folks on the call, maybe, I don’t know, but the conversation really settled on, Are you co-opting? How is your Black leader positioned in the particular community? And why is it the single Black leader in the position and not the institution? And why not allow the community to lead on a response, and why not play a support role? And who at the table is involved in your strategy? And so, we have got to think through. This was not a Southern city, this was a city that is, you know, somewhat progressive.
And I think that we’ve got to think through, even our most progressive and best ways, how do we practice? And the danger of the progressive white leadership thinking because you have Black leadership in the organization, that leader is — not just affecting the Black or brown community, but from a class perspective, what is their relationship, how do you interrogate that? Or are we positioning symbolic leaders, in the face of philanthropy, to do the work? And … are you listening to the Black and brown leaders and the shift and changes? Because there are a lot of Black, brown, white women across the board, that are … not being heard. And what does that trauma look like in the midst of all that is going on, and how does it show up in your work? And are you doing the hard work and getting information and listening? And then responding to what you’re hearing?
So I will comment to Janelle. From what you are seeing across the South — your portfolio is across the South, you see things nationally. Talk to us about … this work and how we can think through this conversation more broadly, or talk to us more about that.
I would be remiss if I did not say, these are views of my own, not that of the Federal Reserve Bank. I want to make sure that I plug that in. I think it’s really important not just — what is our civic responsibility here? I just, you know, the humanity of this moment. What is our collective identity? At this moment. I’m struggling on the heels of this Breonna Taylor verdict while raising a nine-year-old girl, asking me if it is safe to call the police to our home if there is fear. And that is something that I have to reconcile and other Black mothers have to reconcile, while we still have to show up in professional spaces. … And I say that as we think about Blacks and people of color that are in spaces that are asked to lead these discussions — it is a difficult space. Because we also are having to not just reconcile these roles, but also in 2020, to negotiate our humanity. I think it is really important to just like, put that out there and acknowledge that. …
About what’s happening with COVID, we actually see, you know, it was spoken about earlier, this is a pandemic. We are seeing disproportionate impact on Black — [if you] only look at the top states that had 50 percent of the cases, many were in the South. So then there’s an economic impact, which we saw within a few weeks in the pandemic, 41 percent of Black businesses saw their business plummet. 41 percent. And we tried to figure out what is going on. Many of these businesses are represented in, overrepresented in industries. They are represented in accommodation and food services. What it is doing is magnifying how the Monopoly board is. And it simply just exposing that we are operating in systems that have not been inclusive.
And so, you know, nationally, I think it really needs to happen, and the policy conversations that need to occur is how structural racism continues to constrain our economy and our community. There is a cause; it’s not only experienced by Black people and people of color. It actually undermines our collective, our economy and society. And so I think it is something really important to lift up. I think we think about solutions; we had a conversation today around philanthropy and there was a great book around the legitimacy of it. And to Heather’s point, philanthropy was not naturally designed to really eradicate itself. It was designed to undo conditions.
We have to imagine, what does philanthropy look like? What does it mean by holding these institutions accountable? But what does it mean as we think about economics, what does that mean? It’s been practiced in Black and brown communities for centuries. It is actually not new. It’s how I was able to go to college. People got together and said, I’m going to pay for your plane ticket so you can go through those doors. Right? How do we take that and think about Black and brown people and how they give within their community? Those are valid, tangible, and necessary practices that do not restrict themselves to traditional philanthropic lines. And also there’s an important conversation around organizing democracy and economic power and freedom. And those pieces are really important.
More … about the state of Georgia, 90 percent of people in the state of Georgia, at time of arrest, lived below the federal poverty levels. And we all know federal poverty levels are conservative guidelines. This is a deep, deep issue. When we think about a connection between race, poverty, and how the systems are perpetuated to keep people locked out, it is real. So what does it mean around really transforming the way we think about allowing people, not just mainstream, but imagine new economic models? I think that is the space we really have to see our action and investments in.
I’m excited with work by Heather and Rohit because we need a revolution of thinking to really transform how we have been wedded to the traditional practices that have not worked for people of color, that have not worked for Black and brown people and not designed to work for Black and brown people in this country. And so I think, as we think about organizing — and not only around policy perspective, but what it means around organizing to invest in businesses and places and strategies in Black and brown — it becomes a game changer. It is a strategy that we have the authority to start doing and doing it well collectively. And there are some things happening in different parts of the country, really interesting work, and I think the opportunity for us to think about connecting these different things and explain what it means is really important. But this is our opportunity moment. This is our time for the country to answer, Who are you? And once and for all solve the identity crisis.
I’m glad you brought that up, because I want to open us up to another piece of the conversation. So we tend to think about the race in this binary Black/white situation, [but] even within that we know those are not homogeneous. Or the term “people of color,” it’s a broad term, will that do? Are there different identities that we don’t get ahold of, the conversation in those communities [that] are trying to figure out, what is their strategy? What is the solution? How do I participate in a problem or solution? Rohit, you talked about this earlier with your family, what does it mean? How does it show up? We joke about it in some ways. Heather, being that you know Janelle … your family being Jamaican, where do you fit in this conversation? So, how do we invite? — and we do not have any LatinX voices in this conversation, but there’s so much diversity even there. How to open the conversation up around equity, inclusion, justice? Knowing that there’s so many voices being, not just left out, but don’t know how to get in. So, can we talk about that as a group? And —
I just want to jump in on this. I want to say that I think it is really important we have multiracial coalitions. That is really important. What I think is missed too often, we do not create the framework for this work on anti-Blackness. Anti-Blackness is real. And when we miss that step, what we see is that it becomes a game where it is diluted into the pursuit of whiteness. And then what emerges is like, who is the model minority? Which has happened. And then we trade and swap positions around access, and I think it’s really important to have these inclusive tables and these need to be deeply rooted in anti-Blackness. Heather, I’m going to forward to you now.
It’s funny when you bring a number of Asian-American leaders together, this is something that we silently cried in our own cars about, we don’t call ourselves the model minority. Again, we are defined by what white people get to call us. How they position us. My parents did not come to this country, you know, with an understanding of race. But it was very clear what they were supposed to do in this country, which was to behave as close to a white man as possible to achieve success. When you are in this country, that’s we are told. So anti-Blackness shows up as when you are trying to do everything so that you do not get treated like a Black person is treated by white people. That’s the immigrant journey in America. That is the American dream, to not be treated Black, and that is the greatest thing that we are challenged with.
Because when you’re not Black or white — you don’t understand Black experience, we also don’t understand white experience — there’s an erasure of your own experience, and that’s the choice you have to make. Do you decide that you want to be Black or white today? I have had, when I spoke out on the fact that over the past six years of doing the work I realize I can no longer move forward — we were working with so many Black women in America, and to realize their pain and trauma has been used. And in some ways, that I was complicit in that, that I actually encouraged it in a way, was — it is so tough to sit with that. Because you want to speak up for Black women … . It’s a fine balance that you need to know your lane. But you also have to be told your lane.
We’re not taught Black history. We have to go out of our way to learn the beauty of Black history. I will say that this is all by design. Every single person except a straight white male has had to be amended into the Constitution of the United States to be considered valuable or to be considered a human being. At the end of the day, you can get into oppression Olympics all day long. But one truth is, if you actually do make an investment in the one group that has been identified and erased and actually, made lesser than whole, if you actually repair that, all boats rise with the tide.
And so, this time all of this is by design. We can talk about philanthropy, but the money we are talking about with philanthropy, that’s 5 percent of what they are giving away. There is 12 billion, the top 25 families in Atlanta hold 12 billion, billion dollars! Almost five times the reserves of the state of Georgia. Twenty-five families who have Thanksgiving together, get to decide where $12 billion get invested. And they take 5 percent of it and give it away as charity. The rest sits and accrues interest, gets invested in private prisons, get invested in fossil fuels, and everything that is hurting Black and brown bodies, and then they get to say #BlackLivesMatter here’s my $1 million donation, as if we are supposed to forget about the other $12 billion actually making it so Black lives will never matter.
I think we are having the wrong conversation, we are getting distracted. I’ve got so many emails and responses from white people saying, I guess what I did doesn’t matter now. I guess the good I do in the world just doesn’t really, I guess I just put my entire career into social service. No, dude! You should not have a job! None of us should be doing this. We should be having a conversation about equity in 2020. We are having a panel about equity in 2020. There are people who have careers and are making six figures trying to talk about and solve poverty. This is insane, shame on this country if that is what we become. In the U.S., … everyone is trying to figure out how dual citizenship works right now because the country has become a failed experiment. I think we need a revolution and a redo!
But we’ve got to give grace while we are doing it. That’s just a, I am not perfect, I have messed up so many times with people on this call. I have messed up, I had to correct for that. But I think we also have to remember what it is we are fighting for. That we are all on the same page, that this is a failed experiment. America is not working. We have got to try again. Speak to so many things. I can speak to the immigrant experience. My parents emigrated to Canada, Toronto, where I grew up with my formative schooling. To come to the United States, to come to Atlanta in the ’90s as a Black person, was an extraordinary experience. Where I grew up and where I came from, we are a multicultural society, not without fault but a multicultural society that embraces people’s ethnic traditions and culture. When you come to the United States it becomes abundantly clear from the onset that you must choose. You must choose where you fall in this white/Black continuum.
Even as a Black person, the kind of Black person that you are is a choice that you have to make, and the way you are celebrated, a type of Black identity that skews more to the white. How you are able to find success. And that is a particular type of racism that exists in a way in which Black folks can — the Community Foundation has five Black people on the board of directors, yet still money can go through and no Black organization can receive the funding. So, there’s something fundamentally wrong there. And to the whole thing about philanthropy is failing and that America is a broken system: From the onset — and I think for the folks listening, for the reporters and journalists telling the story — follow the money. To the point, we are getting distracted with all of his equity race talk, but this is capitalism and exploitation. So just follow the money.
Don’t get a testimonial anymore from Black people about how they are traumatized and suffering. We are clear about that, right? We don’t need any more account of what is going on in communities. We need to go to the leaders of these institutions, elected officials, and say, How do you sleep at night, knowing that the policies you put forth have created this? Explain yourself. And put posters in every single community to let people know, Watch out because these are bad malicious motherfuckers out here. We need to indict them. The court of public opinion right now is really powerful in bringing to justice these issues, and we need our communicators to shift the conversation in the right direction and not be persuaded by pain and suffering. Right? We need to begin to identify and hold accountable the culprits that are behind this criminal activity. Which is nothing short of criminal activity. It has done and is continuing to do harm. And it won’t stop unless we begin to hold people to what they are doing.
I’m sitting with two questions coming our way. And I’m trying to figure how to ask these questions. Anytime I do these panels, there is always a need to highlight the glimmer of light. To have, like, highlight what is working. I’m not hesitant to ask the question of what is working, but I’m hesitant to ask what is working and also ask the question, what role in this group, because of ComNetwork, what role do professional communicators play in this? Because I have experienced a few things. I have experienced the need to over-highlight what seemingly is success as a way to hide the dysfunction. And I’ve also seen where Black and brown people, particularly, are being exploited in a need to have the success, the glimmer of hope. I want us to talk about, How do we hold both to be true? Because there is some amazing work happening. It does not get highlighted. How do we highlight that work without exploiting folks that do the work every day? What’s the role of professional communicators in this conversation? And what is working?
I will start with Rohit or Heather because of your proximity to the day-to-day, and maybe then Janelle can weigh in on the broader space of how we communicate our messages. Talk to these folks that are professional communicators every day.
Don’t confuse this as anything but love for Atlanta. We unapologetically and desperately love Atlanta. We love it so much that we dedicate our entire lives to try and make it better. We have been in rooms where we’re required to get over this stuff and rooms we have left together.
There is joy in justice work. Because you know, as the late John Lewis taught me, it was a — you have to dance sometimes. And you have got to let loose sometimes. But Atlanta hip-hop is better than anywhere else in the country, because actually, it actually talks about experience in a way that highlights — It’s conflicted. The reason Andre 3000 will take on anybody else is because he can tell you what it is like to live in Atlanta and feel a sense of joy and excellence while also a unwillingness to participate in a system that does not believe he matters. While also raising a word up high, is saying that the South has something to say. That is Atlanta! And we are so damn proud of it, and the authenticity is in our blood and in what we do. To the fact where an Indian immigrant kid can come to a city and feel accepted. That’s what’s beautiful! And you cannot get that everywhere else.
And so, I want to start with, like, let’s not shake the fact that we’re having this conversation because we believe in Atlanta’s potential to get better, and we have not destroyed it yet to a point where it cannot recover. The second thing is, I come from a communication space. And I worked for President Obama; we were on the ground, got to play President Obama on Twitter and Facebook in a previous career. And what was amazing about the experience — we went into communities that had never, ever had a politician or anyone come and talk to people. And not go in and say you need to vote for someone, but to say, What’s going on in your life? What is happening with your healthcare? What is going on in your day-to-day? But the problem was, after he was elected, we never went back to those communities.
And the problem with liberal thought on this, and the conservative thought, we put things in a binary of good versus bad or red versus blue. But we live in a city that is Democratic but believes in trickle-down economics. We go door-to-door to people when there are ribbon cuttings and there are opportunities for elections. But not when those [alarms] go off. And so, [we] really need to start having a conversation for communicators, it’s about having a conversation when it’s not sexy. We should talk about … highlighting Black women when they are not a hashtag. There is a real need for us to tell the stories, and to not just tell the stories but let Black women tell their own stories. So that people like me shouldn’t have to be positioned to say, I need to speak up. Because you will not give the time of day to a Black woman to actually tell her own experience.
And that is a shame, and I think a shortcoming in communications we’ve had. We have not given a microphone and a platform to people, Black people, who are doing the work. And we kind of tokenized other people to speak for them. Last thing I will say, know that this work is surviving in spite of all of this. We are hopeful because even in spite of the systems [that] are in place, people are thriving. You don’t want to put a grocery store in the community? No problem! Four farmers will make sure that every single person eats. And you don’t want to take care of the school and the community? Great, people will go door to door making sure every single person has the training and tutoring they need. I think Atlanta shows what happens when you are resilient in spite of systems working against you. So, I am hopeful in a lot of this.
Very good. Heather, Janelle, did you want to respond to Rohit?
I will quickly say we need a narrative shift. … To talk about race, we need a narrative shift. When we have conversations around, what are the assets in these communities? And we don’t need more people, really, agonizing and glorifying data points. We need people really writing exposés on extractive processes. That is what we need. I think we marry the asset-based lens with exposé research to really be able to say, These are the root causes contributing to the outcomes. That becomes a deal breaker. Communication is powerful. Communication is messaging, communication is organizing too. We have to shift the way we have these conversations to really start focusing on the causes and a path forward.
I like the fact that like uplifting Black narrative and supporting and all should not be viewed as anti-whiteness. You should not feel threatened by that. You should feel like, Why am I not doing more of that?
The only thing I would add, as communicators, we have to be always cognizant of the fact that language, the way we talk about things, how we name things — that is the first line of violence. That is how we have articulated these systems, and that we have marginalized communities and we have put people in place. It is through the words we’ve chosen and words we have assigned to it. When we’re not intentional, not deliberate about telling a story other than one that has been told, then we are just perpetuating that same violence. And so I would challenge people to begin telling stories that are not centered around whiteness. To tell stories as if white folks did not exist. And what would you say now? How would you say it? If that was not the audience? If it was not the sweet spot of the culture, how would you articulate these things to them?
Very good! What if we told the stories as if whiteness was not centered in a narrative? I think that is some interesting work for our communicators to dig into. Across many issues I think we have centered systematic whiteness in how we do our work. While thinking across some of the other areas that I touch on, whether it is education and housing and, you know, transit. How we move, how we talk and educate. The notion of language, there’s been a lot of violence, images. We are seeing the power of the video … you know, and how storytelling is now being shifted based on who holds the camera.
I think it is a powerful way, and now we no longer can ignore those right in front of us. This is a civil rights movement — it’s always been a way, it’s really very powerful when people can hold their own camera, can hold their own pen and their own megaphone and platform and the audience is listening. That is the other thing that is important.
You know, we talk a lot about the Southern perspective, and as we close out, you know, we have people across the country on this call. And you know, we know that the South is great for transparency and racism and classism, that is one thing I will give us credit for. We don’t try to hide it. At the same time, we’ve also seen the dog whistles happen nationally, and, just, you know, I want you to kind of close us out in certain ways, thinking through, Is a Southern experience where racism and classism live, more transparent on the surface? But what does that mean for us to overcome that across the country? Give us some perspective on that. How can other folks tackle what might not be as visible as what we see here? I will start with maybe Heather. Because I think her highlight around the violence of language is really the key and how we do that. We are seeing Seattle, we are seeing it in the West Coast, where we think there is, a certain sentiment there. Talk to us about that. But for these communicators, even more so, how does that show up in their work? What is the way it can show in differently?
This is a challenge. As with the challenge and opportunity of Atlanta, because, you know, it is that Black market in some ways. To Rohit’s point, this is a way that traveling in Jamaica could not show me, being in Toronto could not show me. It brought the Diaspora full circle to me. It showed me a history and it opened up opportunities for me to participate and contribute — and we have a unique opportunity. If we don’t get it right in Atlanta, I don’t know how other cities will fare, because of the way that we are uniquely positioned. And because our history of civil rights and being a dominant, economic force for a southern, Southeast region.
I think it’s just, for me it’s more of what I have been saying about how we tell the story and where we shift the focus, right? And looking at equity as, not diversity, inclusion, because I think sometimes we talk about equity and a larger table for … many more seats. And I think as I imagine equity, as I imagine this work, it is really coming to terms that we have got to prioritize Black folks. We’ve got to prioritize the needs of Black folks at the expense of other people in a lot of ways because of what is open to them, in terms of the opportunities that they have been intentionally denied, despite the enormous contribution that they’ve had to every single facet of our society. From the capitalist model to rap music. We are sort of leading in every aspect of society. And so, we’ve got to really help to reinforce that that priority is necessary, and that when Black folks are doing well, everybody is doing well.
And it is only our racist leanings that have shaped and informed values and perspectives that are completely arbitrary and constructed. It is only when we confront those things that we can begin to find the kind of truth and transformation that this moment demands. And I think what America in its history has shown us, that when we resist change, we will erupt in violence. There’s never been a moment in our history where — When the people are pushing for something other than what has been, it has been through violence that we have come to make that shift. And so, that is the opportunity or challenge that lies before us. Or we can find it within ourselves to do the kind of work that is required, to hold ourselves to the ideal and the ideals that will make us better than we are.
I will say that we have about three minutes left. I want to give a minute to Rohit, thank you, Heather and Janelle. Any parting words for this audience? And then I will close us out with my minute. I will start with Rohit, Janelle, and then I will close us out.
Thank you. I just wrote down four words so I can be brief. The first I wrote is empathy. I think that we need to bring that back. I think we need to make sure that people are grieving with the same symbolic grief for Breonna Taylor as they did an 87-year-old woman like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I think that there is a need for us to make sure that we see that Breonna Taylor is a reflection of the worst part of America. But also, the greatest loss of potential that the country had. Until we start looking at it in that way, I think we are going to continue to create hashtags out of people rather than just holding them to their greatness and to what we lost from them.
I also think — the second word I worked on was joy. I think there is joy in this and a need for us to reassert joy and create room for joy and rest, and making sure that we are not vilifying people for finding those moments of joy.
The third thing I wrote down is grace. I think people are going to make a lot of mistakes along the journey. A lot of executive directors who lead these type of, experts, or these types of movements are broken right now and don’t know where to go from here. They need help and they need support. Most important, I think that they need grace to know that they have to keep showing up for what will be a fight.
And the last one I worked on was trust. I think all of this has a semblance of, We don’t trust one another anymore. And we don’t trust the systems to work for us. We don’t trust people go into political power. And trust is built by the first three things I mentioned. I think that that should be our goal, and what we are shooting for is to build trust again so that we —
I will just end with three things as well. Police brutality that we are witnessing now is just our contemporary — we need to peel the onion to really look at the intersection of these systems that have facilitated the violence. We need to really go beyond police brutality [to a] criminal justice reform conversation, and have a deeper conversation of how the systems interact to completely negate Black lives. And the third thing is, as we think about a path forward, we have to invest. We have to invest in these communities. We have to invest in places and people that were completely and continuously brutalized and replace it with infrastructure around rebuilding. And we do that through not just the narratives of upscaling and workforce training, but we do this through a lens where we reimagine new models where everyone has an opportunity to contribute and participate, but we need investments. Without reform, without investment, without having radical imagination, as we think about what it means to really have a functional civil society, we continue to wrestle with the question, Who is America?
Thank you all so much. What a powerful conversation, a privilege to be part of it. Thank you all so much. I would like to thank Sean and the ComNet team as we have this conversation. It is timely and appropriate but necessary. Thank you all so much. I’ll just end with one quote that we hear often. As a son of Atlanta, we always quote Martin Luther King. I think it is important for us to not just romanticize King, but understand the revolutionary, the soldier this man was. He did not give, he shifted his narrative as well. And I think it’s important for us to understand that he evolved as a leader. And his fight became very revolutionary. And how he decided to move his work. I will end with his quote that we often talk about. I think it is important to understand in particular as communicators that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” As you send your messages and representing organizations, always remember that you are also signaling to the rest of the world about how you show up as an institution and your leadership shows up into the community it is serving. Thank you all so much for joining us today. You are amazing! Have a beautiful Friday and great rest of the conference! Bye!