“All Roads Lead to Atlanta”—Philanthropy Can Play Critical Role in the South

“It seems that all roads in the South lead to Atlanta,” begins a new report by Ryan Schlegel and Stephanie Peng of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Titled “Bearing Fruit,” the report notes that while Atlanta within the South has often painted itself with a progressive veneer, “Atlanta’s growth and its forward-looking political climate have left many communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, behind.” Schlegel and Peng profiles the efforts of three community organizations, a local funding intermediary, and two national funders that are aiming to change that.

The report forms the fourth in NCRP’s As the South Grows series, which is being co-produced by NCRP and Grantmakers for Southern Progress. The series is ultimately expected to consist of five reports. NPQ covered the series’ first report, as well as its most recent report (which focused on environmental justice), and cosponsored a webinar with NCRP last month. The first three reports in the series mainly focused on rural communities. But this one focuses instead on Atlanta, the nation’s ninth-largest metropolitan region and the Deep South’s largest urban center.

The majority Black city of Atlanta (53.5 percent of residents, with 36.3 percent white, and the remainder Latinx, Asian, American Indian, or other) has long been a Black cultural hub. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and preached in the city’s famed Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Atlanta also houses some of the nation’s leading historically black colleges and universities, such as Spelman, Morehouse, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Clark Atlanta University in the city’s Westside neighborhood. Together, these schools form the Atlanta University Center Consortium. More recently, Atlanta was the site of production for the Black Panther film, with some scenes shot in the Sweet Auburn district; last month, the city’s airport announced in jest that it was offering direct flights to the mythical country of Wakanda.

Yet if Atlanta is a leading base of Black culture in the US and has a prosperous Black middle class, it is also home to widespread poverty. The US Census Bureau estimates the city’s current poverty rate to be at 24 percent, much higher than the national average rate of 12.7 percent (14 percent if income is adjusted to account for variations in the cost of living). According to Janelle Williams of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who is featured in the report, “As of 2015, 80 percent of the city’s Black children lived in high-poverty areas.”

Within Atlanta, Interstate 20 cuts the wealthier northern sections of Atlanta from generally poorer southern sections of town. As the Kendeda Fund’s Tené Traylor, who is also featured in the report, emphasizes, “the city is divided by Interstate 20, with wealthier, majority-White communities to the north of the interstate and poorer, majority-Black communities in the South.”

Policy, by and large, has exacerbated these tensions. For example, Schlegel and Peng point out that “between 2010 and 2014, the city lost 5,300 units of affordable housing, while it gained close to 25,000 ‘luxury apartment’ units.” Schlegel and Peng add that a stunning 84 percent of Atlanta residents earning less than $35,000 a year are “housing insecure,” meaning that housing eats up more than 30 percent of their income.

Atlanta, in short, is a city of stark contrasts. And it is in this context that community groups operate. As part of their report, Schlegel and Peng profile three community leaders: Mary Hooks of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), Adelina Nicholls of Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and Xochitl Bervera of the Racial Justice Action Center.

Mary Hooks at SONG directs an organization that, though based in Atlanta, operates throughout the South. SONG defines itself to be a “regional Queer Liberation organization made up of people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural and small town, LGBTQ people in the South.” In Atlanta, Hooks emphasizes the need to promote a “shift in leadership and…the culture, hearts and minds.” Hooks acknowledges that the city is progressive in some ways, but is also “very, very conservative in many others.” In particular, Hooks notes that, “Most of the city leadership, especially in the City Council, has been on there for 20-plus years.” In response, SONG has focused on leadership development around campaign organizing on immigration, queer rights, and economic justice. Broadly speaking, SONG declares on its website that its work centers on “building freedom movements rooted in southern traditions like community organizing, political education, storytelling, music, breaking bread, resistance, humor, performance, critical thinking, and celebration.”

Adelina Nicholls of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights partners regularly with SONG, especially on sanctuary city work. Project South has also been an important partner in this work. Nicholls notes that 54,000 people in Atlanta have been processed for deportation, so the scale of the challenge is enormous. The group has gotten four area counties (Fulton, Clayton, DeKalb, and Fayette), and three cities (Atlanta, Clarkston, and Decatur) to stop collaborating with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

The Racial Justice Action Center, which Bervera heads has supported trans community organizing and worked on challenges to the prison-industrial complex. Schlegel and Peng credit the Center for being the “incubator” of the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, which was “formed in 2013, responding to the attempt by the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance and the Atlanta Police Department (APD) to pass an ordinance that would increase the criminalization of survival sex workers in Midtown and banish people convicted of survival sex work from the City.” One achievement of the Center has been to build the “capacity and potential in trans leadership.” Bervera emphasizes that, “That’s really happened.” Bervera also noted that part of the work has been transforming Atlanta’s organizing model. “The old model was to just get nonprofits in a room together, but those nonprofits too often didn’t speak for a base. Our focus has been on building our membership base.”

The community work is critical, but, as Schlegel and Peng argue, community work, to be maximally effective, requires resources. In Atlanta, grantmaking per capita totals $453, which is roughly at the same level as the nation as a whole. However, the amount of grantmaking pales compared to wealthier northern cities, such as New York City ($1,966 per capita) or San Francisco ($4,095 per capita).

Moreover, the money that Atlanta philanthropy does provide does not necessarily support structural economic and social changes that promote greater equity. Schlegel and Peng write that “in a city where people of color are a majority and entrenched poverty remains a challenge, just 20 percent of funding” goes to underserved populations. Moreover, strategies that might be likely to address structural imbalances are scantily supported. Based on the figures in Schlegel and Peng’s report, only 1.9 percent of Atlanta grantmaking supports “power building” strategies and 0.2 percent supports “human rights” strategies. Community economic development does only somewhat better at 3.3 percent. Excluding the 17.3 percent of funding that is not categorized (“other”), the main categories of current philanthropy, as tracked over a five-year period from 2010 to 2014 are health (28.5 percent), education (28.5 percent), capacity building (12.4 percent), and human services (7.9 percent).

Fortunately, some folks in Atlanta are trying to change Atlanta philanthropy to resource community groups to be able to more effectively challenge structural inequalities. Nathaniel Smith directs the Partnership for Southern Equity. Founded in 2009, the organization acts as a convener and aims to build an “equity ecosystem” for the Atlanta region. The group organizes most of its work into three focus areas—equitable growth, inclusion, and energy equity—and hosts “tables” in each of these areas that engage more than 70 partners ranging from local nonprofits to national nonprofits to government agencies.

Smith emphasizes the need to cultivate “relationships between uncommon and common allies for justice.” The Partnership, explains Smith, aims to “redesign and reconfigure the relationship between philanthropy, the intermediary, and the frontline organizations of the South.” One key objective of Smith is to alter the mindset of philanthropy. There is still “a kind of plantation mentality around philanthropy,” Smith observes. Many foundations, Smith adds, “don’t want to support communities and leaders that are going to rile up the community.”

Tené Traylor, who is the Atlanta Fund advisor for the Kendeda Fund, a private foundation that is based in Atlanta but operates nationally, contends that, “The trajectory of Atlanta’s growth offers an opportunity for local philanthropy to lean in and invest in marginalized communities.” The test for philanthropy, Traylor adds, is to, as Schlegel and Peng put it, “devise pathways to genuinely advance economic inclusion, not just growth.” Yet since 2000, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in Atlanta has tripled, even as the city’s wealth has grown.

According to Traylor, part of the challenge is that the political culture of Atlanta, to the extent that it has rewarded activism, has favored individual activism, not, as Schlegel and Peng phrase it, “collective action or organizing rooted in dismantling legacies of harm.” Traylor says the fund she advises focuses in two areas: economic opportunity and education. On the economic development side, Kendeda provides support for permanent housing affordability (such as community land trusts), supports community wealth building through worker and community-owned businesses, and backs expanding access to transit so that residents can commute to jobs.

Janelle Williams is another philanthropic partner profiled by Schlegel and Peng. Williams works as a senior associate for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which since 2001 has operated what the foundation calls its Atlanta Civic Site in the “NPU-V” neighborhood of Mechanicsville and Pittsburgh. Williams urges funders to reconsider whether the way they define “capacity” inadvertently denies funding to those who would best be able to employ philanthropic resources effectively. “As a program officer,” Williams notes, “I have to think. What is my criteria for assessing capacity? What is the magic operating budget? What is that magic board composition? So many opportunities for implicit biases are embedded in those questions and processes.”

Williams notes that one step that Annie E. Casey has taken to change this situation of funders passing over high potential groups is to form a collaborative that can help strengthen Black businesses in Atlanta through building peer networks. “By supporting entities to intentionally learn and apply new strategies together, the collaborative has developed an agenda to increase Black business owners’ access to resources and advance community wealth.”

Williams underscores the irony of there being a “mainstream narrative of an absence of capacity in the South and a lack of leadership in the South, when actually we know it is the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” Williams contends that supporting community-led strategies and partnerships could help “reimagine new possibilities for the region.”

Of course, the mission of NCRP is to advise the field of philanthropy. Building on the case studies described above, Schlegel and Peng identify five core recommendations that, if adopted widely by the field, could greatly boost the impact of community organizations in the South. These recommendations are:

  • Don’t accept that a highly productive economy and robust social service sector are enough for people to have what they need to thrive. Make sure data that inform your priorities and strategies are disaggregated by race, gender, income, sexual identity, etc.

  • Recognize how much work it takes to organize marginalized communities against Atlanta’s and other Southern cities’ dominant political culture and invest in the evolution of policy and culture in a way that is defined by people who don’t see themselves in the glossy marketing materials for a bustling city.

  • Be prepared to make long-term investments in grassroots organizations to build their base and
build formal and informal relationships with allies—that means patient, risk-tolerant capital—and coalition on your grantees’ terms, not yours.

  • Give general support grants to your Southern grantees—invest in infrastructure organizations to exist, not just to complete projects.

  • Understand who your philanthropic partners are and who they aren’t, wrestling with history, context, power and priorities.

Schlegel and Peng close their report by noting that Atlanta, in many respects, provides a window into challenges that are faced by many who live outside of Atlanta’s borders. “In many ways,” Schlegel and Peng write, “Atlanta’s physical and political environment will be the harbinger of things to come for other Southern communities, and then for the nation beyond the South.”

The authors don’t directly address the impact of the South on national politics and culture, but of course the “solid South”—both in its former Democratic Party variety and its current Republican Party variant—has historically been hugely important in the United States. It might be worth remembering that Newt Gingrich, the Republican who led the shift of the Southern delegation in Congress from the Democratic Party into the Republican column in 1994, was a congressman from Marietta, an Atlanta suburb. One doesn’t have to follow history too closely to recognize the critical importance and role of the South to the cause of equity nationally. In other words, those who focus their grantmaking on social justice and racial equity nationally, but who fail to adequately invest resources in the South, do so at their own peril.