Coke and Corporations

A few days ago I posted about what gives me hope for this year within the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB). I also highlighted how Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) leaders need to be trained so that they understand how to foster and attract the growth they wish to see, handle the conversations around it, and be empowered to mitigate the consequences of it. I have asserted that without an overall approach to planning a balance between city and state laws, zoning, and neighborhood hopes, our NPU leaders continue to be ill-equipped to navigate the items placed upon their agenda with little understanding of how to mitigate their neighborhoods’ fears of traffic congestion, fear of crime, and remain largely unaware of how to thread the needle of change. As a result, some fear change and have very little fact-based training to provide counters to it. I would assert APAB is the entity that should provide that training, yet to take on that leadership role, that would require greater support from and some actual work with the Dept of City Planning (DCP). It is really sort of interesting that the City of Atlanta requires citizens to be engaged in this process but doesn’t really train them on the significance of their decisions nor the entity where they can come together and learn from one another. Rather than just assert a problem though, I’m going to take a moment and offer a solution using a corporate metaphor I think the Mayor of Atlanta (and perhaps my Editor) might appreciate, coming from his/their background in tech. 

On Saturday, January 21, 2023, Mayor Dickens will be hosting a Neighborhood Summit. This will be a chance for neighborhood leaders to come together at City Hall and will be in place of APAB’s regular monthly meeting. When I assert that the City of Atlanta has forgotten about APAB, I don’t mean it in a figurative sense- I mean this quite literally- less than a year after DCP identified that our members would be subject to misdemeanors if we don’t attend our meeting in person vs. virtually, I find it HIGHLY amusing our in-person meeting has now been bumped to accommodate what may likely be our own replacement. LOL. So Atlanta. This Neighborhood and School-based approach has been used as a part of Purpose Built Schools’ approach to education, from whence David Edwards, the Policy Advisor for Neighborhoods at the City of Atlanta and Director of the Center for Urban Research at the Georgia Institute of Technology, comes (quite a title, isn’t it?). The Mayor has alluded to closer partnerships with APS in public posts and his town halls, pointing out correctly that often the majority of property taxes go to a school’s budget, rather than a city’s. Years in nonprofit volunteering also opened my eyes to the fact that schools are a major method of service delivery in a community- nutrition, various therapies, and APS even has its own police force! More than just serving kids, I’m expecting a more bifocal and cross-generational approach to be introduced in the next week. I am likewise eager to see what comes of the QBE reform happening under the Gold Dome and how that will affect APS. 

I don’t think the two occurring simultaneously is coincidence.

My additional hope is that in the meantime, both APS and the Mayor of Atlanta have a little discussion with the Development Authority of Fulton County to kindly ask them to stop mortgaging our kids’ futures via tax abatements. My husband will keep asking Microsoft, but I’m betting their questions bear more weight. One can hope!

My expectation is that the Mayor is moving around APAB regarding the Zoning Rewrite, and I genuinely don’t blame him. We didn’t assert a leadership role, and with our President so busy with Ethics Investigations of me last year, when would she have had the time to lead discussions? I just hope the Mayor remembers that APAB and the NPU system both check the box of citizen engagement for the Dept of Community Affairs’ requirements in regard to the Comprehensive Development Plan. He doesn’t have to engage APAB in CDP presentations, he can simply go directly to the public. I personally appreciate this and hope others will join me at R.I.C.E. or register to attend online.  I also hope these presentations offer citywide maps, not just the pieces of them that NPUs tend to see. Ever wonder why things are so piecemeal here? Think about how often full maps are even presented to the public. This year doesn’t look like it’ll be different.

So what if we leaned into this piecemeal approach though? What if we looked at each neighborhood as a small team of folks trying to make their neighborhood a better place? 

Each neighborhood might be different, so we can expect their laundry list of needs to be different, yet on a system level, the NPU leaders can still serve as a liaison between the team and the city to remove the challenges they face. They can take this laundry list (in tech circles I believe it’s referred to as a backlog) and plan for how they’re going to resolve them (in zoning terms and provision of city services), prioritizing the easiest and simplest backlog items first to the most complex last. Then, if the neighborhoods meet regularly within the NPU, presumably the NPU leadership can work to remove any challenges the neighborhoods may encounter (aka impediments) with the city providing the NPU leaders the necessary resources to achieve the goals the neighborhoods have set for themselves. This sets the NPU leaders (could be a chair, could be an Executive board, there’s not a lot of standardization here) in the Scrum Master role, and the problems are resolved quickly. Afterward, the neighborhoods review their efforts for improvement, and they return to the table to identify any new issues that have arisen. 

This idea isn’t new, nor is it mine- It’s Scrum, introduced back in the 90s. It’s a business approach to problem-solving. Funny enough, it also mimics (to a certain extent) Mayor Maynard Jackson’s own implementation of the NPU system, minus the slowing element of Parlimentary process.

…And before anyone slings arrows at me saying neighborhoods can’t always identify their own problems or that the problems identified may not be the city’s to solve, hear me out: create a simple survey of specific items the city CAN solve and have those prioritized by the folks taking the survey. Trust me, showing people you’re willing to listen and provide them some resolution goes INCREDIBLY far. It also tends to snowball. I will also point out that almost everything in a city is typically an issue of zoning-one way or another. Wanna eliminate racism? Fix zoning. Wanna improve wages? Fix zoning. Wanna improve traffic? You get the picture. Here’s the example created on the potential new APAB website. APAB doesn’t have to be the organizing entity, but I wouldn’t recommend DCP-my own experience and others’ has demonstrated  they edit out data they don’t like. They haven’t shown themselves to be honest brokers and when you want more people to engage, they have to trust the entity they’re engaging with to provide the best data. 

I can’t promise anyone this draft of a potential APAB website or survey will actually come to be, but the work has been done if it can get approval. H/t to the website and survey creation of Jereme Sharpe, the APAB Financial Secretary and alternate of NPU M. He’s had some time on his hands recently while the Executive Committee has been waiting on the APAB President to connect him to APAB’s fiscal agent. 

My point here is that if we’re really trying to solve system problems in an inequitable system, why don’t we find out what the bugs are from the team working on them-the neighborhoods? Also, if we’re trying to attract more tech companies to the city and state, maybe if we enact some of their practices we might ingratiate ourselves with them more. IJS.

Southerners may talk slow, but imma need folks to know we neither think nor act this way. 

We do need some translation services though. To be fair, some surveys haven’t landed well. Technical jargon is not my forté either, yet I see this as an opportunity and challenge rather than just a problem I’m going to wring my hands over. I’m willing to learn, so I invite DCP to teach me and other NPU leaders/general citizenry to take it back to the NPUs we serve. I’m all about training the trainers! Maybe create a Citizens Planning Academy, similar to the Police Academy the APD puts together. Just make sure your presenters welcome questions. Some of the APD officers….bristled at mine, shall we say? Maybe a great opportunity for some prerecorded training videos I mentioned in my last post as well? This seems like an opportunity to offer glossaries of Zoning terms, go over map layers, and learn about setbacks. I’m here for it! I hope DCP is as well. To date, the Commissioner of Planning has been invited repeatedly to APAB’s meetings, but somehow can’t find time in her schedule to be present. What a missed opportunity! I have a feeling there’s a lot NPU leaders could learn from her and also a lot she could learn from them. Here’s hoping!

Here’s what I do know: economic security gives people freedom and independence. Without it, folks don’t have the privilege of time to make strategic decisions-they’re just trying to survive. Economic inequality and poverty are the biggest present day chains in American culture, with Atlanta leading the country in income inequality. The digital gap is often exacerbated in school circles due to the dearth of exposure to technology some kids have vs. their peers. Poor Southerners having a right to living a life of dignity and respect via economic security is also not a new idea and certainly not mine. It is the unfinished work of another Atlantan.

And resolving the inequities in Atlanta (and Georgia, in regards to our need for a workforce) requires a swift and responsive approach. I look forward to seeing what the City of Atlanta will bring to bear. Meanwhile, I love my city and state deeply, not because they are perfect, but because of the dynamic beauty of our people who continually rise to resolve the challenges of our time. I told you about some of the folks willing to rise to the challenge in my last piece. I hope the City of Atlanta will call upon them. While the challenge of inequitable neighborhoods remains because it is so complex and racism is so baked into our system, you have people at the table who are willing to try to tackle these big challenges. And why stop there? Atlanta is one of many jewels in Georgia’s crown. Bring cities together to analyze their challenges, resolve those patterns of challenges, and watch our state shine. IMHO, Atlanta will not make as broad of strides moving independently, we must figure out how to work together with all of Georgia’s cities to move the needle on remaining competitive in business and providing a better response to our citizens. Maybe these ideas aren’t the solution, yet they seemed to have been a system that worked for others. My hope is that the City of Atlanta (and eventually Georgia) removes the silos of departments and opens up the doors for our resilience. We are the gateway to the South, so let our citizens speak the truth of how open our city and state can be to business. Let us show what good hosts/ hostesses we can be to guests who step into our markets. Our responsiveness can be just as prevalent in our culture as the red and white label on bottles and cans across our state. I’ll let North Carolina have their breweries and Cheerwine. The Coke and corporations in Georgia are almost as prevalent here as the pollen in the spring.

“A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist.” Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize address, 1964

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