The Kids Are Not Okay

I have referred to living in Atlanta as a trauma experience in previous posts. I’d like to offer some insight and context to more fully explain why I hold that feeling and why it motivates me to make change. Moreover, these are the things that reinvigorate me to continue in the face of opposition. This started as a Facebook post but here I will edit it with some context regarding the City of Atlanta government, my experience within APAB, and events since I originally posted this. While I often use my lived experience as an example of how dysfunctional Atlanta is, rarely do I have the opportunity like I recently did to demonstrate how all of its failings come together in a way that is damaging both in the short term and long term. Alongside me, I’m watching as the City is turning on Mayor Dickens- some in small circles, others (I attended the Pride parade this past Sunday) are larger displays of his loss of political capital. Through it all, I will leave you with a push to move beyond my words- don’t take them at face value. I’ll leave you with tools to make your own inquiries and discern things for yourself. It’s a longer piece, but also provides a lot of personal and political context that may explain a lot of my perspectives.

For the past 5 years, my husband and I have lived in the Mozley Park neighborhood and it has been wholly different than my experience from living in Midtown/ Poncey Highlands area, where I resided from 2007-2016. Some of it is gorgeous – the community around us is palpable. Neighbors check on me, have asked me repeatedly about getting licensed for foster care, and becoming a CASA, and have cheered me on through so much. The gratitude offered for the small kindnesses I offer reminds me how much the little things count in the community. It’s so much like growing up in Walton County in that way, it’s been beautiful and in many ways feels like coming home to a small town, a Mayberry-like place. So many folks in GOOA tell me they are scared of Atlanta. It’s so bizarre to me. My little corner of Atlanta is really beautiful.

Other parts are what I write about here – the system failure and prevalence of police presence – far more than any other place I’ve lived. Some of the experience is due to poverty, and Atlanta is like that – pockets of poverty among regular middle-class living. It’s gentrification on steroids here, with the stark contrasts between gentrifiers like myself and legacy or longer-term residents in areas highlighting the gaps left by a history of redlining, and racialized focus of interstate development, and currently living in a city where the basic systems of watershed, trash pickup, and roads haven’t been updated in any meaningful way for 50+ years. The difference in the parks is palpable as well – moving from Piedmont Park, which is maintained by a multi-million dollar conservancy, and knowing the community pool in the Garden Hills area and Duck Pond in the Peachtree Heights East neighborhood (all privately maintained by neighbors) vs. the litter, unworking fountains, the seven-month-long missing basketball goal posts on a relatively newly muralled basketball court (done by SCAD, not City of Atlanta), and the lack of any furniture around our community pool has been striking.

In Atlanta, we have literally publicly accessed spaces that are privately held and maintained rather than maintained by our City government and taxes. Our expectations of the City of Atlanta are so abysmally low that we don’t even rely upon them to maintain land and resources. In affluent parts of town, this isn’t a challenge- neighbors spend their own money to maintain things, just like what I’m doing with kids in my neighborhood.

It’s just that maintaining relationships with kids is a more labor-intensive aspect, and requires more than just lawn care. It also requires more than just money-the monetary aspect is probably the easiest portion.

I appreciate this point, because even when it comes to the most basic elements of care, citizens here don’t expect their city to do it. It’s probably also why the Buc (Buckhead’s bus system) and the BCN came about. The city didn’t fulfill those needs, and affluent neighborhoods paid for their own instead of the City meeting their needs. While I didn’t favor the Buckhead City movement, I think it’s easier with these things in mind to understand why one part of the city wanted to break off from another- they have the privilege and funds to do so.

I could choose the same thing. I could move.

But if everyone chooses this, who stays and cares for the kids who don’t have the privilege of moving? Who takes care of the previously redlined spaces where neighbors aren’t affluent enough due to structural racism and underdevelopment of the City? If everyone chooses that, then we just perpetuate the same cycle that got us here in the first place. I’m not interested in that. 

When I first moved in, I requested more programs for kids from our previous City Council member, Council member Cleta Winslow, at C.A. Scott (my voting location and our rec center in our park). From Mayor Bottoms, we got Camp Best Friends, a $65/week summer camp that (while more affordable) most of the kids coming over to my house didn’t attend. But that’s it – nothing more for the 365 days the kids come to my door- including Christmas and Easter.

While the above-mentioned differences are jarring contrasts in a city 15-30 minutes drive apart, they have tangible results of what lack of city investment renders. Every time APS has a break, the children come to my house starting at noon. I am the default hang-out spot, because the City Too Busy to Hate never took the time to plan for the families who didn’t have a stay-at-home parent, and as the work day has gotten longer, the kids still have to have care. Kids visits have been a gift to me, but also a symptom of a larger citywide challenge we seem reluctant to address more broadly, bless our hearts. I am grateful kids chose my backyard rather than roaming aimlessly on their own à la Stranger Things/ Gen X through the rest of the neighborhood. I hear about their lives, and occasionally serve as an extra adult in a pinch when someone loses a key on the bus or needs a ride somewhere. Most recently I’ve been asked to teach one kid to drive- pray for me- I’m not sure my anxiety can take that! 

Concurrently, I sit every month in a meeting where a group of adults are supposed to come together from all 25 NPUs and speak for what’s going on in each of them.  I feed some kids basic snacks and like the children, I have tried to feed the APAB members with more information, banding together with other members last year to challenge the Old Guard. I have tried to better empower the members of APAB with a fuller understanding of their own power to make change, despite the best efforts of some of the leadership around me. Like the children, adults like myself have to be fed too- small wins to keep us going, making change takes time and numbers. I walk with a great deal of privilege of race and income that not all APAB members do. And we are all entitled to better than what we’re currently getting- APAB used to operate with a budget of $100K, which I learned from a previous APAB President. While I may have stood alone in some spaces, my singular emails, writings here, and open records requests have made others aware that they too can act in an empowered way. 

I’ve tried to demonstrate to the kids and the adults that our government is supposed to work for us, not the other way around. 

Despite whatever City of Atlanta employees would like us to believe. Unlike at the state, there is a weird customer service approach here that is striking- that City Council members and leaders in certain places are supposed to be protected, shielded from embarrassment, and not exposed for the foolishness they render. I would liken it to the family secret all Southern families tend to hide. Disney’s Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is a song that resonates with me almost as much as Miranda Lambert’s “Everybody Dies Famous In a Smalltown”. I don’t understand this entirely, but I think it has something to do with the fact that many of our older and Black city leaders suffered through generations of oppression, so the aspect of accountability is often mislabeled with smacks of politics of respectability in terms like “disrespect”, or racialized dog whistles that distract from actual change being made because often these leaders when placed in positions of power, have acted exactly like their white and male predecessors. 

The latter is because oppression has more economic roots than just racial ones, right? Much like #TheAtlantaWay. 

I really appreciated this framing of enslavement by the APEX museum during a visit years ago. If you get a chance, I’d highly recommend it as a stop on a visit to Atlanta. The economics of slavery were what drew people to the practice, and the perpetuation of white supremacy in American culture was what moved us from using terms like “wage slavery” in labor discussions in the labor movement to lighter-skinned immigrants separating themselves in terms of colorism to achieve higher social privilege. People of all vulnerable backgrounds- immigrant, neurodivergent, and different ethnic and racial groups can recognize oppression exists in a way to keep one portion down for the successful rise of the other. Ask me how many times I’ve been the safe, white person as the diversity hire for nonwhite folks and we can discuss how colorism shows up in federal contracts!

I think a lot about how systems are set up to perpetuate this. And how the NPU system is going through its evolution, threaded by Council member Marci Overstreet, who previously worked on the Bloomberg campaign. Georgia likes to think of ourselves as the Empire State of the South, and I like to highlight our very real connections to the stock market and corporate interests while we somehow simultaneously sing “Kumbya” and tout our preference of “Good Trouble”. The two are an excellent example of how Atlanta perpetuates its own identity of two very opposing sides, one of privilege, and another of power struggle. And these chickens come home to roost in our neighborhoods. Last year, Councilmember Amos introduced a resolution to “update” and encourage a standardization of the NPU system, from which the NPU Best Practices came. A portion of that was supposed to also include a Citizens Bill of Rights, but to my knowledge that’s never come about- just like APAB’s website that was promised back in March :). The Dept. of Community Planning isn’t known for its transparency or speed.

Atlanta does a lot of this, right? It promises one thing but then only delivers on what makes the system easier for the government, not the people. This isn’t a new tactic. Back when the American Constitution was introduced, James Madison knew that his biggest opponents were the Southerners- they valued the economic practice of slavery and didn’t want to see it ended. Many feared an empowered federal government would mean fewer state rights, and sure enough- we had an entire Civil War later about a particular state right- the right for white folks to enslave Black folks. But Madison created the Bill of Rights to assuage Patrick Henry and bring him and other Southern slave-holding delegates into the fold of accepting the Constitution. He sold them on the idea that these enumerated individual rights would counterweight the power of the government, and we’ve been living within the tension of community vs. individual rights ever since. 

I would think Mayor Dickens frames this practice of enticing citizens with an NPU bill of rights as a means of choosing the best practices of our forefathers rather than adapting the practices of enslavers to his own purposes, right? 

It’s all how you frame it, amirite or amirite? The devil’s always in the details of history. 

Placating citizens rather than empowering them has real shortfalls, dear reader, and I’ve watched them evolve over the five years I’ve lived in my neighborhood. 

The most recent group of kids who hang at my house are older, and I noticed some came to my house for the equivalent of 3 meals a day. So my husband and I keep bread and peanut butter and jelly on hand. Some kids have more than enough at home and they just like that someone is home to fix them something rather than them having to fix it themselves, so please do not walk away from reading this with the idea everyone is in poverty here- quite the opposite! Others though, (most) hoard food. I don’t hold any back. Many friends and some total strangers have brought my husband and me snacks, games, books for our free library, and toys, and some have donated money directly to our grocery bills. We’re grateful for it all and I hope no one feels I take their generosity for granted. These are the winks I receive from the universe speaking benevolence. They are all the living embodiment of the Beloved Community and what I have known of in faith circles as “kin-dom theory”- that we are all siblings, and only through our actions is the Divine will done.

Unlike the better organized HEY! Helping Empower Youth of Water Boy fame, I don’t offer programs – just decks of Go Fish, Uno, The Floor is Lava, Jenga, some potato sacks for races, and some plastic boats to race down the streams due to the City’s poor watershed flooding our bike lanes. Hey, if the city gives me lemons, I’ll make some lemonade! We have had basketball goals until recently due to kids hanging off the goals with one pulling it down on himself and breaking his thumb and toe. 

We all learned things that day.

I choose to do this around virtual work meetings, writing, and whatever foolishness either APAB or DFCS presents to me because while folks have encouraged me to keep kids out of our home, I have openly wondered if I don’t do it, who shall? If not me, who? If not now, when? If the kids are left to their own devices, I find they can be destructive. It’s not malicious; they’re just bored or, in some cases, they’re looking for an escape. The only time our home was broken into, the only things stolen were Goldfish snacks and the making of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’ve written about that previously. We recently had a Sam’s delivery order stolen – all groceries for the kids and a sack of flour so my husband could make more biscuits. They are hungry. We live in a food desert, and the much-celebrated Publix in Summerhill had, you know, a crane fall on its parking deck. Meanwhile, the Walmart by the AUC is still sitting empty.

I know when I write about these things, they seem overwhelming for an individual or just part of the challenge of Atlanta. But they’re all solvable challenges, with better leadership and a more engaged citizenry. And while Dickens has made his admin focused on increasing APD presence, funding, and Cop City- none of these things actually help me. They literally don’t protect me. They don’t feed people. They don’t provide skills to empower. They just round up the usual suspects. 

Much like slave patrols in the past, which I have learned was in fact, a primary reason for creation of the police in the south.

This inevitably has created another problem with workforce development. Wonder why everyone thinks “no one wants to work anymore?” because our most vulnerable have wound up in the criminal justice system instead of receiving services so now that old #AtlantaWay of rich Black and white folks coming together to use poor folks for cheaper workforce is incarcerated rather than empowered to achieve the American Dream. 

Slap that on some Norman Rockwell cover, because that’s what our system has rendered. 

In the last month, the car that my husband and I share has been stolen.  Most recently, our rental car was stolen. These events book ended my recent COVID case. (Thank you AGAIN Mr. Mayor, for requiring all APAB meetings to be in-person rather than virtual.) It’s been challenging in a city whose transit options haven’t evolved much since the 70s, even though we purposefully bought a house near MARTA rail and bus. My husband and I are unwilling to press charges, but that doesn’t mean the City of Atlanta won’t, sadly. But this doesn’t solve the problem – it just enters kids into the criminal justice system and makes it more difficult to get jobs later when their background check shows up with these issues in it. It repeats a cycle some of these kids know all too well- incarceration, foster care, struggling to find jobs that will hire folks without college degrees or maybe a high school degree. This isn’t an issue of lack of ambition, it’s a challenge of accessibility to necessary support. 

In preparing for being licensed for foster care, I’ve read (and continue to read) a lot about trauma-informed care. While trauma is problematic in that it happens- it does to everyone at some time or way. It is problematic when needs are ignored, root challenges aren’t addressed, and the trauma is allowed to repeat with no support or empowerment to make the change.

I’ve written about what I learned in the Citizens’ Police Academy, and we spoke at length to the responding officer who wanted me to identify who stole our car. I know who did it, but will not put more children in the criminal justice system. I understand the APD’s role is empowered only through what City Council, state, and federal leaders, and the court system give them the power to do; nothing more. I don’t fault individual officers as much as I do lawmakers who continue to back prison as a means of economic development for places like from where I come. The law is here to pick the kids up and turn them into the court system, and if the kids come back and have any other issues, they’ll fill out their reports dutifully. But no intensive services, no diversion programs, and no accountability courts for them. Just straight to juvie or to a scared straight program that may or may not work. Like midnight basketball, there isn’t a lot of data that demonstrates these tactics work. And unless I move, they’ll return to our shared community more hardened than when they went into the system.

I know that short-term programs and adults who drop by occasionally are not it. The biggest impact in a kid’s life is a trusted adult with whom they can maintain a relationship. So my husband and I try to reiterate to the kids that bad decisions don’t make bad people, and that harm done to one affects the community at large. Our lack of a car also means no means of reinflating their bike tires, or basketball, and no rides home when it’s raining, hot or cold. It also means we share currently more in common with some of the kids’ families’ challenges than what we have prior.

While I do a LOT of calling out of city and state leaders, I do more calling in of children. After our car was stolen, some kids didn’t want to hang out with the kids who stole our car. We encouraged them to do the opposite because we know bad things can happen when folks are isolated. Folks of all ages act out in bad ways when they’re left on their own. Does anyone remember Timothy McVey? We have encouraged the kids to hang out with them more, show them there are alternatives, and that the community loves them and will not turn their backs on them. In substance use circles, this is called peer support. These are proven best practices, unlike locking them up.

I share all of this to give context to why I feel/ write/ do the things I do. I don’t hate the police, but I do recognize their limited power when lawmakers don’t empower them in ways that can be restorative. I don’t hate the City of Atlanta – quite the opposite – I love the people! I just wish the City would listen to the citizens’ needs in planning, in providing resources, and look to longer-term solutions rather than stop-gap band-aids that no one believes will make a meaningful difference. I’ve never believed you have to have a law degree to create meaningful policy – most folks on the ground can tell you what they need. Like me, most of them have probably tried multiple times and ways to do it.

This is why I have engaged at APAB and with the children in my neighborhood. I’ve tried to get our NPU leaders to focus on the advisory job the board is legislated to perform in its creation. A part of that is education- I created a packet for new members that the current APAB president and NPU Director advocated against. They don’t want empowerment anymore than Mayor Dickens does. They also don’t like my questions. Because a well-formed question can highlight the city’s gaps and we don’t want anyone to embarrass Mayor Dickens, God knows he can do that himself enough with this Cop City foolishness. Instead of encouraging divergent voices though, the Commissioner of Planning listens to the single voice of her NPU Director who has led her to believe the best approach to solving citywide challenges at APAB is to reduce the numbers of folks at the table- for a city of almost 500,000 citizens. 

Isn’t that a fascinating approach?!?!

The mental gymnastics that had to be rendered to make that make sense is truly amazing, y’all. And bless that woman’s heart when I met in her office as she tried to sell me that sack of shit. Because unlike her, I know in practice and from experience, this makes the board machinations harder, right? People who have children, work shift jobs, have mobility issues, and (like most of us) are tired of going to so many damnable meetings just to stay informed of things) struggle to attend meetings like APAB’s. This is why the delegate and alternate system was created by the APAB Bylaws- to provide a means of having a consistent presence to advise the Planning department from the community voice. 

Currently, the APAB bylaws allow an NPU Chair, their delegate, and in the case either of the two cannot be present for an in-person-only meeting in a historic Old Council Chambers (currently under renovation) they can have an alternate present. The APAB President has made a rule that no one within the board has challenged that alternates cannot speak nor can voting rights be transferred. None of the other board members have challenged this ruling, which is disappointing, but not surprising. 

How many of us know how to appropriately challenge a Chair’s ruling?

Meanwhile, in current terms of city planning, economic development (Downtown Atlanta) (West End Mall) is dropping like flies here as our global economy and our city is shifting from large office buildings to more working from home. Have you seen the commercial market lately? And that’s a lot of Atlanta’s real estate market. Even though Atlanta does these big chunks of development, it’s not clear to me yet after inquiring with developers and friends from the Council For Quality Growth that this is a process challenge. It seems it’s just the way it’s always been done. These large chunk projects keep failing in Atlanta although selling off smaller properties would lend itself to better competition. A developer I’ve talked to says that the community voice element has made these projects fail bc there’s never any way to satisfy everyone. Maybe. But I know that NPU votes are advisory only- they don’t make a hill of beans difference. While APAB could fill the role of providing some citywide guidance, the NPU Director and Commissioner have narrowly focused on REDUCING the number of participating members at the table rather than providing some flexibility in who shows up to each meeting. 

But Napoleon taught us that some members are more equal than others, right?

While the APAB President has denied my voice at the table from NPU C & NPU D, even though both chairs have communicated that I have served on their behalf, I was pleased to see in last month’s meeting that NPU B’s representation (who resides in NPU C and his business is located in D) was called out by other APAB members. The conversation begins at timestamp 1:44:58. I hope you watch for the duration of the conversation because you can watch as the APAB President either purposefully or not confuses the issue before changing the topic and moving onto another member’s question. NPU B’s APAB representation has been happy to derail meetings with meaningless diatribes, openly votes as a bloc of the Old Guard instead of consulting his own NPU, and all the while neither the APAB President nor the NPU Director have denied him a seat at the table.

I want to thank the NPU Director and APAB President personally, for this point. 

Their inaction with him versus the targeting of me has highlighted to the other members of the board that this year has never been about where I live or the NPU I’ve represented. This is all about keeping me silent and not allowing me to push for more. If my silence gets members like this pushed out of the APAB version of the Fashion Club, then it’s all been worth it for me.

I cannot think of a higher compliment to pay me, honestly. I must be more powerful than I thought. 

Meanwhile, though, the children starve, Cop City continues to ebb whatever political capital Mayor Dickens has left, and the President of APAB can’t even make a quorum because the numbers have been reduced so much. She’s throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Ironically, the recent Cop City movement has engaged the rarely-present NPU E Chair. In the last APAB meeting, NPU E’s Chair showed up after sending a letter to the board. I shared it on X (Twitter). While I agree with NPU E Chair’s assertion that policy should be taken back to the NPUs for their information and input, dear reader, you should also know that NPU E’s Chair, along with the APAB President and APAB’s appointee to ATAG III from NPU F, all serve together on Council Member Alex Wan’s ATAG III Committee, which addresses alcohol licensing in Atlanta. This isn’t a random gathering of community leaders, these women all meet together on another board and this is the APAB President calling in reinforcements to make the case against Cop City to make it look like there’s a stronger force here in favor of the issue. Additionally, In her presentations (last year and this year, I believe) APAB’s appointee made it painfully clear she didn’t want to hear from other members or citizens during her service on ATAG III, which is kinda the opposite of what is supposed to happen. LOL. Her position exists because she is supposed to serve as the community voice. 

Only in Atlanta do volunteers get appointed to boards as the “community voice” and then tell others not to engage! 

I’m guessing this is just a part of the culture of ATAG III and this group of cronies folks. As ann aside, if you don’t know me from the Capitol, you may not know that I worked for the Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association for a few years. Ed and Stony McGill were great teachers, the Dept. of Revenue was pretty straightforward, the Dept. of Ag (which provided some regulations in some cases) and everyone other than the City of Atlanta’s bureaucracy wasn’t so bad to deal with when I worked there, circa mid-2000s. I’m genuinely glad to see ATAG III’s work making the necessary reform- it was needed! Now if you remember, I previously referenced Councilmember Alex Wan’s ridiculous fit over his home address being shared by Cop City activists all while anyone who has access to the internet and knows how to use a search function regarding property taxes in Fulton can look that information up. Bless his heart! Public service isn’t for everyone. It’s probably part of the reason why he lost the Council President race despite my vote for him. He used to be my Council member and is generally recognized as a well-liked leader. One would also think that this might gain some inroads for Mayor Dickens in Midtown. 

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. 

As the Mayor’s “Equity In Action” banner drifted by our spot on Peachtree Street during last Sunday’s Pride parade, my foster kid asked the innocent question, “Why is no one cheering for him?” the question highlights for me some things I’ve seen/heard lately from Remy the Rumor Mill that maybe I’ll write about later. Let’s just say Foster Kid may not be the only person who recognizes Mayor Dickens has blood in the water. 

The Dickens admin seems to like sports metaphors, so I’ll chalk his administration up to a “rebuilding” period for Atlanta. I’ll consider our city the Tennessee of the South, which puts us better than Vandy (at least we’re not choking every year) but the highlight reel revolves around events of the last century. My concern is that unless the City of Atlanta can change direction soon to provide meaningful resources to close the gaps, provide diverse and competitive economic development (that isn’t so focused on office buildings), feed the kids, and give citizens like me another alternative to locking kids up, the children coming over to my home and their peers are going to be our future voters and city leaders. 

If that thought worries you, then I encourage you to roll your sleeves up and join me in the push for better. 

While there will always be a numbered few in places that will carry the water for keeping things the same, Atlanta is very much so ground zero for change- not because we want to, but at this point, we have to. Doing the same old, same old, is getting us worse than what our parents had. The kids are not okay and until we have systems that include more voices than just provide window dressing for inclusivity, we’re just spitting in the wind. 

I hope my actions and writing have demonstrated how change can still be made by well-formed questions, sharing what you know, holding the government accountable, and pushing for more. Further, I hope the links below empower you to pose your own questions, if you live in the city. Don’t take my word for it- inquire and share!

Let’s just hope the kids learn more from me than Mayor Dickens.

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