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Betsy Riley

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60 Voices: Bill Bolling, Rohit Malhotra, and Latresa McLawhorn Ryan on the future of nonprofits

Bill Bolling
Bill Bolling

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Bill Bolling founded and was executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank for more than three decades. He serves on many boards and is chair for the new Atlanta Civic Circle nonprofit news organization.

Rohit Malhotra
Rohit Malhotra

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Rohit Malhotra is founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation. He was formerly a White House government innovations fellow.

Latresa McLawhorn Ryan
Latresa McLawhorn Ryan

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Latresa McLawhorn Ryan is an attorney and the inaugural executive director of the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative. Previously, she was a vice president of SunTrust Foundations and Endowments Specialty Practice.

BB: I started as a community minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal church way back in 1975. But about four years in, it was very obvious that no matter how many meals we served at that one congregation, there was a lot more to do. There was also so much waste. Our idea was simple: centralize the acquisition, decentralize the distribution. I was lucky enough to be part of starting that movement in the country. There were only about a half a dozen of us. I like to say I had the franchise for the Southeast.

There’s a huge amount of innovation in the nonprofit world now. Nowadays, a lot of young people naturally think as entrepreneurs. Part of what we had to do then and what we have to do now is educate people to new models. Certainly, this is a generational moment around race, inclusion, and equity. This doesn’t come every day, so you’ve got to be ready when that moment arrives.

RM: Innovation often just highlights, uplifts, and amplifies things that communities have been screaming for so long. Where we started was with community, making sure that community voices are heard because they’d been ignored for so long. Anything we’re working on right now is not new. In fact, that’s the irony of innovation. Innovation is not invention. Times like right now didn’t create inequality. It shone a bright light on the consequences of that inequality. I think we’re in a renaissance movement for community-based work.

LMR: We believe that the work has to be done simultaneously between grassroots organizations, ‘grass-tops’ organizations, and government. We are here to do dynamic work, we are not interested in incremental change. The disparities in Atlanta have lasted far too long for incremental change. A founding point of the organization was a Prosperity Now report that we commissioned. It highlighted that 96 percent of Black-owned businesses in the city of Atlanta are sole proprietorships. It also highlighted that the average value of a Black-owned business is $58,000 compared to $658,000 for a white-owned business. In our city where we enjoy the reputation of being the Black Mecca, there is great disparity. We are last in economic mobility: A child born in poverty in Atlanta has just a 4 percent chance of escaping it in his or her lifetime.

There was a time in our society where we looked out for each other, where we were a true community. We knew if our neighbor needed something. If a kid got in trouble, the local shopkeeper gave them a job to put them on the right path. There was a sense of concern about our neighbor—not from a charitable sense—but just a human wellness, human dignity framework.

BB: But until we get to this greater understanding of really listening to folks, we have what I call “living in the meantime.” If we’re not feeding and housing folks in the meantime, we’re never going to get there. On the other hand, if it’s just charity—the haves and the have nots—the power differential never empowers, right? But I always resist a little bit that it’s got to be all one or the other. If you’re providing charity, but you’re not doing that inclusive work and listening and learning from them, it’s never going to change.

LMR: If there was a benefit of Covid and the recent awakening, it was that the need was so great and so swift that organizations, institutions, had to rethink how they got to the people who needed the services. You couldn’t necessarily just do what you’ve been doing.

RM: [Right now] all of us are saying, Don’t worry, we’re going to create all these new programs and whatnot to get people out of poverty. But time will tell if we’re still saying that Atlanta is the most unequal city in the United States on [Atlanta magazine’s] seventieth anniversary.

The reason people get displaced is they get priced out of cities. They get pushed out. And then we get to say, Well, our poverty went away. We have seen this time and time again. If you go to the West coast, they’ll say, Poverty, oh my gosh, let me clutch my liberal pearls. What poverty do we have? Well, you pushed it out, right? Right now, Atlanta is still in a position where you can still be here. But we are so close to losing the very fabric of what this city was built on.

LMR: Atlanta loves Atlanta, and Atlanta is a great city so we get it. But so many people, even those who are experiencing the poverty, had no idea that this was a widespread issue for the city, because the narrative has been that Atlanta is this booming city.

BB: Never waste the disaster and emergency. There was a rethinking of philanthropy. I’m on the board of the Arthur M. Blank Foundation. We had a very serious conversation there, and I think that happened across the board. There were partnerships and collaborations that we’ve never had before. Food and housing are the two things that I mostly focused on. We said, Let’s use this. We would never wish a pandemic on anybody, but I think we might look back on it and say, “Wake up call.”

RM: For Atlanta to say it wants to be community-centered, it’s going to have to get back on the ground in community. I think we have to start talking to one another again. You cannot take a bulletproof bus through Vine City and then talk about how you’re in the neighborhood. You got to put your feet to the ground and respect and trust the leaders who have been there well before. There’s very few philanthropic institutions that actually spend time on the ground, which is why so many intermediary organizations have to pop up. So you have large corporation X or family X that funds money often through an intermediary organization, CCI included—with the hopes that we can become this trust broker between the financier and the actual people doing the work. And a lot of their metrics of success are counterintuitive to how actual community-based work happens. It’s built on trust. It’s built on conversation. It’s built on longevity of time. It’s built on flexibility. Those are not common things that you see in a grant application.

LMR: I’ll give an example. We have worked with Gangstas to Growers, a grassroots organization that makes hot sauce, and we’ve given them grants over the years. They work with formerly incarcerated youth. They take them through the entire process—from the farm in South Georgia where they grow the ingredients to wholesale development and marketing. When we started working with them, they were selling the hot sauce at festivals and events.

We sat down with them and said, Okay, let’s figure out what needs to happen to grow. A grassroots organization doesn’t always have the time to sit back and write a three-year strategic plan, right? So we helped the founder take some time to think strategically. We gave her some support so she could take some money to support herself. She hadn’t been paying herself for years. We helped hire a consultant to connect her to wholesale opportunities. They secured two wholesale opportunities last year, which was critical because they couldn’t go to festivals during Covid. That wholesale connection created more job opportunities for the formerly incarcerated youth that had been trained through that program. And she just had a baby. The extra dollars allowed her to take a step back and breathe a little bit. That’s being in partnership with proximity.

RM: We started working with Gangstas to Growers before they had a name. Even the fact that they were called Gangstas to Growers—funders didn’t want to meet with them.

[Our society] gives a lot of grace to the concept of “failing forward” and trying things. But [that’s impossible] if failure means [losing] your livelihood or your community’s wellbeing. Our organization spends a lot of time focused on making sure that [community] leaders are respected and validated and trusted—even if they don’t have the right language to bring to the table.

BB: To be in partnerships you’ve got to trust each other. I have been part of several nonprofits since I left the food bank. At Food Well Alliance we give out over a million dollars a year in grants. We support 30 urban farms in Atlanta. But you don’t just go in and say, “What do you need?” And they say, “We need money.” If you build a relationship where you’re listening to each other, we could say, Well, you’re a great grower, but you might not be very good in marketing.

We paid for farmers to go over to Malhotra’s shop to learn about telling their story. That takes time. And it takes real intention. It’s easier just to give the grant, say, Report to me in six months. In Atlanta’s non-profits sector, we have some good examples now of how we can slow down, build trust, listen to each other, and recognize each other’s gifts.

RM: Way too often people say, Well if you want money, here’s how you have to structure your organization or your business. Here’s how you’re going to have to play by my rules.

LMR: If an organization doesn’t have their financials in order, they need some additional support. But it’s not because they don’t know how to impact the community.

RM: When COVID-19 funding was distributed, it overwhelmingly went to larger, institutional non-profit organizations that were not run by people who look like me or Latresa. Many of those organizations that received capital are doing amazing, life-changing work. But other organizations inside communities—delivering food right there and then—were not even considered eligible. Not only because they don’t have the right language, they also don’t have the right ability to pick up the phone and say, Hey, I need $250,000. I’ll do your paperwork. No worries. I got a grant writer.

They’re too small, they don’t have an audited statement. You don’t have any validation of their work. So it’s scary, but that’s where the concept of trust comes in. But if somebody has been in their neighborhood for this many years, educating kids or getting resources, they might actually be a stronger vessel or vehicle for recovery and aid.

Non-profit organizations have millions, tens of millions, of dollars sitting in reserve funds and as endowment that is supposed to be used for an emergency. That’s what I was told reserve funds were for. These organizations are not using their emergency cash.

And the average person sitting in Oakland City doesn’t know what resources exist. That’s when you see a perpetual widening of inequality in this city. The Covid vaccine is a perfect example. Who’s signing up for the Covid vaccine right now? And who is having trouble being able to sign up right now? These are not accidents. They are structural issues that require intentional disruption. It’s not a matter of Do we care about our communities? Of course, we care about our communities. I think the issue is that we have not put trust into those types of organizations, and the larger institutions that are responsible for doling out resources, power, and capital are not embedded within those places. So a lot of those resources don’t get to where they need to get to.

In the first month, almost 50 percent of the 87 organizations that we work with were at risk of shutting down. That’s because they don’t have a six-month runway, a three-month runway.

LMR: I think that we can seize this moment of a new sense of reality and then build from there. There is no going back to normal.

I think what Georgia has proven, even with the last election, is that a collective voice matters. We have to resist the urge to go back into our silos. There’s often talk about the intersectionality of wealth—whether it be social capital or intellectual capital or financial capital—and how it impacts every sector: the arts, housing, education, criminal justice, entrepreneurship, food insecurity. There’s this connective tissue there.

BB: I am guardedly optimistic. And I say that because in the 60s and 70s I was that young Turk like Rohit. I was that inpatient activist who wanted things to change immediately. We blew things up, we made all the same points, and then they killed our leaders. Then many of the activists got discouraged and turned toward making money. So, we know that can happen.

Where I’m most hopeful is working with young people, how they are so entrepreneurial. I’ll just speak for myself, but they are a lot smarter than me. They’re wired up to be thinking as problem solvers. They are appropriately demanding change now.  We have technology now, which means there are few secrets. We used to be able to hide things, but not anymore. There is the possibility of us really getting traction and sustaining progress this time.

RM: I love this city. I wouldn’t put myself through this work if I wasn’t obsessed with the potential of this city. It’s home for me, it’s personal. I am not interested in moderate progress. I’m interested in Bolling’s 60s and 70s “burn it down,” right? If it’s not working, burn it down. Now my obligation is to learn from the generation that has come before me.

One of the best conversations I ever had with Congressman John Lewis was when he told me the most important ingredient to movement building was to reinforce joy every single step of the way. To dance, to celebrate, to be colorful. And we don’t see that when we look at Civil Rights Movement pictures, they’re all black and white; and you assume that, that’s how the world looked, but it was colorful. It was vibrant. It was beautiful. This does come down to public policy. [With] that, Bill can do this all day long. I can do this all day long. Latresa can do this all day long.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

The home improvement projects our readers did in quarantine

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2020 DIY ProjectsIt started with setting up a home office, then progressed to cleaning out the closets. Pretty soon, we were repainting that spare bedroom and planting a garden. By midsummer, we were adding a deck or renovating the kitchen. Lumber became as precious as alcohol wipes. This has been a year for home improvements.

Last winter, we launched our Yearbook to salute new shops and products. In 2020, we’re dedicating it to readers’ renovation plans. We asked you to tell us what projects—large or small, cheap fixes or major investments—gave you joy in the midst of this chaotic year. Here are some of our favorite stories. Submissions have been condensed and edited for space and clarity.

Cost key
$ <$500
$$ $501–5,000
$$$ $5,001–20,000
$$$$ >$20,001

The Shed

My husband is a very crafty person, as our cluttered garage proves. Since I’d like to start parking in there again, I told him that I’d help build a shed. I wasn’t the greatest helper because of the summer heat, not to mention I absolutely hate mosquitoes and any kind of bugs. One day, I was holding the ladder steady, but I was so busy fanning off bugs and wiping the burning sweat from my eyes that I let go. Lord, my husband lost his balance and fell off the ladder. I honestly thought he had broken his back the way he just lay there without moving. Thank God, he was just shocked and had no broken bones. Needless to say, I haven’t been on ladder duty since that incident. We (as in my husband) are in the final stages of building the shed, and I’m counting down the days until I have my garage back!

—Patrice McQueen, Pittman Park [$$]

The Family Garden

This past winter, after breaking a contract on a house with a big yard in Druid Hills, we decided to commit to our current home and create a yard that could work for our family, even though our house is on a small, nonconforming lot in Reynoldstown. We had interviewed five landscape architects, but nobody seemed to “get it.” So, we decided to go it alone—though my uncle, who has worked with distinguished landscape designers like [Dutch garden designer] Piet Oudolf, agreed to consult remotely from Chicago. We created a birch-and-boulder grove inspired by a Swedish forest (we are citizens of that country) but using native plants and a meadow inspired by Lurie Gardens in Chicago.

We planted more than 1,000 native trees, grasses, and wildflowers to attract wildlife; built a pergola and a masonry fireplace; and erected a playhouse for our kids. We installed boulders for the kids to climb on and tried to integrate the “play” features seamlessly into the garden. Since we both work from home, and our small children had no childcare, we spent an hour or two each night after they went to sleep digging, sawing, and nailing our little vision together. Although stressful and extremely difficult at times, our project proved to be the perfect distraction from the increasingly dire news we saw each day. Out in the backyard, with a shovel or a hammer in our hands and nothing but the song of cicadas and tree frogs, we were able to completely forget about the world outside, if only for a few hours. We now have the perfect place for our kids to play, and the new plantings have already attracted wildlife in droves. I had never seen a monarch butterfly in my 12 years in Reynoldstown, and this year, we watched more than two dozen caterpillars become butterflies. We have new species of birds visiting (including hummingbirds!) and clouds of butterflies hovering over the Joe Pye weed.

—Paul Vranicar, Reynoldstown [$$$]

The Treehouse

2020 DIY ProjectsWe had a treehouse built for our kids’ 7th and 10th birthdays this summer. We have a small backyard that is mostly concrete, because it’s where my husband and I park our cars. We didn’t have room for a swing set or trampoline, but we did have a gigantic magnolia tree. I’d been thinking about a treehouse for a couple of years, since it’s the only thing that would really fit, and with the kids spending so much time at home during the pandemic, we decided to go for it. We were intimidated by the planning/design process, so we hired a local handyman (a furloughed neighborhood dad who had started a small-jobs mini-empire during the pandemic) and had it built over a couple of days in August. My kids would go out every day after (virtual) school to check out the progress and chat up or cheer on the workers. Now, they finally have their own little hideout, and they love it.

—Jennifer Marquez, Ormewood Park [$$]

The Cottage Revamp

2020 DIY ProjectsIn summer 2018, I really wanted a wall planter from Ikea that was out of stock, and my husband, Jeff, told me he could build it. This was news to me because he had never built anything in his life, we have no work space, and our only tools were hand-me-downs from my dad. But a few (well, many) trips to Home Depot later, I had the wall planter of my dreams, and we were hooked. Last winter, we built a faux fireplace to hide a TV in the living room, “leveling up” our game (tiling was involved). So, when the pandemic hit, we knew we needed to get to Home Depot and get ourselves a long project to keep us busy. We love our 1921 house in the O4W, and we try to honor its age and origin with every change we make. In March and April we replaced every bit of baseboard, door trim, and crown molding with traditional, federalist-style woodwork. Then came the big project: the bar. As in all O4W homes, the front of our house used to be a porch. During one quarantine day, Jeff said, “I’ll bet there’s brick under the drywall in the front of the house.” Off came the drywall and, to our surprise, we discovered a window! The window became the heart of the bar design. I started sketching an L-shaped bar with built-in shelving (the old window). We’re still a couple weeks out from finishing but then, it’s on to the next project! We’re having so much fun teaching ourselves woodworking and improving our old home along the way. We can’t wait until it’s safe to have people over again and serve them drinks at our new bar and sit in our living room around the fireplace!

—Anna Cullen, Old Fourth Ward [$$]

The $400 Bathroom Renovation

2020 DIY ProjectsAt age 26, I bought my first house (exciting!), but it was and still is an older home/fixer upper. I absolutely love my house, but it’s no secret that it will take a little work in order to reach its full potential. While I know it will take time and money to get some things fixed and updated, one thing I am not willing to wait on is a decent bathroom. After walking past my ugly and outdated bathroom every day, I finally decided enough was enough. I took matters into my own hands and did a DIY bathroom renovation with a $400 budget. Luckily, I was able to find tile on sale at Lowe’s, so I tiled my own bathroom floor with a simple, yet pretty, white honeycomb tile. I resurfaced the rusted bathtub with a Rust-oleum resurfacing kit and repainted the tile walls. There is a liquidation store in my neighborhood that sells deeply discounted furniture and home appliances, where I was able to find a beautiful new vanity sink and vanity light for under $150. After a little hard work and help from my dad, I now have a somewhat new bathroom! I actually had a lot of fun tiling my own bathroom floor. (All my friends want me to show them how to do it now.) Every time I walk past, it brings me instant joy to see how bright and clean it looks compared to how it was when I first bought my home.

—Bianca White, East Point [$]

The Stenciled Porch

2020 DIY ProjectsWe painted and stenciled a star tile pattern on our porch, then covered the porch in plants to create a tropical oasis. It was a project I’d always wanted to do, and, with so many free weekends, we finally were able to do it. Now, we sit out there every night.

—Courtney Dubus, East Lake [$]

The New Staircase

I’ve never liked the staircase in this 17-year-old house. It’s distracting and seems out of place. Having the time at home is why we decided to give it a facelift. We painted the stained wood handrails and newell posts black to match existing iron balusters, added wainscoting to the supporting wall, then painted both the paneling and stair risers white. Finally, we put a dark stain on the existing wooden stair treads. It was a dramatic and easy update!

—Meg Reggie, Sandy Springs [$]

The Closet Office

2020 DIY ProjectsI turned the closet in my second guest room into an office space so that I could stop working at my dining table. The closet is seven feet wide, so it provided plenty of space for a butcher block desktop and two shelves. I added a bold wallpaper for a pop of color. If I leave it messy—no problem! I just shut the doors. The best part of my new office is that my pug, Emmy Lou, loves to snuggle under the desk next to my feet while I work.

—Laura Moody, East Atlanta [$$]

The Loft

2020 DIY ProjectsI moved to Edgewood from Beaufort, South Carolina, in April. I sold 99 percent of the furniture along with my home and bought a loft about half the size of my house. Since I bought and sold in the midst of a pandemic, the move was quite challenging. I moved to Atlanta because my son and his family live in Decatur, and I have always wanted to experience the urban lifestyle again. (I grew up in NYC.) Finding a loft in an old warehouse building in Edgewood really inspired me to furnish my new digs with an eclectic industrial, modern style. I wasn’t able to visit stores like I had hoped, but shopping online turned out to be a lot of fun. My three cats and dog and I are very happy in our new place and are patiently hoping we will be able to go to restaurants and outdoor events very soon. What gives me the most joy about my new loft are the large windows that bring in so much light and my very small, intimate patio.

—Sharon Reilly, Edgewood [$$$]

The Lion Room

2020 DIY ProjectsI love cats and saw this lion sign on the side of a local antique store and knew that I wanted to turn it into art for our house. It was much bigger than I realized, so it sat in the garage for months while I worked on a game plan for how to hang it and where. In 2019, we moved to Roswell from Milwaukee. The house we bought was painted beige throughout, so many quarantine weekends have been used to paint the walls. The “Lion Room” brings me joy every time that I pass it because it’s one of the first spaces in our Georgia house that felt like home.

—Natasha Tomasik, Roswell [$]

The Bungalow

We purchased the adjacent “in need of love” 1951 bungalow from its original owners. After giving up hope they would ever let it go, we pounced when we found out their son and his growing family no longer wanted to call it home. Their only request was that we promise not to tear it down. Needless to say, we were thrilled to preserve a little part of Peachtree Heights East history. Our hope is that my parents will relocate from Southern California to Atlanta in the next few years. Until that day arrives, however, we plan to rent out the house and allow others to enjoy the beautiful Duck Pond neighborhood we proudly call home. We “popped the top” and are adding a staircase, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room, and a laundry closet, all while honoring the original owners’ request to keep the character of the home intact. Patrick Davey of Davey Construction, who also completed construction on our current home, is overseeing the project. COVID-19 has managed to throw a few monkey wrenches into the project. Sourcing and acquiring materials have been challenging due to manufacturing slowdowns, and because so many people have decided to undertake home-improvement projects. Craftspeople, painters, masons, and other talented professionals are being snapped up quicker than a bottle of hand sanitizer. This has caused our project timeline to extend beyond our original projection. All in all, however, we are enjoying the process and are very excited to see our adorable little bungalow come to life.

—Melissa Lowry, Peachtree Heights East [$$$$]

The Feature Wall

We’ve done so many home-improvement projects. First was our feature wall. We only noticed how bare the wall was after taking a picture of the family playing a board game. I frantically searched for ideas on Pinterest. My husband and I bought all the wood, did all the cutting and installation, and then had it professionally painted by Gary from Blessed Transformations, who lives in our neighborhood. Installing the wood only took one weekend.

—Renee Straker, Acworth [$]

3 scenic drives to take this fall in the North Georgia mountains

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Scenic drives in North Georgia Mountains

Ridge & Valley Scenic Byway
51 miles

The terrain on this loop ranges from pastoral valley with fertile farmsteads and 19th-century farmhouses to climbs along ancient ridges with long views and unusual geological outcroppings. Pass hikes like Keown Falls (where the trail actually passes underneath a waterfall, usually larger than a trickle only in spring and after a rain) and magical picnic spots like the Pocket Recreation Area, where you can cool your feet in a stream.

Cohutta-Chattahoochee Scenic Byway
54 miles

This route starts at the 19th century Prater’s Mill in Whitfield County—now a park where visitors can wander nature trails alongside the old grist mill—and stretches past Fort Mountain State Park, which offers spectacular lookouts and some heart-stopping drop-offs. If you’ve got time, take the short hike around the park’s summit with offshoots to the ancient 855-foot-long rock wall of uncertain origin and a 1930s stone fire tower. Or pull over at the Cohutta Overlook between Ellijay and Chatsworth—where a five-minute uphill walk takes you to a stone platform with 360-degree views.

Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway
20 miles

Start your ascent up State Route 348 near Smithgall Woods State Park, and you’ll soon roll by some of the state’s most beautiful trails (including Raven Cliff Falls, page 58). You’ll feel like you’re in a Subaru commercial as you wind along this 1930s-era route with unimpeded vistas and rugged cliffs playing host to trickling waterfalls, ferns, and flowers. Stop at Hogpen Gap—the route’s highest point and an Appalachian Trail crossing—to picnic way above Lordamercy Cove with views of Brasstown Bald. When you come down the other side, hang a left onto Highway 19 and pop into the historic Sunrise Grocery for killer boiled peanuts. Keep heading south and you’ll pass Vogel State Park and Mountain Crossings, an outdoor gear shop and the only place where the Appalachian Trail passes right through a building. Mind the motorcycles.

Back to An Insider’s Guide to the North Georgia Mountains

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

Where to pick fruit and flowers (or pick them up) in North Georgia

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Where to pick and by flowers in Georgia
Whimsy Flower Farm

Courtesy of Whimsy Flower Farm

Whimsy Flower Farm
For a dreamy day, try wandering a field of bright blooms. At Whimsy Flower Farm, zinnias, anemones, and ranunculus thrive, but now is the season of the dahlia, which you’ll find in 50 colors. Owner Jennifer Flowers (really) Logan and her husband, Rusty, cut flowers daily (no picking yourself!) and assemble glorious bouquets from $15.

Fritchey’s Gardens & Farm Fresh Market
This Clarkesville market has been a staple for more than 30 years. Owners Allen and Nancy Fritchey grow much of the produce themselves, and in early fall, you can catch their sunflower field in bloom and take home a bunch or just a dried head full of seeds.

Tomato House Farms
The claim to fame at this low-slung, tin-roofed Murrayville market is the largest collection of home-canned goods in North Georgia, from pickled quail eggs to salsa and chow chow. The compound is also home to a kitschy gift shop, a butcher, and an ice cream counter with hand-spun milkshakes. Look for the life-sized Big Foot statue outside.

Timpson Creek Farm
You may not see a soul at the sweet, self-serve farmstand, where the honor system prevails (cash, check, or PayPal) and you can load up on fruits, veggies, and flowers grown without synthetic pesticides. Pop by any day, sunup to sundown, or find their goods at the larger nearby market at Osage Farms.

Hillside Orchard Farms
Far from the crowds that flock to Apple Alley in Ellijay each fall, Hillside Orchard Farms near Lakemont now offers its own “u-pick” apples. Like many of those farms, it offers campy attractions like a train ride and corn maze, but unlike them, it’s open for picking on weekdays (though not all attractions are). It’s free to roam and pet goats and pigs the size of tractors. Nab a bag of stone-ground speckled grits.

Back to An Insider’s Guide to the North Georgia Mountains

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

North Georgia’s wine scene is surprisingly sophisticated. Here’s where to visit.

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Wineries in Georgia
Yonah Mountain Vineyards

Photograph courtesy of Yonah Mountain Vineyards

Sure, you’ll still see muscadines and slushie machines, but visit North Georgia now and you’ll find sophisticated small-batch varietals you’ll never spy at Total Wine.

Wolf Mountain Vineyards has won more than 200 medals in major U.S. competitions and produced the first Georgia wine served at the James Beard House. Open terraces like those at Yonah Mountain Vineyards or Tiger Mountain Vineyards offer scenic hillside views, while Kaya currently allows guests to spread out across all 90 acres—plus cottages to bunk up in.

In 2018, the Dahlonega Plateau—a swath of the state’s Appalachian foothills with soil similar to Italy’s Piedmont—was designated the newest viticultural area in the U.S. To earn the appellation, 85 percent of a wine’s grapes must have been locally grown, making the region a fun place to discover new varietals like Touriga Nacional, Tannat, and Norton. Georgia wineries also are experimenting with California grapes, putting their own spin on familiar Chardonnays, Zinfandels, and Cabernet Sauvignons.

The third-generation winemakers at Chateau Meichtry, with family vintners tracing back to New York and Switzerland, offer 18 different wines for tasting. Some, like the 2017 George’s Cuvée (90 percent Norton and 10 percent Noiret), are estate grown, while others, such as a Burgundian-style Chardonnay and a bracing Zinfandel (16.4 percent alcohol), are crafted from California grapes. However, the imported fruit is shipped whole in refrigerated trucks, minimizing sulfites. Plenty of outdoor umbrella tables and a patio bar make it easy to find ample space, and there’s a steady rotation of live music and food trucks.

At the nearby Fainting Goat Vineyards & Winery, yes, there are goats (Ronnie, Reagan, Dolley, and Mamie), and they do faint. But these mascots only pass out when they’re scared, and they’ve grown accustomed to visitors, so don’t get your hopes up. This boutique vineyard tucked into the side of Burnt Mountain offers expansive views of the surrounding hills. You’re welcome to bring your own picnic (they don’t serve food) and enjoy free sunset concerts on weekends around the terraced lawn—you can even bring your leashed dog. We recommend the Patriot, a dry red made from regional Lenoir grapes, which has hints of leather and tobacco. And it’s hard to resist a souvenir glass with an upside-down goat.

If wine’s not your thing, head to the Etowah Meadery & the Dahlonega Brewery, which share space in a roadside facility where they raise bees, ferment local fruits and honey, brew, and pour. Bottled and on-tap sparkling meads are on offer, including fruity varieties like the Strawberry Rhubarb and Spiced Pear-Licious. High tops afford plenty of space on the shaded patio, and water bowls for your pup mean you can all take a load off after a long hike. You also can pick up a six-pack of cute cans.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Georgia mountains story without whiskey and moonshine, given the area’s history of Prohibition-era distilling. In an old stone building in Dillard, find the R.M. Rose Distillery, a 2016 revival of a historic brand founded in Atlanta in 1867. It manufactures its own copper pot stills and cypress fermenting tanks and makes varieties seasonally with local fruit. At the young venture, aged varieties were distilled elsewhere for now, but they’ve had plenty of action in their stills. They offer tours of the tiny space, but there’s not much reason to linger in the Prohibition-style tasting room, though it’s fun to pop in and pick up a bottle of whiskey or a jar of moonshine—or even a half-gallon of hand sanitizer—straight from the source.

Back to An Insider’s Guide to the North Georgia Mountains

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

An insider’s guide to the North Georgia mountains

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Get rid of cabin fever by renting . . . a cabin

“Cherry Blossom” yurt on Lookout MountainFrom big to small, rustic to luxe, east to west, here are a few of the great places to hide out in the wide open. > Read the full list


Golf above the clouds

McLemore golf course
Par 4, 18th Hole

Photograph courtesy of McLemore

The dramatic, craggy Northwest Georgia cliffs make McLemore one of the most spectacularly beautiful golf courses on the East Coast, with jaw-dropping overlooks, meandering creeks, and immaculate greens. This Rees Jones–designed, highlands-style course has been nominated as one of this year’s best new courses by Golf Digest. Other amenities include a short course, rock-climbing routes, waterfall-studded trails (including a soon-to-open trek to Singing Sisters Falls), private homes, a clubhouse due in October, and a planned hotel. The resort takes its name from the adjacent valley, McLemore Cove, named for John McLemore, the son of a Scottish fur trader and Cherokee princess who eventually became a Cherokee chief and fought for the U.S. in the War of 1812. To get into the private course, rent a cottage for a stay-and-play package (from $250 per person).


Just get behind the wheel and admire the change of scenery

Scenic drives in North Georgia Mountains(Especially spectacular when the leaves are turning in October.)

Ridge & Valley Scenic Byway
51 miles
The terrain on this loop ranges from pastoral valley with fertile farmsteads and 19th-century farmhouses to climbs along ancient ridges with long views and unusual geological outcroppings. Pass hikes like Keown Falls (where the trail actually passes underneath a waterfall, usually larger than a trickle only in spring and after a rain) and magical picnic spots like the Pocket Recreation Area, where you can cool your feet in a stream.

> Find more scenic drives


Take a hike

Where to hike in Georgia
Marble Mine Trail

Courtesy of ExploreGeorgia.org

North Georgia is loaded with top-notch treks. Here are a few picks to help guide you. > Read the full list


Cast a line

Blackhawk Fly Fishing
On Abby Jackson’s quiet, private stretch of the Soque River near Clarkesville, you can haul in 12-pound rainbow trout and browns. Then, you can bunk up at the 1860s farmhouse and even hire Jackson—who is also a professional chef—to prepare meals. (Pick up a jar of her Sweet Fire Pickles while you’re at it.) $200 half-day access and $275 full-day, plus another $100 to $150 if you want a guide

> Find more fishing spots here


Pick some fruit or flowers—or just pick some up

Where to pick and by flowers in Georgia
Whimsy Flower Farm

Courtesy of Whimsy Flower Farm

Whimsy Flower Farm
For a dreamy day, try wandering a field of bright blooms. At Whimsy Flower Farm, zinnias, anemones, and ranunculus thrive, but now is the season of the dahlia, which you’ll find in 50 colors. Owner Jennifer Flowers (really) Logan and her husband, Rusty, cut flowers daily (no picking yourself!) and assemble glorious bouquets from $15.

> Find more flower spots


Sip some local wine (and ‘shine)

Wineries in Georgia
Yonah Mountain Vineyards

Photograph courtesy of Yonah Mountain Vineyards

Sure, you’ll still see muscadines and slushie machines, but visit North Georgia now and you’ll find sophisticated small-batch varietals you’ll never spy at Total Wine.

Wolf Mountain Vineyards has won more than 200 medals in major U.S. competitions and produced the first Georgia wine served at the James Beard House. Open terraces like those at Yonah Mountain or Tiger Mountain offer scenic hillside views, while Kaya currently allows guests to spread out across all 90 acres—plus cottages to bunk up in.

> Find more North Georgia wineries


Coast and climb on two wheels

Cartecay River Loop
Opened in the 1980s as one of the first mountain-biking trails in the state, this nearly four-mile trail in Ellijay can be a rugged ride, says Dondi Fontenot of Cartecay Bike Shop. But it is unmatched for its beauty as it twists and turns through dense forest and meadow and drops down (sharply) to the wild Cartecay River (which you’ll have to climb back up from). You’ll need a day pass from georgiawildlife.com.

> Find more cycling spots


Park (or camp) and catch a movie on the big screen outdoors

The 1950s-era Tiger Drive-In, where viewers can tune in via FM radio from their cars, drop the tailgate, or spread out a blanket or tent on the grass in front of the screen, is seeming less like a throwback novelty these days and more like a brilliant activity. Reopened in 2004 by the original owner’s daughter, the drive-in features family-friendly classics (The Sandlot, Ghostbusters), first-run films, and now, virtual concerts and reduced capacity for plenty of space. Three 1960s-era campers with their own viewing patios are available to rent on Airbnb, and RVs can hook up for $20 a night. $10 adults, $5 children (4–11)


Take a dip in a secluded swimming hole

North Georgia Swimming Holes
Bridal Veil Falls

Photograph by Eric Champlin

Conasauga Snorkel Hole
You might feel a bit odd packing your snorkel for a trip to the mountains, but hear us out: The Conasauga River watershed is home to more than 70 different species of native fish—more than in the entire western U.S. You may come face-to-face with salamanders, freshwater drum, crayfish, and turtles. Waters are calm here, and the pool is just a short walk from the parking lot. Getting there requires a confusing drive through gravel roads with spotty cell service, so have directions on hand.

> Find more swimming spots


Plot your Escape

Before you take off

  • Check websites and social media: Some state parks and other sites have limited hours and capacity that is frequently changing.
  • Take cash for parking and roadside stands.
  • Consider a moisture-wicking gaiter-style mask that’s easy to pull up in case you encounter crowds.
  • Review the rules of the trail. Don’t let dramatic photo opps (like our cover shot, taken at the top of a route for advanced climbers in Tallulah Gorge) lure you off trail or into unsafe situations.

These articles appear in our September 2020 issue.

Art Beats is a virtual front-row ticket to the city’s new shows

Art Beats Atlanta online performances
Atlanta Ballet hosts a virtual class.

Photograph courtesy of Art Beats Atlanta

Perhaps Art Beats—Atlanta’s new portal for online performances and exhibitions—is so user friendly because the idea started with an arts fan. When the pandemic shut down the city, David Smith, a marketing executive and avid local arts patron, noticed how much easier it was to find information about how restaurants were coping than it was to keep up with his favorite theaters and galleries. He and his friend Rachel May, producing artistic director of Synchronicity Theatre, decided to create a multidisciplinary site where groups could keep audiences informed and share everything from dance performances to visual arts “openings.”

Aided by a grant from Mailchimp and business-development training from arts nonprofit C4 Atlanta, Smith and May hired a graphic designer and started recruiting arts groups to participate. The founders and a few colleagues then formed a committee to vet organizations, making criteria flexible to encourage inclusion. Within a couple of months, the site launched with more than 50 members; today, it has more than 80, from institutions like Hammonds House and Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus to innovators like Aurora Theatre and Terminus Ballet.

“The arts community here is tight-knit. This was just the natural next step for the collaborations we’ve been building,” says Gretchen Butler, managing director of Theatrical Outfit, who helped with the startup. “Art Beats is really a hub for the arts and goes a little deeper than a calendar listing.”

May says the growing roster of members gives users an opportunity to experiment: “Maybe I love theater, but I’ve never checked out the dance companies in town. People don’t realize how many different organizations there are.”

Art Beats Atlanta online performances
Zoetic Dance presents Charmed Ones by Corian Ellisor.

Photograph courtesy of Art Beats Atlanta

Currently, the main attraction for users is free access to a wide array of virtual programming. Some organizations, such as the Center for Puppetry Arts and Dad’s Garage, are creating shows specifically for online audiences, while others are repurposing existing content.

“All of us arts organizations had to very rapidly change our plans for the spring and summer,” says Angela Harris, executive artistic director of Dance Canvas. Her organization created a Choreo Chat YouTube series, combining imagery from past performances with interviews of choreographers—such as a recent spotlight on Lonnie Davis, which includes a video clip from his 2018 work, Rise, danced to the words of Maya Angelou.

Butler, of Theatrical Outfit, says she feels “[Art Beats] is a great thing not just in the time of the pandemic but also when things go back to normal.”

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

How Georgia State University delivers opportunity for all

Georgia State University We Won't Lose This Dream
Princeton Nelson, class of 2018

Photograph by Yosef Kalinko

Much has been written about how Georgia State University has increased its graduation rate by 74 percent in the last 15 years while building one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation. Since 2011, the number of Black students graduating is up 47 percent, the number of students eligible for federal Pell grants earning a degree is up 46 percent, and the number of Latinx graduates is up 89 percent. Such increases were no accidents. They were the result of systematic institutional reform. In Won’t Lose This Dream, investigative journalist Andrew Gumbel explores the turf battles, educational experiments, student successes and failures, and leaps of faith that made GSU into what the New York Times recently called an “engine of social mobility.”

An excerpt from Won’t Lose This Dream

Where Princeton Nelson came from, a college education wasn’t just at the outer edges of possibility, it was beyond imagination. Yet here he was, a proud member of the class of 2018 at Georgia State University, a computer science major with a cap and gown and a more than respectable 3.3 GPA, taking his place at a crowded indoor commencement ceremony along with the Atlanta Fife Band and professors in gowns of many colors and a cascade of balloons in Panther blue and white that tumbled from the ceiling like confetti.

He, too, got to shake hands with the university president, Mark Becker, whose welcoming remarks had invoked “the magical power of thinking big.” He, too, got to hug his fellow graduates, many of them seven or eight years younger than him, many sporting homemade slogans on their caps thanking God, or their mothers, or joking that “the tassel was worth the hassle.” He, too, could bask in the pride of his relatives, none more amazed or delighted than the grandmother who had thrown him out as a teenager because he’d been too unruly to handle, or the aunt who had thrown him out all over again as a young adult because she didn’t like the company he was keeping.

Nelson came from nothing, and he understood at an early age that it would be up to him to carve a path to something better, because nobody else was going to do it for him. Even when he slipped—and he slipped a lot—he knew the choices he made could mean the difference between life and death. He was born in an Iowa prison, the child of two parents convicted of drug dealing at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, and within days he was in foster care, along with three older siblings. His mother stayed behind bars until he was three, and his father remained so conspicuously absent that Nelson didn’t learn his name until the age of fourteen. Mostly, he was raised by his grandmother, Loretta, who brought all four children home and did her best to raise them on an assembly worker’s salary in a small red house in suburban Chicago.

Nelson’s mother was in no state to take him even when she got out of prison. She fell back into the drug underworld and, months after her release, was found shot to death in an abandoned building on Chicago’s South Side. Nelson remembers seeing her body laid in an open casket at the funeral and remembers, too, how everyone looked at him, the poor homeless child with no mom or dad. “I don’t think mom is going to wake up,” he whispered to an uncle. And in that moment he intuited that his childhood, his age of innocence and wide-eyed wonder, was over already.

Loretta moved Princeton and his siblings to Atlanta for a fresh start, but there was little she could do to make up for what he had lost—or never had. He was caught smoking weed in a high school bathroom and arrested, the first of three occasions during his wild teenage years when he wound up in police custody and Loretta had to bail him out. His grades yo-yoed, he bounced in and out of special schools, and he barely graduated high school.

Still, he hated the feeling that he was a disappointment to his grandmother. He signed himself up at Atlanta Technical College, thinking at first that he’d train to be a barber. Then it dawned on him that as long as he was taking out loans he’d be better off working toward an academic degree, not just a trade qualification. There was a community college, Atlanta Metropolitan, right across the street, so he wandered over one day to enroll.

Nelson’s grades were strong enough to earn him an associate’s degree in computer science in two years. But his life, like that of almost every lower-income college student, remained precarious at best, a constant battle for time and money. When his aunt and uncle bought the house where he and his grandmother were living, one of the first things they did was evict him, saying they were concerned about his pot use and the shortcuts they suspected he was taking to make ends meet. They didn’t do it the gentle way, either. A sheriff’s deputy rapped at the door one morning and ordered Nelson to grab his things right away.

For two weeks he slept on the concrete floor of a bus station so he could bump up his savings from a job flipping burgers and buy himself a car. Once he had his Volkswagen Jetta, he signed on as an Uber driver. Soon he had a third job, as a security guard. Three days a week he stayed in a hotel to enjoy a bed and a hot shower; the other four days he parked overnight at a 24-hour gas station or outside a Kroger supermarket where the lights and security cameras made it less likely he’d be robbed, or worse.

He was still homeless when he started at Georgia State in the fall of 2016. Still, he plowed ahead because he was afraid that the federal Pell grants he’d been relying on to subsidize his studies would run out if he delayed too long. In his second year, he joined forces with two of his fellow computer science majors and started designing websites as a side gig. That made him hopeful enough to move out of his car and put all his savings into a deposit for an apartment in Castleberry Hill.

Academics were never Nelson’s problem. But he, like many first-generation college students, did question whether he truly belonged in higher education. He became fascinated by what it meant to live a normal, middle-class life and was determined to learn how to lead one himself. He’d spend hours sitting in coffee shops, just observing: how people sat, how they picked up their spoon and sipped their coffee, how they talked and listened and kept their negative emotions in check. “You don’t want to be judged. Not when you’ve been judged all your life and told you ain’t gonna be shit when you grow up,” he said. “I’m always thinking about where I came from. And I still feel like I’m dumb, like I’m still competing with all these college students and falling short.”

It’s a feeling that did not go away even after he graduated and headed toward his first full-time job as a software engineer for Infosys. “That’s the difference between me and those Harvard kids,” he said. “If people like me fail, we’re going to fail our life.”

The university was largely unaware of the extent of Nelson’s struggles while he was going through them but offered extra support when he most needed it. When he told the director of academic assistance that he’d grown up an orphan, she gave him a part-time job on her help desk. Twice when his money was running dangerously low, the university awarded him grants to help him reach the finish line. Without them he might never have graduated.

Nelson is just one beneficiary of the groundbreaking work that Georgia State has done over the past decade to graduate unprecedented numbers of low-income, minority, and first-generation students. And one of the most remarkable things about it is that almost every success story includes at least one moment where everything was in danger of crumbling to dust. At a school where close to 60 percent of undergraduates are poor enough to qualify for the federal Pell grant, that is just the nature of things. Most students don’t get to dwell in the heady realm of intellectual pursuit and personal self-discovery without also having to work twenty or thirty hours a week, scrimping for every last dollar to stay enrolled in class, bearing the responsibility of friends or family members in trouble, battling the Atlanta traffic in a battered car that may or may not start, and struggling to snatch even the semblance of a full night’s sleep. The students who walk this sort of tightrope tend to be people of uncommon determination and strength of spirit, and often it takes no more than a gentle nudge to reinforce their self-belief and keep them on track. That nudge might come from a trusted professor who expresses faith in their abilities, or from an advisor suggesting a course rearrangement to save a semester, or from the scholarship office pointing to free money for the taking. At the same time, the pressure is unrelenting. One botched exam, one misjudged decision, one personal crisis or skipped paycheck: any of these can be enough to crush the dream of a university education forever.

And yet Georgia State students still graduate in extraordinary numbers. In 2018, more than seven thousand crossed the commencement stage, five thousand of them to pick up a bachelor’s degree and the rest an associate’s degree from one of the university’s five community college campuses scattered around the Atlanta suburbs. That translated to a six-year graduation rate of close to 60 percent, significantly above the national average. Fifteen years earlier, the rate was a dismal 32 percent. Such a dramatic change is due to a lot more than a few unusually tenacious and talented individuals breaking through against the odds. We are talking about a fundamental transformation, a real-time experiment in social mobility that the university has learned to perform consistently, and at scale.

How did Georgia State do it? Things began to change in the wake of the 2008 recession when a new leadership team at Georgia State, acting out of economic necessity as well as moral conviction, determined that there was nothing inevitable about the failure of students who were poor, or nonwhite, or whose parents had never attended college. Rather, what held them back were barriers erected by the university itself and by the broader academic culture. Georgia State developed data to understand those barriers and to identify the inflection points where students most commonly came to a crossroads between success and failure.

This was no side project: the university reengineered its leadership and its entire institutional culture to give students the tools to fulfill their potential. It took considerable risks in doubling its enrollment of lower-income students (now almost 60 percent) and in vastly increasing the number of minority students (now more than 70 percent). Yet retention and graduation rates went up dramatically. Not only did lower-income students, African Americans, and Latinos stop lagging behind their peers, as they do at almost every other institution in the country; they started graduating in slightly higher numbers than the university average. The staggering fact is that a student like Princeton Nelson—poor, Black, and parentless—is now no more or less likely to graduate than the heir to a long line of college-educated multimillionaires.

For years, Georgia State has graduated more African Americans than any other university in the country—not by tailoring special programs to them but by treating them like everyone else and providing support where they need it, regardless of wealth, or skin color, or any other consideration. This is the wonder of Georgia State, and it rests on a simple idea: that if students are good enough to be admitted, they deserve an environment in which they can nurture their talents regardless of personal circumstances.

Georgia State University We Won't Lose This Dream
Homecoming parades feature the marching band and decorated golf carts.

Courtesy of Georgia State University

Q&A with Andrew Gumbel

Has Georgia State’s revolution inspired a national movement?
Without a doubt, everybody in the country, especially public universities, is looking at what Georgia State has done and wants to know how they did it. It wasn’t just a killer app or a piece of software. It is about an institutional and cultural attitude that informs and changes everything you do on campus. Universities are notorious for being entrenched in their institutional ways. But Georgia State has now proven—with a scientific, data-based approach—that the old assumptions about lower-income students, first-generation students, and minority students being doomed to fail in large numbers are wrong. So, nobody else has to go and reinvent that wheel. This story shows how higher education can work in a way that, for many years now, we’ve not seen it work. Too many students load themselves up with debt and never get a degree. Georgia State is not the only university in the country that has understood that this is both morally and culturally unacceptable, but it is the one that, more than any other, has demonstrated a different model that works.

Reform coincided with the recession. How much do you think the economic crash had to do with the school’s receptiveness to change?
During the recession, Georgia State was left with some very difficult choices, as were a lot of public universities. State appropriations were being slashed, so universities had to think about other sources of revenue. The applicant pool was larger because people who couldn’t get into the workforce were going to school. GSU had to decide whether to take advantage of that to become more selective or to accept less-privileged students and then figure out ways to help them graduate. Almost every public university in the country took the first route because it’s safer. But because of the new leadership [Mark Becker became president in 2009], because they believed Atlanta would be resurgent soon after the recession, they decided to go the much riskier route of betting they could retain and graduate more students. Fundamentally, the recession was the trigger for thinking, It’s now or never.

Not quite a decade before U.S. News & World Report proclaimed GSU the second most innovative university in the nation (2018), the administration admitted students with good grades but poor SAT scores that would lower the school’s average and drop its national ranking. Why did they take this risk?
All standardized testing, whether it’s the SAT or the ACT or even IQ tests, is heavily influenced by socioeconomic status. The crude way of putting it is: It doesn’t measure how smart you are; it measures how rich your parents are. The new administration knew this and decided to practice what they saw in the data, which is that high school GPAs, especially among first-generation and lower-income students, are a much more reliable projection of student performance.

Georgia State University We Won't Lose This Dream
Launching a football program excited students and impressed state legislators, says Gumbel.

Courtesy of Georgia State University

You write that the administration identified some students as “swirlers.” What does that mean?
These students kept getting set back by core requirements. They would, for example, fail an intro math class that was a prerequisite for business school. So, they would take something completely different to repair their GPAs, such as history or jazz. Then, they would retake intro math. Even if they passed the second time, if there’s an issue with their competency in math, they’re going to struggle further down the road with accounting or finance. The cycle would keep repeating itself until they ran out of money. What needed to happen was for the university to spot a problem early on and redirect students to a related but more viable path, like marketing. Getting involved early has been transformative in terms of outcomes, retaining students, and graduation.

You believe the Panther Retention Grants were GSU’s most brilliant innovation. Why?
A certain number of students in good academic standing were dropping out very close to graduation because their federal Pell grant or HOPE money was running low, and they couldn’t sustain themselves for that last little bit. Instead of setting up a scholarship with a complicated application process, GSU decided simply to clear these students’ debts, no questions asked. And the vast majority graduated. The grants average $900, but the school ends up receiving many times that in tuition and fees because students stay enrolled. It’s an extraordinary win-win. The students don’t drop out, and the school makes money.

What was so radical about how GSU changed its advising system?
Describing the revolution in advising was my absolute favorite part of this project because it entailed so many complicated maneuvers and political battles. It meant finding money at a time when no money was available and coming up with technological solutions which didn’t previously exist. That’s the thing I probably admire the most about what Georgia State has done, how they managed that. At its heart, the idea was very simple. They changed advising from a reactive process, where staff wait for students to come in, to a proactive one where they were keeping an eye on students and bringing them in if they saw a problem. This meant finding $2.1 million to hire 42 new advisors during a hiring freeze.

Why do you think that this type of revolution is particularly timely?
We now live in an economy that requires much less unskilled or semiskilled labor and requires more skilled labor. Two thirds of jobs require some form of postsecondary qualification. Where are these skilled workers going to come from? We have to do a better job at graduating many more students than we have been up to now. Also, for the last 50 years, we’ve seen the gulf between rich and poor widening, squeezing out the middle class, in a way that people are coming to recognize is unsustainable. Something needs to happen to revive the American dream.

You’re an investigative journalist who’s covered events like the Oklahoma City bombing or unrest in Bosnia. How did you end up writing about a university?
The New Press wanted someone to write this book as a story, not just as an analysis of higher-education policy—to bring life to the people, the places, the students, the administrators, all the fights, all the struggles, all the different cultural barriers that had to be overcome. In my pitch to the Georgia State folks, I said, “You do realize there will be no acronyms in the book if I write it?” They also had the guts to entrust the task to an independent writer who would produce a narrative that dug into uncomfortable issues.

This excerpt originally appeared in Won’t Lose This Dream written by Andrew Gumbel and published by The New Press. It has been edited and condensed for space and reprinted here with permission.

This article appears in our April 2020 issue.

Meet the heroes who inspire Atlanta’s top doctors

Dr. Eric Flenaugh
Dr. Eric Flenaugh helped direct Grady’s response to the pandemic.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

With a viral pandemic claiming thousands of victims, upending our way of life, and threatening our future, we have never been so focused on the need for reliable health advice and quality medical care. Never before have we so deeply appreciated the sacrifices and risks frontline healthcare workers face on our behalf.

For months, people have applauded doctors in creative ways, from spontaneous cheers to donated meals. But we were curious about whom physicians themselves wanted to thank. We asked our honorees of our 2020 Top Doctors list (plus a few emergency medicine physicians, a specialty not followed by Castle Connolly, the New York-based research firm that compiles our list) to tell us about their heroes in this battle with COVID-19. Spoiler alert: They include all of us who are staying close to home. Comments have been condensed and edited for space

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Dr. Yolanda Wimberly

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Yolanda Wimberly
Professor of Pediatrics, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Medical Education, Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs, Grady Campus, Morehouse School of Medicine

My hero is Dr. Eric Flenaugh. He was an integral part of the Grady team that designed the care of the COVID-19 patients in the ICU. He has worked every day to ensure the patients are taken care of on the COVID-19 unit and has had great outcomes, with his patients able to walk out of the hospital after prolonged hospitalizations. He has done all of this without complaining, and his work ethic is phenomenal.

Dr. Eric FlenaughDr. Eric Flenaugh
Associate Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Chief, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
Morehouse School of Medicine

Four of us were on Grady’s COVID response leadership team. We had to restructure services in the hospital, manage patients, and set up a biocontainment area to prevent spread throughout the hospital. I do a lot of international education. I had been in Shanghai and outside Wuhan in November, so I had been hearing from some of the physicians I know there and from doctors in New York. They gave us some idea of how bad it is. We stopped elective surgeries, and the shelter-in-place shutdown took people off the streets. It didn’t stop people from shooting each other, but there were fewer accidents.

Right about the time we were planning the response, my daughter’s college suddenly shut down. She goes to North Carolina A&T. We got a notice that we had to pick her up that weekend, and we had a two-hour slot. We were just throwing things in the car.

The vast majority of our patients have been African American. We’re getting very good outcomes because it’s the type of population we’re used to serving. We understand the comorbidities. African Americans have more cardiovascular disease, renal disease, diabetes, and hypertension, and all of these risk factors play a role in the outcomes of COVID-19. Keeping that in mind helped us tailor our approach a little differently. At one hospital in New York, close to 80 percent of patients on ventilators died. I’d be surprised if 15 or 20 percent of our patients on ventilators have.

The city really stepped up. Some people didn’t like the lockdown, but it made a difference. It allowed us to stay ahead. We’ve had overwhelming support.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Dr. Kathleen Funk

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Kathleen Funk
Emergency Medicine Physician
Northside Hospital

My hero is Dr. Toral Fadia, Northside Hospital’s chief of psychiatry. I called her in January and asked if she would help us with a physician well-being project. I didn’t know this, but she was already reading very deeply about provider burnout, so this was something she’d already developed a passion for. As we were in our first couple of meetings, all this coronavirus stuff began to happen, causing us to shift gears. The pandemic has turned up the heat quite a bit. It takes a lot for us [in the ED] to say we feel overwhelmed, but this changed the channel on the degree of anxiety that we feel here. Dr. Fadia is a kind-hearted, graceful, and spirited psychiatrist. She created programs to support our staff for anxiety and crisis management, including courses on managing stress, resource pages, and group initiatives, all available online. She lined up mental-health professionals within and outside of our institution to counsel our staff. She worked with hospital administrators to move these resources to the front page of our intranet.

The world is rapidly changing through this pandemic, and, in some ways, it will not be the same on the other side. The reverberating effects and psychological fallout will reach much further than the virus itself. Many of us on the front lines know our role and understand our risk. Almost daily, we have people thanking us for our efforts, which does help tremendously as we face the moral distress of the pandemic. Others, like Dr. Fadia, are inspiring because they look around, assess their superpower, and, without drawing attention to their efforts, find ways to get us through this crisis intact.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Dr. Toral Fadia focuses on the needs of her healthcare colleagues.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Toral Fadia
Medical Director of Behavioral Health
Northside Hospital

Even before the pandemic, 50 to 60 percent of physicians reported some symptoms of burnout. Now, we’re in survival mode. You’ve read about the New York emergency medicine physician who committed suicide. Physician suicide was already a problem prior to COVID-19. I sense it’s going to be more of a problem if we don’t openly address the trauma that these doctors are facing. These doctors are going into combat, and they don’t always have the necessary equipment. They don’t know what they’re bringing back home to their families. There’s so much unknown and uncertainty. We’re in unprecedented times.

It’s okay to not be okay. Doctors and nurses are much more comfortable giving rather than receiving, taking care of others rather than themselves, being the helper rather than seeing where they need help. At Northside, we’re asking, How do we create programs where they have to opt out rather than asking them to opt in for emotional support? We want to build it into their shifts, with buddy systems or virtual group sessions. Kathleen and I want to have a really strong, systematic approach that changes the culture a little bit, making it healthier and more open, where it’s okay to be vulnerable. We’ll get there.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Dr. Sofia Khan

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Sofia Khan
Director of Emergency Services
Emory Decatur Hospital

My hero is Reginald Collins, an environmental-services technician in our emergency department. With the COVID-19 patients, there’s been a tremendous amount of death and a lot of cardiac arrests. When we’re in the room, it’s us, nurses, a respiratory therapist, and technicians. We’re all in it together, doing the work as a team. When we’re unsuccessful, we have a moment to be with each other and to be with the patient. But it’s the EVS folks who come in afterwards and sweep the death away. People are saying doctors and nurses are heroes, and I don’t disagree with that. But to me, Reggie is my hero because every time he cleans that room, he gives me hope we can do it again. The most incredible part is the man always has a smile on his face, even if you come out of a terrible case, he says, You did your best. We’re good. How can I help you? His smile makes me feel like I could be a hero. He believes in me. After you’ve had a cardiac arrest, there’s blood everywhere, there’s urine, there are open vials of medicine, it’s controlled chaos. He comes in with no despair. He cleans up that room so we can do it again.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Reginald Collins provides order amid a sometimes chaotic ER.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Reginald Collins
Environmental-Services Technician
Emory Decatur Hospital

I work from 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. every night and every other weekend. Once the doctors serve the patient, I go into the room and set things back up for the next patient. I keep all the beds clean and made up. What I like best is interacting with people. Everyone comes in here sick, so you want to make them feel better by treating them nice. When there’s a heart attack, there might be trash all over the floor when the doctors are making decisions on how to work on the problem. I go in and keep the floors clean, keep things sanitized, keep everything rightful.

I’ve had family members come through here with COVID, too. I had two pass last week: my great-auntie and my auntie. They were up in age. I do a lot of praying—not only for my family but for all the other patients who come through here. I’ve got seven women in my house: my mom, who’s 80; my wife; four daughters; and a grandbaby. When I go home, I get undressed at the door and bag my clothes up. I don’t walk in the house with my shoes because my grandbaby is all over the floors. I ask God to shield me and shield my family from this virus and keep us safe. That’s the best I can do.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Dr. Jeffrey F. Hines

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Jeffrey F. Hines
Medical Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and
Health Equity, Chief of Gynecologic Oncology
Wellstar Health System

My hero is Dr. Eduardo Molinary. First, he’s my personal doctor. In order to take care of me or someone in my family, you’ve got to be quite good. But what really sets him apart is seeing him get into the fray of this pandemic. He had an office-based practice prior to COVID-19, but when the call went out for more critical-care people to go into the hospital and truly be on the front lines, without hesitancy, he stepped right up. It was a sacrifice he made for himself and for his family. I like to use those two words: shared sacrifice. And the sacrifice is not being shared equally among everyone. There are clearly people who have sacrificed more than others. He is one of them. One of the things I want to see on the other side of COVID is a sense that people are willing to give up some things for the greater good, to see that maintained—when we do get to the other side.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Though Dr. Eduardo Molinary’s practice is office-based, he volunteered to work with critically ill patients.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Eduardo Molinary
Wellstar Pulmonary Medicine, Austell

In early March, we started seeing signs on x-rays—atypical presentations—so we suspected it back then. We were at the forefront, actually, of having a system to deal with it. In my office, we changed from live interaction to video or telephone visits. Now, we’re beginning to slowly open up office spots for patients who are not suspected of having or having had COVID-related symptoms. Each room is thoroughly cleaned after a patient departs, and everyone wears masks. It’s really changed how we interact with patients. We can no longer shake hands; it’s more impersonal. But we’ve gotten used to it. I think [telemedicine] will become a way of seeing patients in the future.

[With COVID-19 patients,] it’s scary, I have to tell you. Even with the protective clothing, you wonder if you’re going to be infected. There’s always that concern lingering in the background. At the beginning, I was exposed to an active patient, so I took it upon myself to quarantine in the basement for two weeks [to protect my family]. But patients are smart, and they appreciate the extra measures. It’s hard: These patients have no one around them, and they really appreciate it when we’re able to be with them in the room. It’s really an honor to be with them and serve as their liaison. We’re able to serve as a bridge between the patient and the family.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Dr. Gary W. Stewart

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Gary W. Stewart
Director, Resurgens Foot & Ankle Center

My hero is Raphael Holloway, CEO of the Gateway Center [a nonprofit and shelter serving people experiencing homelessness]. We’re in the Leadership Atlanta class together this year. We were in a Zoom meeting, and everyone was kind of down. But Raphael was as happy as he could be. I pulled him off to the side and asked, How can you be this upbeat when I know what you do for a living? He said he felt energized because he felt like he was making a difference for his residents. He said he wakes up every morning excited to serve these men. You think about his word choice. He says “to serve them,” not that he’s helping them. These folks are commonly undervalued. Early on, people thought the homeless were going to be the ones to get COVID because they’re walking around on the street—like they would be the ones to silently spread the disease. But Raphael was determined for them to be part of the solution, and it turns out they were. The homeless population of Atlanta hasn’t really been an issue, and it’s through the work of people like Raphael.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Raphael Holloway hopes this pause makes everyone realize we’re connected.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Raphael Holloway
CEO, Gateway Center

Our mission is to connect people who are experiencing homelessness with the support necessary to become self-sufficient and find a permanent home. We continued to provide services, and that was a tough decision. There was no way for us to shut down. We have 482 residents who depend on us. There are ways to be safe and still serve. I probably wash my hands 50 times a day at least. Our board chair, Jack Hardin, and I were invited to participate on the governor’s COVID task force committee for the homeless and displaced, led by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. We all knew testing was going to be important for those experiencing homelessness because hospitals were overrun. Tom Andrews of Mercy Care secured funding to offer testing to all of the large shelters in the city. So far, we’ve been able to test over 600 individuals, including our staff. We’ve had 10 positives, including eight who were asymptomatic. All were quarantined and have recovered. We opened an isolation and quarantine hotel in early April, and now, we have another hotel for people who have health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes that put them at high risk. Atlanta’s homeless community has had a very low prevalence of COVID-19. Our rate is a little less than 2 percent, while other jurisdictions are between 10 and 25 percent.

This virus really started with people of privilege and access. The homeless community was not the first to be infected. People worried the homeless might give them COVID-19, but, in fact, the danger was the other way around. Some people thought I was a little crazy, but now, everyone recognizes that we did the right thing by being present and continuing to serve. Ultimately, this pause has made us feel a level of connectedness with each other. What I do impacts someone else. If we function collaboratively instead of independently, our communities will get stronger.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Dr. Thomas Chacko

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Thomas Chacko
Pediatric and Adult Allergist/Immunologist

My hero is Dr. Anurag Sahu. We’ve played basketball together over the years. He is a very altruistic guy. He works at Emory at the Coronary Care Unit, but he’s also going to a different Emory hospital because they don’t have coverage. He volunteered to do it. Who actually volunteers to work at the ICU now? Every day, those guys are putting themselves at risk. Really, it’s like a war. He makes us count our blessings.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Doctors like Anurag Sahu learned how to treat COVID-19 as the pandemic unfolded.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Anurag Sahu
Director of the Coronary Care Unit
Emory University Hospital

Every day, for the first week or so, one of our ICUs got completely filled with COVID-19 patients. Every day, we’d move other patients out. We had to start canceling surgeries and procedures, heart surgeries, liver surgeries, gallbladder, whatever it was—unless you were going to die within 24 or 48 hours without surgery, pretty much things came to a grinding halt. . . . A new diagnosis of breast cancer? Your surgery was on hold.

While reading cardiac ultrasounds, I observed a string of COVID-19 patients who suddenly had massively dilated right sides of the heart, which suggests a large blood clot in the lungs. When you think of COVID-19, you expect respiratory failure. But we learned this is also a clotting disorder. It also causes renal failure in proportions that haven’t been seen before. It’s a remarkably multisystem disease. One woman came in and was on the breathing machine but stable. She was getting all the right medicines. You’re thinking she’s going to get better. Then, all of a sudden, she is in shock, probably from a clot in the lungs. We did CPR and used every drug in our arsenal. But, shortly after, she died anyway. You feel so helpless despite literally doing everything. It marks one of the saddest moments of my medical career.

In truth, the people saving the most lives are the ones who are staying home and social distancing. That allows us to take the sickest patients without being distracted. It allows our teams to get a bit more rest. It allows us to save our medical supplies. By staying home and practicing social distancing, you will save more lives than me being at work.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Dr. Shazib Khawaja

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Shazib Khawaja
Tanner Heart & Vascular Specialists

My hero is Becky Holmes, RN, who works with other amazing nurses in the intensive care unit. There are several healthcare heroes in the war against COVID-19 in West Georgia, but Becky has truly gone over and above the call of duty. She has always been one of our biggest patient advocates and family supporters in addition to being a superb nurse. Unlike any other medical illness, COVID-19 poses unique challenges and excludes visits from family members. Becky has FaceTimed with family members for patients to say their final goodbyes.

Top Doctors 2020 Heroes
Becky Holmes and her colleagues call themselves the COVID Island.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Becky Holmes, RN
Intensive Care Unit
Tanner Medical Center, Carrollton

I work in the ICU because I like the challenge. I like being with someone who is at the brink of no return and then bringing them back. The ER is chaos. The ICU is considered controlled chaos, organized chaos. When the pandemic started, we were very emotional. Some of us would get together and have prayer before we started our shifts. Now, we leave our contaminated clothes at the hospital, but at first we weren’t doing that. I would strip in my car. I actually got caught on the camera in the parking deck. I just waved to Security.

It takes two or three days before you feel normal after you’ve been on for a stretch. You’ve worn a mask so long. You’re breathing your own CO2 continuously. You come home with headaches. You come home lightheaded, nauseated.

We have been an open ICU since 2003—which means we allow family members to stay at the bedside. And now, they can’t. The only eyes and ears they have are the staff. We become that family member at the bedside, holding their hands as patients struggle to survive, helping families make those decisions, crying with them. We’re not above crying. If we are, we shouldn’t be there.

It’s strange when you’re the one doing last rites at a patient’s bedside and you’re not Catholic. You’ve got a priest FaceTiming so you know what you’re doing.

We do allow compassionate end-of-life visits. One day, I brought in a patient’s son and daughter-in-law. The patient had lost his wife [years] earlier. The gentleman begged to come off the ventilator. He wanted to talk, even though we made it clear he wouldn’t survive. I left the room, so I don’t know what he said. When I returned, his son said, He’s fallen asleep but look at him, he’s smiling. I looked at the patient and said, No, sir, he’s not asleep. I think he’s reached your mom.

The Beyond is calling that soul. The best thing we can do is get out from the middle of it and let them find their peace. I haven’t seen anyone struggle.

We had a 57-year-old patient. She was talking nonstop and breathing like 50 times a minute. The strange thing is that these patients’ oxygen levels will be extremely low, but they’re not symptomatic. She’s talking and laughing and breathing really fast. We all looked at her and knew, You’re about to be intubated, ma’am. I said, Before I put you on life support, do you want to call your family? She FaceTimed her husband, her children, her grandbabies. She laughed and told them she loved them, not to worry, God has this. They prayed. She died within the hour. I had to call the family, and they just thanked me for letting them see her before we intubated her. I took her rings off and cleaned them, washed her purse, then put her things in a bag, and took it outside to her family at their car.

This has changed nursing. Some people I know already have walked away. We named ourselves the COVID Island. We have hung pictures of islands to keep our morale going.

This article appears in our July 2020 issue.

How Living Walls continues to inspire during the pandemic

Living Walls Signs of Solidarity
Patricia Hernandez

Photograph courtesy of the artist

Living Walls, a local nonprofit which uses art to inspire social change and create welcoming public spaces, was planning to celebrate its 10th anniversary at 8Arm on March 23. Chef Maricela Vega had planned a plant-based, Mexican-inspired menu, and Josephine Figueroa, aka La Superior, of La Choloteca was set to DJ. Living Walls cofounder and executive director Monica Campana had bought a fringed, cobalt blue top from Mexican sustainable clothing maker Recrear for the occasion. But, not surprisingly, she had to call off the event on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Campana is still saving the shirt.

This year, Living Walls had expected to spend about $250,000, both locally and abroad, but now, most everything is uncertain as much funding is on hold and artists shelter in place. However, Campana, who launched Living Walls in the wake of the Great Recession with only $4,000—kickstarting a mural movement in the city that eventually would attract international artists—has witnessed the power of public art in trying times.

Living Walls Signs of Solidarity
A sign by Rebecca Kidd

Courtesy of the artist

Living Walls Signs of Solidarity
Meredith Ann White

Photograph courtesy of the artist

Changing course, Campana organized a new iteration of a 2017 initiative called Signs of Solidarity ATL. The original project, created in collaboration with a group of Philadelphia artists, featured banners promoting love, hope, and positivity in response to the turbulent political environment. Radiating those sentiments again now seemed a no-brainer, she says. So Campana went to Home Depot, bought a bunch of drop cloths, and gathered some paint supplies; then, she and Kristen Consuegra, director of production, distributed them to 16 artists. Each artist received $100—which was, at least, a little grocery money, she notes. Participants have displayed their work on front porches, a yoga studio, and apartment buildings.

Living Walls Signs of Solidarity
A sign by the Color Cienna

Photograph courtesy of the artist

“It is important for us to bring together our creative community to show everyone out in the public space what Atlanta is about,” says Campana. Although she gave artists little direction, Campana says two central themes have emerged: “let love take over fear” and “we are in this together.”

Living Walls Signs of Solidarity
Bianca Acosta

Photograph by Sarah Stover

Bianca Acosta, who hung her banner on her East Lake cabin, notes, “I really like to offer information that people can connect to in an emotional way rather than just statistics or charts that can feel hard to grasp and upsetting. Something visual can go across age, cultural, and language barriers. It can be understood by children. Anyone can get it and take something positive from it.” In fact, her mother, who is an elementary school art teacher in Gwinnett, adapted the concept for her now-homebound students.

Five of the works will light up digital billboards on downtown buildings in a program curated by Orange Barrel Media. Contributions from the Edwards Deutsch Family Fund have expanded the program to 30 artists. Three large-scale murals are being planned, including a possible piece for Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center. The artists plan to sell prints of their banners and auction off the originals.

Barry Lee’s eight-story, purple heart illustration is displayed digitally on the side of the Reverb Hotel across from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “It’s easy to live in fear through scary times and get soaked up into the saturation of the things happening around us,” he says. “Fear will always seem louder than love, but we can allow love to be louder than fear if we consciously try our best.”

Living Walls Signs of Solidarity
An electronic mural by Barry Lee

Photograph courtesy of Orange Barrel Media

This article appears in our June 2020 issue.

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