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How one Atlantan turned her homelessness into hope for others

Malika Whitley
Malika Whitley, founder of ChopArt, a nonprofit that connects homeless youth with the arts

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

On Wednesdays after classes at Booker T. Washington High School in 2004, Malika Whitley would jump on a MARTA train to a church in East Point. She’d slip in through the side door or go through the empty main chapel and wind her way downstairs, through a dark dining room and down a long hallway. Homeless and anxious, the then 15-year-old needed a place to herself. Alone in the church basement, she could sing in an empty space as loudly as she wanted.

Earlier that year, Whitley had left home when her mother’s battle with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder started to make her feel unsafe. Like other Washington students and hundreds (or even thousands) of young people on any given night across metro Atlanta, Whitley started living on the street, at friends’ houses, or in conference rooms and offices in Georgia State University buildings. When Oglethorpe University offered weekend visits to prospective students, Whitley attended just to have a place to stay.

Unoccupied time was “torture,” she says. “If you don’t have enough money to eat, then you’re sitting there thinking about food, or a shower, or home,” she says. “And if you don’t have a way to occupy your mind, then you can really lose yourself.” When not working part-time at Pizza Hut, she would while away hours downtown at the library, the Five Points MARTA station, or in front of a fountain, writing poetry or listening to a CD if she had batteries. Singing in the church—sometimes the same song for four hours—allowed Whitley to cope and build confidence. It also planted the seed for ChopArt, a nonprofit that Whitley, now 28, founded to help homeless children and teens find dignity, community, and opportunity through art.

Malika Whitley
Campers in ChopArt’s painting program can sell their work and keep the proceeds.

Photograph by Adedoyin Oso

Whitley graduated from high school in 2007 and found herself back at Oglethorpe University, this time with scholarships, which paid her way to a degree in international communications, cultural relations, and social economics. While interning for a music studio in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010, she started a program connecting young street musicians to industry professionals. During a post-graduate fellowship in India, she expanded the project.

When she returned to the United States in 2012, Whitley designed a curriculum to give kids experiencing homelessness an outlet for artistic expression similar to how singing in the church basement had helped her. With in-kind donations of art supplies and a year-plus partnership with City of Refuge, a women and children’s shelter on the Westside, she officially launched ChopArt. Pronounced “shahp art,” the name dates back to the program’s beginnings in Cape Town, where “shahp” is multipurpose slang for “hello,” “goodbye,” and even “cool” or “congratulations.”

Just five years later, the organization now has a budget of $114,000, thanks to funding from MailChimp and Equifax and donations from Binders and Blick art supply stores. The nonprofit takes art activities—including painting, theater, music, and dance—to teens in shelters year-round in Atlanta and during the summer in Accra, Ghana, and Hyderabad, India. This year, kids will paint bikes that they can keep or sell. Last summer, Whitley says, ChopArt served more than 6,000 kids through age 18 in Atlanta and with partner organizations in Accra and Hyderabad.

Tenth-grader Elijah Evans, who once slept on the streets with his mother and brother, has attended ChopArt camps for two summers. Now, he plans to pursue opportunities in music and dance. “The program taught me that life is more what you make of it,” he says.

Malika Whitley
ChopArt campers (left to right) Kevon Smith, Richard Menefee, and Elijah Evans say the program gave them confidence.

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

In Atlanta, Whitley and her staff of five work with four shelters to serve roughly 70-80 teens per week, a fraction of a population that is difficult to track—much less serve—because of its mobility and the privacy restrictions surrounding minors. A 2015 Georgia State University study counted nearly 3,370 kids and young adults ages 14 to 25 in metro Atlanta who were homeless: living in shelters, sleeping in the streets, or staying with friends for extended periods. Among that group are children battling mental illness or addiction issues. Nationwide, an estimated 40 percent of homeless teens identify as LGBTQ, some of whom have been shunned by their families because of their sexual orientation.

By the numbers

3.7K
Approximate number of homeless people in metro Atlanta between the ages of 14 and 25

40
Percentage of homeless teens who identify as LGBTQ

6K
Number of kids ChopArt served last summer

The City of Atlanta’s Partners for Home and DeKalb County have recognized this crisis and are expanding services for young people struggling with homelessness. However, public agencies focus first on basic challenges like food and shelter. Programs like ChopArt can help homeless youth look forward—tapping into their ambition and creativity, says Eric Wright, the professor who led the GSU study. “As Whitley probably experienced, finding and nurturing their talents can help them not only find a way out of homelessness but also create a life as an adult that’s prosperous and meaningful and fulfilling,” he says.

In December, Whitley wrapped up a four-month residency in New York as a TED Fellow, where she learned how to better tell ChopArt’s story. The nonprofit plans to expand to New Orleans, Miami, Memphis, Jackson, Birmingham, and Charlotte.

More than 10 years ago in the basement of the church in East Point, such plans would’ve seemed impossible. “Right now, life is kind of a miracle,” Whitley says.

This article originally appeared in our January 2018 issue.

The Chief: Erika Shields wants to change the way Atlanta police tackle crime

Erika Shields
Erika Shields

Photograph by John Fulton

You could argue that there’s no better or no worse time to be a police chief in Atlanta than right now. Although 2016 was Atlanta’s deadliest year in nearly a decade, the numbers of robberies, burglaries, and aggravated assaults in the city were down 27 percent going into this year. At the same time, heightened awareness of officer-involved shootings across the country has amplified calls to make the APD more transparent, accountable, and connected to the communities it serves. Cops are under intense scrutiny, making it hard to recruit and retain quality officers—especially when APD recruits earn a salary of just $35,000.

Such is the situation in which Erika Shields, appointed to the top cop job in December by Mayor Kasim Reed, finds herself. In the waning months of a lame duck mayor’s term, a time when other city officials are packing their boxes or polishing their resumes, Shields, the APD’s first openly gay chief and the second woman to lead the force, is chipping away at an ambitious agenda for the 1,850-officer department—one that could please both policing reform advocates and cops. If her plans work, the city could see a downturn in gun violence, spend less money fighting low-level crimes, and deter juvenile offenders. But that long to-do list could take years to accomplish. And Shields’s job security expires in January, when Atlanta’s new mayor takes office. It’s anyone’s guess who will win the job—and whether they will follow a 40-year tradition and appoint a new chief. Shields says she is focused on her agenda.

“It just felt like the last couple years, we’ve been chasing things,” Shields says about cracking down on repeat offenders. “It’s nobody’s fault; it’s hard to make change in any environment. But if we’re not getting the results that we need, then we have to do something differently.”

Although Shields’s professional life began as a stockbroker in Boston, there were early hints that she had a future in law enforcement. Shields used to fingerprint siblings she caught sneaking in her room, her mother, Audrey, says. While visiting friends in Atlanta in 1994, she fell in love with the city’s weather, hospitality, and diversity. She moved here the same year, quit finance, and enrolled in the APD’s police academy. Her first assignment was as a beat and plainclothes officer on the southside of Atlanta during the tail end of the crack epidemic—a “Wild West” experience, Shields says—where she learned something new every day. The five-foot-four-inch Shields, still in her 20s, was able to avoid physical confrontation by talking suspects into the back of her squad car.

Erika Shields
Before her career in law enforcement, Shields worked as a stockbroker in Boston.

Photograph by John Fulton

Over the next 20 years, Shields climbed the ranks, working with or leading APD divisions including internal affairs, narcotics, and the Video Integration Center, the department’s downtown panopticon where cops monitor nearly 8,000 public and private surveillance cameras. In those jobs, according to fellow cops and even watchdogs, she proved herself to be a details-oriented policy wonk who could also think big, someone who believed in the rules of policing but also knew when to revise them. After a controversial paramilitary unit was hit with lawsuits alleging stop-and-frisk violations, says former Police Chief George Turner, Shields was the first member of his top brass to step up and suggest he dismantle the force. Shields was overseeing 911 officers and zone precincts when the mayor picked her to succeed Turner, saying she “has the foundation to be one of the best and most qualified leaders in the country.” She joined an exclusive club: Of the country’s 50 largest police departments, only five are led by women.

Turner drove down crime partly by leaning on broken-windows and data-driven policing as he led the APD during the start of the intown boom. But critics say his—and Reed’s—focus on statistics and metrics could distract attention from making safer streets. “The job description is not to make as many arrests as possible,” says Xochitl Bervera of the Racial Justice Action Center, a social justice advocacy group. “It’s to protect the community.” Now that crime has declined, Shields, who once served as Turner’s chief of staff and calls him a friend, has some room to experiment with his playbook.

In July the APD, in cooperation with prosecutors, judges, public defenders, and more than 20 local social service providers, will move forward with a program in key areas of downtown, Old Fourth Ward, and Midtown that allows officers to direct suspects living in extreme poverty or with mental health issues into social services before sending them to jail. Called prearrest diversion, the model has helped sharply reduce recidivism in places like Seattle. Advocates hope the Atlanta program, which Shields helped design last year, could do the same here—saving the city millions in the long term. Though some officers have expressed concern about the approach, Shields says, in the end the APD wants to be part of something that works. “If you break it down and you say to the beat cop, ‘Okay, you’ve arrested this guy how many times? Are you tired of arresting him? Would you be willing to try something else?’ ‘Sure.’”

Also, the chief wants the APD to build relationships with the city’s top 100 young offenders, a small segment of the population that police say commit a disproportionate number of crimes, to help break the vicious cycle of arrests and jail. She’s tasked officers to build a rapport with repeat offenders between the ages of 12 and 14—and their younger siblings—to assess the root causes of their behavior. “We know the problem is needs at home,” says Shields, who is working with the mayor, the Atlanta Police Foundation, and nonprofits such as the Boys & Girls Club to help offenders’ families. “When you have nothing, then why would you not turn to crime?”

Those progressive ideas deserve a shot, says Vince Champion of the police union, but “none of that matters if you don’t have the manpower to work the streets.” Despite a small pay bump last year for midcareer officers, a long-running effort to meet and maintain Reed’s goal of increasing the number of officers to 2,000 has fallen short. Two years ago the police union estimated that 45 percent of cops hired between 2005 and 2013 had left the department—some for suburban forces with better salaries, newer equipment, and less stress. Shields wants to fill those vacancies, increase salaries, and improve benefits—and has been presenting the mayoral candidates with a detailed plan to accomplish just that.

It takes longer than six months to make a sizable dent in issues that have roots in addiction, poverty, and the judicial system. But Shields says she’s not watching the clock. “While I’m there, I’m going in for the win.”

This article originally appeared in our June 2017 issue.

Soccer in the Streets brings the game to MARTA’s Five Points station

Station Soccer at Five Points MARTA station
Station Soccer at Five Points MARTA station

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Late one night a little girl and her mother stood outside the Five Points MARTA station in downtown, staring at what was once just concrete. “This is where it happened,” the little girl from Mechanicsville said. She was talking about soccer, and how earlier that evening she’d had the chance to play it right there—on a soccer field built inside the transit station as part of a program designed to bring the sport to underserved neighborhoods.

Station Soccer is the creation of Sanjay Patel who, while visiting London, would watch kids run off the train to play at nearby fields. It was a working-class sport, accessible to almost anyone. But living in Atlanta, Patel, a commercial development consultant, saw that soccer was primarily a pay-to-play activity for people of greater means. He joined the board of Soccer in the Streets, a nonprofit that runs soccer programs for kids in less privileged communities, and in 2014 he proposed a network of fields connected by public transportation.

Station Soccer

With funding from Atlanta United FC (by way of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation), in 2016 Soccer in the Streets unveiled the first pitch built at an urban transit station. Patel hopes to build nine more and create a league.

“The best players have always come from the streets or working-class roots,” Patel says. “They have the passion.”

Kwaku Ntru, an 11-year-old from southwest Atlanta, plays several times a week on the station field. “It helps me in school because you just don’t go home and sit around,” he says. “You know that you can come out here and play.”

Vital stats
Cost of the facility at Five Points MARTA station: about $150,000
Opened: October 13, 2016
Size: 99’ x 66’ (adult leagues play five vs. five)
Materials: Turf on concrete with sand infill
Youth hours: Tuesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (during the day on weekdays, the coaches work with homeless teens); Wednesday, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Adult hours: Lunchtime weekday league, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; every night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Want to play? Sign up at station­soccer.com.

GPB host Celeste Headlee is here to listen. No, really, she is.

Celeste Headlee
Celeste Headlee

Photograph by Artem Nazarov

“There are Thin Mint cupcakes for anyone who wants one,” Celeste Headlee tells her team of three producers and one intern. It’s 7:30 a.m., time for the daily meeting in advance of On Second Thought, her weekday Georgia Public Broadcasting talk show. Headlee, who is 47, leads the meeting the way she does her show—with polite but brisk efficiency. The team speaks in a kind of shorthand that gives the appearance of a well-oiled machine. A Dad’s Garage sticker and a photo booth strip showing Headlee and her 18-year-old son are pinned to the wall by her computer.

Headlee came to Atlanta in 2014 to join the small ranks of solo female public radio hosts. (It was not until 2012 that Headlee says she began earning the equivalent salary of a man in the same role.) Tanya Ott, GPB’s vice president of radio and news content, says Headlee’s vision for the one-hour weekday morning show aligned with what station execs were looking for: “a no-pundit zone where listeners get thoughtful, probing, civil conversation between smart people who work in business, science, politics, arts and culture, and other sectors.” The show’s guests have included Issa Rae, creator and star of the HBO show Insecure; Patterson Hood of the Southern rock band the Drive-by Truckers; and congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

A practicing Buddhist born and raised in California, Headlee is part black, part white, part Jewish, and part Native American. Her grandfather, the composer William Grant Still, was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra. Still’s accomplishments influenced his granddaughter, a classically trained soprano who’s worked as a professional opera singer and performed across the country.

Still, Headlee always knew she’d need a day job to support herself even as a professional singer. After graduating with her master’s of music in vocal performance from the University of Michigan in 1998, Headlee landed a position as an arts reporter for public radio in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her musical education served her well. “You have to find someone whose voice sounds good on the air, but they also have to be someone who can pronounce Shostakovich,” she says. The job gave her an entree to VIPs who would have been far outside her world as a singer. “I would never have been able to interview Marilyn Horne or Yo-Yo Ma or Jubilant Sykes,” she says. “I once spent almost an hour talking with Toni Morrison. There’s no other job that gives me that kind of opportunity.”

In 2007 Headlee worked for National Public Radio in Detroit and went on to serve as a host on such shows as The Takeaway in New York City and Tell Me More and Talk of the Nation, both out of Washington, D.C. But after a decade, Headlee wanted greater creative freedom at a smaller network. “I had a lot of opinions about how to diversify public radio, and I wanted to put my money where my mouth was,” she says. Too often public radio focuses on telling enough stories that pertain to black, Hispanic, and Asian audiences rather than just trying to report news—all news—through a more collective lens, Headlee says. “I don’t try to see a difference between ‘black news’ and ‘news,’” she says. “The fact is that all news is just news that affects people.”

Coming to Georgia, Headlee had many questions, perhaps the most poignant: “How do you live in what’s basically the black capital of America—the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was born and helped to lead the civil rights movement—and yet just a few miles outside of town you see Confederate flags flying everywhere?”

After two and a half years in Atlanta, she’s still trying to reconcile those competing notions. “But I’ve tried to talk to all kinds of people and really hear their stories, try to see life through their eyes and understand why they’ve made the decisions they have. I think it’s helped me better understand some of the deep issues that plague our nation. But we have a long way to go before we really understand and can put it all behind us.”

Headlee’s message—to listen, really listen—is central to the two TED talks she’s delivered on how to have better conversations, also the subject of her new book, which is expected to come out this fall. In a time when there seems to be an abundance of talking at rather than talking with, Headlee emphasizes the importance of having real conversations with people on all sides of every equation. “I always—well, as often as possible—try to maintain a sense of curiosity rather than judgment,” she says. “It really serves me well because then I can actually learn. A person is never our prejudgments. They will always surprise you.”

Georgia author Robert Coram was a guest on Headlee’s show last year after the publication of his 14th book, Double Ace: The Life of Robert Lee Scott Jr., Pilot, Hero, and Teller of Tall Tales. “She read the book,” he says. “I can’t tell you how rare it is to be interviewed by somebody—radio, TV, or newspaper—who’s actually read the goddamn book.” She got the subtleties, Coram says, and as a result the interview went much deeper than the banal questions he’s used to from interviewers who have only glanced at the book’s dust jacket.

“She has high standards for herself and for the caliber of reporting,” says Don Smith, the acting senior producer for On Second Thought and editor of Headlee’s first book, Heard Mentality: An A-Z Guide to Taking Your Podcast or Radio Show from Idea to Hit. “High standards but few prejudices.”

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.

Meet Atlanta’s other football fans

Soccer Manchester United football AtlantaNeither Rain, nor sleet, nor early morning kickoff can keep Atlanta’s rabid soccer fans from cheering on their favorite teams. Here, fans of Manchester United—at Fadó Irish Pub in Midtown—talk about why they show up.

“I’m here every week, every game. I’ve come here at 6:45 a.m., and sometimes there are already people here waiting for the game to start.”  —Varun Ranipeta, 26, IT professional

“The great thing about football is that we have our rivalries, but the banter and the fun that goes on between us is incredible.” —Steve Baxter, 51, software managing director

“In Europe everybody sings. It’s part of the culture. I don’t think you see it here with American sports. But it’s a lot of fun to sing and get the people going.”  —Jan Cernin, 28, medical assistant

“There’ve always been United supporters in Atlanta but they never had a home. All we did was basically create a home for them.” —Barry Scanlon, 33, former bar manager

“Growing up in the 1990s, you only heard about one team: Man United. And it was basically because of David Beckham. He’s a worldwide icon.” —Victor Gill, 29, structural engineer

“I happened to be in a pub in Manchester and got to see them win one of the biggest matches of their life in 1999, so I got hooked.”  —Jeffrey Sauls, 43, green-building consultant

“I have been a United fan for more than eight years now. When I was 14, my uncle used to be a big fan of the Premier league. When I saw United playing I had the feeling that this was going to be my club.” —Brijesh Jaishankar, 23, software engineer

“I’m here to support the best club in the world. To watch my boys. There’s something about watching it [here]—the atmosphere, the environment. It’s the closest thing to going to a match.” —Andre Murray, 26, consultant

“I’m originally from Scotland, so I love British soccer. Soccer is the main sport in the U.K.” —David Hutton, 64, retired oil safety officer

“It’s fun to be around fellow fans and enjoy the game.” —Hunter Rackley, 35, engineer

“Manchester United were always the underdogs in 1986, when I started watching. And I’m always for the underdogs.” —Grady Wring, 37, web developer

“I came out this morning because this is my soccer family.” —Kelly Carter, 25, nonprofit project manager 

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.

Love at the DeKalb County Courthouse

Max Poznyak & Dominique Dixon
Max: We’ve been together for two years, so it kind of felt like time.
Dominique: We were basically a married couple. We live together, bought a car together, had a joint bank account. So we’re like, “Why not?”
Max: We’ll be together forever.

Joseph Sanni & Queené Bryant
Joseph: From the first week we were dating, we knew.
Queené: We’re very down-to-earth and very spiritual, so we wanted it to mean something more to us first, and then to celebrate with everyone else in a more elaborate way.
Joseph: I don’t see any time for really waiting, especially if you know you’re going to be together.
Queené: It was a proud moment. I’m very happy and fulfilled.
Joseph: I’ll remember her tears when I put the ring on her finger.

Cely Almendares & Dina Molina
Cely: We met at Cross Keys High School. We were going to get married last week, but we couldn’t, so we decided to today. We still want to get married in a church, the traditional way. [Saying “I do”] means a lot. It’s going to change our future.

Felipe Arevalo & Stella Martinez
Stella: Our families are not in this country, so we decided to get married here and then we will get married at church when we go to Colombia.
Felipe: We’ve been living together, and we have a kid. So it’s time to settle down and start thinking about our future.

Dawit McDonald & Bonnie Johnson
Dawit: Why today? The time and the chemistry lined up perfectly. We kind of had one of those moments—that this was our next destination.
Bonnie: I started crying.
Dawit: I thought, “Wow, it’s real. It’s real!” I feel breathless. Quote me!

Teniqua Clark & OlaJide Ajani
Teniqua: We met at Pappadeaux’s. He commented on my gown, so it just went from there.
Olajide: Saying “I do” is a big responsibility. As a man, you have to take care of the family.
Teniqua: What will I remember about this day? The time I waited!

Nick Groebner & Abbey Smith
Abbey: He’s the one I want to spend my life with.
Nick: It feels good [to be married]! Kind of like a monkey off the shoulder, so to speak.
Abbey: I will remember that he was looking at me very intently. He was very much in the moment, and I appreciated that.

This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue.

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