Home Authors Posts by Thonnia Lee

Thonnia Lee


Midtown Buzz

Illustration by Studio Muti
Illustration by Studio Muti

As riders roll into the Midtown MARTA station, they can check an app for real-time updates on connections. OneBusAway—which tracks trains, buses, and Tech shuttles—is one of several apps developed through Midtown Buzz, a partnership between the university and the Midtown Alliance business association. The goal of Buzz is to engage residents, businesses, and students in developing community-focused smartphone apps. CycleAtlanta, another Buzz app, records bicycle trips and enables cyclists to share street conditions with city planners.

“We want people who are in Midtown to talk about the things they need,” says Shannon Powell, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Midtown Alliance. “All of this is centered around how do we leverage Georgia Tech as a world-class university and connect the community back to them?”

Laurie Dean Baird, managing director of Midtown Buzz and executive in residence for media and entertainment for Tech’s Institute for People and Technology, says teams host workshops to showcase tools and help participants develop and find resources for grants. One idea being discussed is a “mobile beacon” that provides information on landmarks. You might, for instance, get an alert with an interesting fact about the Margaret Mitchell House as you walk past the structure at the corner of Tenth and Peachtree.

“This is an evolution,” says Baird. “It can be a bigger story than Midtown. But Midtown is our home, and we really wanted to experiment with what it means to be in a city that’s connected.”


The ArtsBridge-funded Hensley Awards recognize high school theater.
The ArtsBridge-funded Hensley Awards recognize high school theater.

Photograph courtesy of ArtsBridge

“Conjunction Junction,” “Just a Bill,” and “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly,” may not qualify as high art, but when Schoolhouse Rock Live! tours next year, students from around metro Atlanta and the Southeast will be treated to the musical based on the iconic educational cartoons—as well as to the opera and ballet—through the ArtsBridge Foundation.

Since 2007, more than 240,000 students and teachers from across thirty counties in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina have been exposed to the arts thanks to ArtsBridge (formerly the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre Foundation). ArtsBridge arranges for free or low-cost performances at the arts center in Cobb; underwrites transportation and tuition assistance for field trips; and organizes internships, tours, and Broadway master classes.

“We know early exposure to the arts can improve academic achievement, critical thinking, and problem solving—as well as enhance social skills,” says Natalie Barrow, director of arts education and community outreach. ArtsBridge lets students “experience educational arts programs tied to the school curriculum.”

One of the most successful undertakings is the Georgia High School Musical Theatre Academy. Well before Glee became a phenomenon, the program’s Shuler Hensley Awards began encouraging teen performers.

Vox Teen Communications

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore
Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

In a sunlit corner office in Peachtree Center, fifteen teens sit in a circle, brainstorming ideas for a two-day video project. “Homelessness in Downtown,” says one, who then stands to write the idea on a massive whiteboard as the rest of the group talks about how to approach the story, what they need to report on, and logistics—they have to pick locations accessible by MARTA rail. The volume builds as voices chime in. Soon, more and more hands are going up unprompted as quieter students start to feel more comfortable.

Speaking up is the point at VOX. When Rachel Alterman Wallack gathered thirteen teens and ten adult volunteers in 1993, she wanted to create a place where teen voices could be heard. Starting as a monthly newspaper, VOX Teen Communications has evolved into a multiplatform media enterprise, just like its adult counterparts. VOX is an after-school program that runs year-round, an intensive summer journalism boot camp, a website, a social media omni­presence, and yes, still the publisher of a print newspaper. VOX also developed into a youth-serving nonprofit with an extensive reach; in addition to the 100 high schoolers in the after-school program, it reaches 35,000 teens metro-wide through five issues of the paper, serves 1,000 teens through community writing and journalism workshops, and sponsors a college readiness program called Graduation Countdown.

“VOX has been one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had in my life,” says Stanley Stewart, a Ronald E. McNair High School graduate who finished the program in 2012 and is now a junior at Brown University. “It was not only a place where I developed as a writer and artist, but I developed as a leader.” While in high school, Stewart served on the VOX board; the nonprofit’s bylaws uniquely mandate that teens participate in running and planning the organization. “Allowing teens to lead the way really helped boost my confidence and helped me believe in myself,” says Stewart.

“When I first started, I was really shy,” says Manuel Portillo, seventeen, a senior at North Atlanta High School who found his way to VOX last summer and has already coordinated a special issue of the newspaper focused on bullying. “I’ve been way more focused on what I want to do.”

For Kaleb Anderson, who is learning how to be a leader at B.E.S.T. Academy, VOX meant making an adjustment. “I had to open up to other opinions,” the sixteen-year-old says. “It was really hard at first. It’s not really just my opinion that matters. I’ve learned to be more of a team player.”

VOX draws public and private school students from across the metro area and from a wide range of backgrounds; some live in Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhoods, while others have been in the foster system or were homeless. At VOX their voices are heard equally. “It’s the only place where you get a set of diverse teens from around the city,” says Stewart.

Because its participants come from such varied backgrounds, the adult staff “try to meet each teen where they are,” says Jeff Romig, VOX’s executive director. All of the teens who take part in the year-round program graduate from high school and do so with a plan for after graduation, whether college, internships, or the military. “We’re trying to provide the resources that put teens on the path to success, whatever success may be for them.”

A jazzy celebration of Ray Charles

When the houselights dim and stage lights go up at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on the evening of February 26, artists will stand in the wings ready to sing Ray Charles classics. Joining the jazz fans in the audience will be hundreds of high school musicians who spent the day talking with performers and watching rehearsals and sound checks, anxious to see how it all comes together.

Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating Ray Charles is a tribute to the Albany, Georgia–born legend. Clint Holmes, Nnenna Freelon, Take 6, Kirk Whalum, Shelly Berg, and students from Clark Atlanta University will capture Charles’s career, performing “I Got a Woman,” “What’d I Say,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and other hits, including, of course, the title song. The performance also closes out the second season of Jazz Roots: A Larry Rosen Jazz Series.

The Rosen series is a community partnership to educate young people. Artists visit high schools to talk about music, the industry, and their careers. “We would not be doing this program if it weren’t for this educational component,” said Tom Rowland, director of marketing and sponsorship development for the Cobb Energy Centre’s foundation. “This is about trying to show [teens] the connections between today’s music and the heritage of jazz music, the connections between jazz and rap, or jazz and other things they may currently be interested in.”

The Charles tribute is particularly appropriate for the program, explains Rosen. “Every singer you hear today has to pay tribute to Ray Charles for their style,” he says. “When you talk about Ray Charles, he did country music, he did gospel, jazz, and R&B.”

Through the series, Al Jarreau dropped by Benjamin E. Mays High School, guitarist Jonathan Butler visited Tri-Cities High, and pianist David Benoit visited Lakeside High. “He was the salt of the earth,” Rowland said of Jarreau. “He was like, ‘I’m just like you. I’m just a humble kid from Milwaukee, and I made it big, but you can too.’”

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue under the headline “Jazz Class.”

Why does everyone care what Goldie Taylor has to say?


After Goldie Taylor finished taping an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher last fall, she posted on social media that she left the studio with “bloodied knuckles” after going a few rounds with Fox News’s John Fund and Daily Caller contributor Boris Epshteyn.

“I had to take a walk around L.A. after that show, because it was tough,” says Taylor, a onetime Emory University political science student, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, and ex–U.S. Marine. “I guess I was not prepared for the level of vitriol that ensued from the other panelists.” Real Time executive producer Scott Carter considers Taylor “unflappable” and “able to hold her own,” no matter the temperature of a debate.

Before becoming an MSNBC contributor in fall 2012, Taylor was a regular on CNN, HLN, and MSNBC while also helping NBC develop a new editorial and marketing strategy for thegrio.com. She has 5,000 Facebook friends and more than 38,000 Twitter followers, and she’s not reticent about weighing in on politics, social and cultural issues, gun violence, domestic violence, and gay rights. She got her training as a Marine Corps public affairs broadcaster and, after leaving the AJC, worked on a number of campaigns, including that of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Those experiences provide Taylor bona fides as a commentator, but what makes the Atlantic Station resident such a sought-after TV talking head is the conviction with which she shares her opinions and her candor about how her views are shaped by her own experiences. Her father was shot and killed in the seventies. Her brother was killed by a 9 mm handgun subsequently used to commit other crimes. She was raped as a teen and later, as a mother of four, was a victim of domestic abuse until the night she ran naked from her home after being stabbed. The petite forty-five-year-old used to be open about owning a gun and knowing how to use it, but then blogged about turning in her firearm after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Because social media allows all to opine, Taylor often goes tweet-to-tweet with critics. “I don’t have patience for disrespect,” she says. “There are certain lines for me—once you get up and over, don’t expect me not to get up and over.”

This article originally appeared in our September 2013 issue.

Follow Us