60 Voices: 5 questions for the Atlanta’s new guard

We asked young leaders in fields from business to transportation about the future of Atlanta

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Nsé Ufot New Georgia Project
Nsé Ufot

Photograph by Audra Melton

Social advocacy

Nsé Ufot | CEO, New Georgia Project

What do you love about Atlanta?
I love that it’s not industry or artistry, it’s both. If you are a corporate CEO or a maker, an artisan, Atlanta is a place where you can come and thrive. I’ve been in this place where I’ve been constantly thinking about the Roaring ’20s, the Harlem Renaissance. I feel like Atlanta is going to be the new Harlem.

What is Atlanta’s most pressing challenge?
The extraordinary leap in the cost of living and rental rates. There are nearly a million Georgians across the metro region who are housing insecure or on the verge of homelessness, evictions, and foreclosures. The New Georgia Project has had millions of high-quality—face-to-face when possible—conversations with Georgians about the thing that they can’t stand to see continue, and it is most often related to healthcare or housing.

What is the city’s most overlooked need?
I think that people are not looking at the root cause of crime. The response is to take more of our tax dollars to hire more cops. But it goes back to my [previous] response, which is housing and extreme poverty.

What was one lesson of 2020?
Young people are much more sophisticated than we give them credit for. We should be having important conversations with them about things that matter and that impact their lives. A big lesson for me was: Yes, technically, you [seem like] a child, but you understand that if you want to make “defund the police” real, in addition to voting in the presidential race, you need to be looking at city council and the mayor.

How can people help?
What are the issues that you care about? I guarantee you that there are groups in Atlanta that are organizing around those issues right now, today. Contribute your time, your talent, or your treasure. Some of us are blessed to be able to have all three. There are definitely times when I have more treasure than I have time, and sometimes, that just means putting a little something in the offering plate. But I believe in organization and working on these issues year-round, beyond one election cycle.


Climate

Kim Cobb | director, Georgia Tech’s Global Change Program

What do you love about Atlanta?
One of the things I really love about Atlanta is its diversity and the idea that it’s such a mashup of folks from across the world who come here to live, work, and play, as well as folks who have been here for many, many, many generations. I love the fact that, in one block, you can go from amazing greenspaces to high-rises in a rich, urban setting.

What is Atlanta’s most pressing challenge?
Atlanta really has an opportunity to rise as a leader in climate justice. I think we have not just a moral obligation but a once-in-a-generation opportunity to showcase what lasting solutions look like for climate.

What is the city’s most overlooked need?
We often don’t stop to remember that, in many cases, air conditioning during the summer is actually a life-saving measure. We’ve seen in Texas that access to electricity is a life-saving measure for communities, especially the most vulnerable. We are running a very large-scale campaign this summer in Atlanta called Urban Heat ATL. It’s really around mapping the urban heat extremes. Too often, those extremes are going unmeasured. Where things go unmeasured, they often go unseen by policymakers. We’re happy to have the full support and engagement of the mayor’s Office of Resilience, Spelman College, Georgia Tech, and other collaborators such as UGA and Emory University. Folks are really coming together to try to understand the ties between urban heat extremes; historic, racial, and systemic injustice; and environmental justice.

What was one lesson of 2020?
We saw a deluge of headlines reminding us of the vulnerabilities of Black Americans and the movement for justice that is centuries overdue. We saw headlines raining down on us and reminding us that climate change is damaging lives, livelihoods, and our economy. We have an opportunity to put those two lessons together and think about how we want to design our future.

How can people help?
I’m really excited about a project called Drawdown Georgia, which is about crowdsourcing climate solutions. It’s a resource for folks who want to come together and really understand where they can put their efforts in terms of evidence-based solutions.


Government

Bee Nguyen | State Representative of Georgia’s 89th District

What do you love about Atlanta?
I love that it’s been the center of the civil rights movement. Being at the legislature, I get to witness a lot of activism around voting rights and around criminal justice reform. It’s being led by a generation of new organizers and leaders. They’re young, they’re people of color, they’re progressive, and they’re connected to the community. That’s really inspiring.

Our two senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, live in the city of Atlanta, both south of I-20, which I think speaks volumes about the way that representation is changing and the way we’ve been able to mobilize people to participate civically.

What is Atlanta’s most pressing challenge?
I would say economic inequality and the income gap between Atlantans. As we are seeing the city grow and different economic development projects happening around town, we see people being displaced from their neighborhoods and people unable to afford to live in the city of Atlanta. Driving around in my neighborhood—I live in Edgewood and moved there in 2007—there’s a lot of new development. If I moved out of my house, I wouldn’t be able to buy back into any of the surrounding neighborhoods or even my own.

Economic inequality really intersects with a lot of different things, including public education, access to healthcare, expanding transit, and access to affordable housing.

What is the city’s most overlooked need?
People talk about crime in Atlanta a lot, but we don’t really talk about the root causes of what’s happening in the city. I think this is something that’s talked about a lot but perhaps not talked about in depth or in any nuanced way. We’re a year into the pandemic, and we know that economic inequality intersects with rising levels of crime. When people are desperate, or they have nothing to lose, we’re going to see that increase in crime. I wish that we would have more conversations about how we can build stronger communities and how we make sure that everybody has the economic means to live in the ways in which some Atlantans do.

What was one lesson of 2020?
We saw that there were some people who just didn’t have a choice but to continue to go to work every single day, while others were able to work from home. It really highlights the differences in the way that we live in this city and the ways in which the pandemic affected us.

On one hand, we have this booming real-estate market where it’s hard to buy a house and it’s hard to find a contractor to renovate houses because people were working from home and working on their home projects. On the other hand, we have frontline and essential workers who still have to go and work at the grocery store, work in transit, or go back to restaurants. Those are also the same people who often live without healthcare and who lived in fear of contracting the virus and bringing it back home to their families. And, for the most part, they’re not seeing any kind of pay that would reflect the sacrifices that were being made. I know that some of it is out of control of the city, but it’s reflected in the way that state laws are written as well.

How can people help?
I think the general public knows about the voter-suppression efforts but aren’t as much aware of the other things going on at our state legislature. Some of those things are preemption for raising minimum wage, lack of investment in transit, diverting public school dollars to voucher programs, and the refusal to expand Medicaid. All of those things are really relevant state-level issues that I think that people probably don’t pay as much attention to because the narrative at the state legislature right now is surrounding voter suppression, which is extremely important, but what ends up happening is we can only digest bits of information at one time.


Business

Deisha Barnett | chief brand and communications officer, head of Diversity & Inclusion, Metro Atlanta Chamber

What do you love about Atlanta?
The secret sauce in Atlanta has always been collaboration. I get to look at a lot of data about Atlanta in my job, and one of the things that is always so inspiring to me when we run promoter research on Atlanta—the “why we recommend Atlanta” en masse—is “because it’s a place where I can make my mark.” From the very first moment, I’ve felt such a sense of belonging here. I think there is no better place in the United States of America to grow a Black family. I get paid to be the booster, but to me, it is all authentic. My mother, may she rest in peace, used to say, “Atlanta has been so good to you.”

What is Atlanta’s most pressing challenge?
There’s this amazing momentum that Atlanta is having right now [with] Airbnb, Microsoft, Apple doing what they’re doing on the AUC campuses, Calendly. The flipside of that is real inequality and immobility and the harsh reality that I think the business community must face as we try to continue to position Atlanta as a place that can have a thriving economy that benefits everyone. We have not cracked that nut, and that’s just the truth of the matter. It’s not simply a moral issue. It’s a challenge for businesses as we think about workforce development, talent pipeline, and all of those things that are core to long-term success. These issues are also important when it comes to being able to attract the talent of today, with Gen Z and millennials being the most diverse generations [and] having the highest expectations of businesses when it comes to social impact.

What is the city’s most overlooked need?
When I think about the long-term trajectory for Atlanta, we have to have a mindset that we’re global citizens; we have to think about representation. And, we have to be intentional about representation across the various dimensions of diversity as we’re convening thought leaders and trying to solve problems. Otherwise, I think we will be less competitive down the road.

What was one lesson of 2020?
As challenging as it was, 2020 really encouraged us to embrace technology as a means of solving problems. Part of the “Atlanta Way” and how we in Atlanta like to solve problems, some of that is just about face-to-face [interactions]. We get together. We break bread. That’s the Southern flavor about how we collaborate. 2020 forced us not to leave that behind but to think about new ways to do that and utilizing technology as a means of breaking bread with even more people and being able to scale that really important aspect of our culture.

How can people help?
People can help by following the TSA rules: See something, say something. One of the things that is so unique about this community is you have access. We are a phone call away from accessing virtually anyone. And people will respond to you. We are fortunate that we can access the thought leaders. But we fall short when we simply talk about the problems. We have to move from complaining to determining the solutions. And then, have the courage to pick up the phone, write the email, send the text, do the work, and not just leave it to those who are the visible leaders.


Ed Chang RedefinED Atlanta
Ed Chang

Photograph by Audra Melton

Education

Ed Chang | founding executive director, RedefinED Atlanta

What do you love about Atlanta?
Atlanta is culture. There are very few cities where you see diverse leadership, wealth bases, thoughts, and innovation. I think Atlanta means something to the South and to the country when people think about social change, civil rights, and inequities.

What is Atlanta’s most pressing challenge?
Structural racism. Historically, there were laws and systems, such as antiliteracy laws in the early 1800s, that were designed to prevent Black people from learning to read, build wealth, and purchase homes—all of which contribute to the many gaps and disparities we see today. There’s a reason why we are where we are in terms of education. The district was initially created to serve the city’s white population. We had white flight, Black flight, and the proliferation of private schools intersect with redlining. A whole sector of the population was unable to create generational wealth. All of these factors contributed to what we see today, which is one of the largest achievement gaps in the entire country.

What is the city’s most overlooked need?
Right now, we’re in an interesting place and time because of Covid. I’ve heard the words “equity” and “antiracism” thrown around more in this year than I have in my entire life. People are talking now about learning loss, the digital divide, and all of those things. But what I’m hearing less of right now, which I think is important, is that this is an opportunity to actually understand that all of these inequities existed well before Covid happened. Maybe this is a time and opportunity to reshape what the education-delivery system for Black and brown children could be.

What was one lesson of 2020?
There is a newfound appreciation for the roles of families and community in education because we experienced a world where [schools] and teachers, through no fault of their own, had to do herculean efforts to reimagine a digital way of delivering education. Parents and community members had to lean in, in ways that they hadn’t before. Also, quite often, those who have experienced the most inequity and pain have the best solutions because it is their lived experience.

How can people help?
You can think about that from two lenses: little ‘i’ innovation, or the things that we can do on the ground. How can we have more culturally relevant curriculums? How do we ensure that the digital divide is taken care of and everyone has devices? How can you also simultaneously look at big “I” innovation, which are those structural changes? How is this system either challenging or perpetuating the inequities that exist, and how do we reshape and challenge those structural systems?


LGBTQ+ Advocacy

Jennifer Barnes-Balenciaga | LGBTQ+ liaison for State Representative Park Cannon

What do you love about Atlanta?
I had never gone to a Pride [event celebrating LGBTQ+ identity] before moving to Atlanta. I found out a lot more about myself due to the seeming openness of the city. I found a lot of community and purpose.

What is Atlanta’s most pressing challenge?
I think the biggest crisis for Atlanta is homelessness and the fixtures of classism that play a role in people obtaining essential things like housing, gainful employment, and education. When you include being trans, that is for sure a way of being discriminated against. Pumping $15 million into programs for low-income people living with HIV is one thing. But there are other problems. Students living without parents in low-income housing often do not qualify to attend local schools. And underserved populations may not know how to access available resources. Obtaining help is almost a matter of luck. I was super on top of things, but our homeless, who are displaced and sometimes have mental-health issues, may be left by the wayside.

What is the city’s most overlooked need?
More readily accessible information on name and document changes. I was coached by a Black man of trans experience who literally printed out the paperwork and walked me through it. You can’t ask the clerks how you fill something out. The DMV [can] change gender markers to what they see fit. That’s a safety measure. My Georgia ID still says “M.” I couldn’t change that, and I have been a resident for almost 11 years. I’ve been through that ringer continuously, and it has never changed.

What was one lesson of 2020?
We need a lot more training on gun usage, self-defense, and trans persons being able to protect themselves. We need a lot more laws that are specifically for violence against trans people. Protections for trans persons in the workplace have been my biggest push.

How can people help?
By volunteering and showing up.


Food service

Jen Hidinger-Kendrick | cofounder and marketing and communications director, Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that provides emergency assistance to food service workers

What do you love about Atlanta?
My late husband Ryan (also cofounder of Giving Kitchen) and I moved to Atlanta in late 2004 and always anticipated that Atlanta would be a two- to three-year commitment, then we’d move to the Pacific Northwest or something. Fast forward to Ryan’s diagnosis and him passing away, this industry literally saved my life after he died. I love the food-service community and the embrace of this city. And I love how it’s become a food-and-beverage destination.

What is Atlanta’s most pressing challenge?
Food-service workers are frontline workers. They may not be administering health services like medical professionals, but these people are still called into work every day. Yet the government hasn’t mandated guidelines to keep them safe. Last July, 50 percent of our clients were Covid-related cases. This year, just in January and February, 65 percent. There is a massive need for recognition to push this along.

What is the city’s most overlooked need?
Atlanta’s greatest strength is its diversity, as it relates to food, culture, music, people, and progressive thought. But with all of that diverse culture and people, I’ve always wondered why there is not an abundance of live music venues—like what I would see in New York or San Francisco. I want to go into the city and, every four blocks or so, be able to say, Oh, there’s a jazz club, let’s go in—or a blues joint. That is one of the biggest missed opportunities in this city.

What was one lesson of 2020?
Crisis distills everything down to what’s needed and what truly matters. At Giving Kitchen, we figured out very quickly that we had to be very clear about our story and not muddy up our mission by trying to take care of every food-service worker who was unemployed or underemployed. We would’ve never survived. We created a Covid-19 resource page that led food service workers to reduced cost or free services around the community to help them in ways that related to employment, housing security, food stability, and mental health. To date that is the most viewed page on our website—nearly 85,000 page views connecting food-service workers to vital resources.

How can people help?
Help us make sure that food-service workers know we are here. All they have to do is ask for help. We will take care of the rest.


Public health

Jasmine Burton | founder, Wish for WASH and Hybrid Hype global consulting firm; cofounder of Period Futures; and a contractor with the CDC’s Division of Global Health Protection

What do you love about Atlanta?
We have so many thought leaders based in Atlanta, whether it’s on a local or global level. Over the past four years, Wish for WASH, which I founded when I was in college at Georgia Tech, has been running design-thinking workshops and courses with Atlanta-based partners such as OpenIDEO’s local chapter, the Design Bloc at Georgia Tech, the Paideia School, the Weber School, Girl Scouts of Atlanta, and the Museum of Design Atlanta. We are seeking to bring innovation and inclusion to the global water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) crisis. That’s what’s been a really cool part of founding a social enterprise here, this enabling environment that fosters trying things in the civic space. We have public-sector players like CDC, and we have private-sector entities that touch the global health sustainability movement.

What is Atlanta’s most pressing challenge?
When some public restrooms were closed during the pandemic, this really showcased the problem of accessible sanitation for folks who don’t have bathrooms. A lot of gas stations and malls that are options for people who don’t have homes were closed due to Covid concerns and cleaning protocols.

What is the city’s most overlooked need?
Covid-19 has further showcased how we still have failing sanitation and WASH infrastructure that leads to health outbreaks in the greater Atlanta area, including open defecation, the lack of handwashing facilities for communities experiencing homelessness (which the Atlanta-based Love Beyond Walls has done some great work to combat), period poverty (lack of access to menstrual products), and collapsing/failing septic tanks. There have been cases in Georgia, Alabama, and other states in this region where, when septics collapse, there are hookworm outbreaks.

What was one lesson of 2020?
Toilet paper was considered an essential good, but 50 percent of the population experiences periods, and period products weren’t. Menstrual products must be accessible for folks that are experiencing homelessness or maybe just aren’t able to afford them because they are so expensive.

How can people help?
There’s a big push around this idea of getting access to products. [One way] is having period parties, which are groups of people getting together, donating menstrual products, and collecting them in bags to take to shelters. That can be done anywhere. It doesn’t have to be through an organization. I actually did it for my birthday a couple of years ago.


Transportation

Josh Rowan | commissioner, Atlanta Department of Transportation

What do you love about Atlanta?
We’re in a really good position. I think Atlanta has a tendency to be a little too self-critical.

We have a lot of needs; there’s no doubt. We’re not as good as we’d like to be, but we’re certainly not as bad as some of the other major cities are with the challenges they have. We’ve got a lot of opportunity ahead of us, and I think we really need to focus on that.

What is Atlanta’s most pressing challenge?
We’re in a time where there’s a lot of deferred maintenance. The bill is coming due. We’ve estimated we have about $2.6 billion that’s needed for state of good repair, and that’s for our streets and sidewalks. We include new sidewalks in that number, as well as bridge replacement. The other part is how we use the streets. They were designed in a time when we were focused on moving cars through corridors as quickly as we can. As a result, we have very fast, dangerous streets. We can’t continue to grow and prosper as a city having such fast, dangerous streets.

What is the city’s most overlooked need?
As the region continues to grow, we’re also continuing to age. If you look at some of the statistics for Atlanta, we’re not only going to be 8 million people, but a quarter of those will be over the age of 60. I think more attention needs to be given to our aging population, as well as our disabled population. I have a professor friend at Georgia Tech who said that if you get it right for the eight-year-olds and the 80-year-olds, everyone in between is probably okay.

What was one lesson of 2020?
Probably 15 years ago, I got laughed out of a policy meeting when I made a comment that, as the internet becomes better, we need to let people work from home. I was calling a number of those people early in the pandemic and saying, Look at what working from home does for us. We don’t all have to be on the road at the same time. When the city shut down, we were all staying home, and then, suddenly, we didn’t have capacity issues. We showed that some personal changes can have big impacts to transportation.

How can people help?
Talking about transportation infrastructure is challenging because we’re talking fairly significant investments over a longer period of time. It’s easy to lose focus. Through all of this, we have to keep the main thing the main thing. It’s really easy to get focused on the piece of sidewalk in my neighborhood or the pothole that just popped my tire. Those are all certainly important, but we really are trying to drive these bigger issues. Can we actually get to a point as a city where we don’t have fatalities related to traffic crashes?

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

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