EDITORIAL: Race, Poverty, and Nonprofits in Atlanta, a Devastating Critique
(APN) ATLANTA — How is it that in Atlanta, Georgia, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, the powers of corporate wealth and the bourgeoisie have managed to destroy public housing, decimate low-income communities, privatize public schools, privatize Grady Hospital, enact draconian anti-panhandling legislation, and carry out a war upon low-income people, despite the presence of so many non-profit organizations and other advocacy organizations that purport to speak on behalf of low-income people?
Eight years ago I came to Atlanta following Hurricane Katrina, as many of our readers know. In the weeks before Hurricane Katrina, I was living in New Orleans, Louisiana, and I read in the USA Today newspaper about how the City of Atlanta was enacting anti-panhandling legislation. I read a quote from Ms. Anita Beaty of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, speaking out against it. I wondered how on Earth this could happen in Atlanta, with legislation targeted in part to prevent panhandling around the King Center. How could it be that the King Center raised no objection or concern?
Coming from New Orleans one of the first observations I made was to compare the level of class consciousness in New Orleans versus in Atlanta. It seemed to me that in New Orleans it was easier to organize poor people because they understood they were being oppressed and disenfranchised as part of a war on the poor. When I came to Atlanta, I found so many people, Black and White alike, trying to climb up the ladder, believing in a meritocracy.
Over the last eight years I have learned more about the role of corporate money; the influence of Black, middle class political and nonprofit leaders who, to be frank, have sold out the working class based on their illusions about aligning with corporate interests; and a political machine that makes examples out of nonprofit organizations who dare to empower and advocate for their clients’ interests.
One of my dear activist colleagues down at City Council, Brother Anthony Muhammad, likes to make public comment to the Council, asking why a majority-Black City Council, with so many members who have benefitted from the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, have forsaken the unmet goals of that Movement?
Sometimes when I close my eyes and I listen to some of Dr. King’s speeches, and I listen to not only his words, but the tenor of his voice, how it rises and falls, I am reminded of Brother Muhammad’s speeches before the Atlanta City Council. And yet, so many of these Councilmembers mistreat him and despise him, not only because of his message but because they fear the strength and tenor of his voice.
Sometimes I wonder if Dr. King had been alive and begun his advocacy today, instead of in the 1960s, if he would have been shunned, instead of celebrated, by the powers that be in Atlanta today, because of his working class agenda, if not for his tactics of civil disobedience, which would be seen as just so unprofessional.
In 2009, Atlanta elected what may be its last Black mayor, Kasim Reed, ironically due to housing policies, largely supported by the Black political and nonprofit establishment, that have pushed so many working class Black people out of Atlanta!
Mr. Reed–like each of the Black mayors before him–has been elected through the marriage of the Black political machine and the business community. So far, with the help of a majority Black council, Mr. Reed has pushed through new anti-panhandling legislation, supported devastating cuts to workers’ pensions, led the campaign to decimate historic Black churches to make way to a new stadium down the street from the old stadium, brought a massive police force down on Occupy Atlanta, and so much more that has advanced a regressive, corporate agenda.
Ironically, former Councilwoman Mary Norwood, the other leading candidate in that race, who was demonized for being White, was the least favored candidate of the business community, according to campaign contributions records. This is possibly because of her interest in neighborhood preservation, sometimes against the interest of real estate developers.
People were shocked when in 2009, Atlanta Progressive News endorsed Norwood. I believe we have been strongly vindicated by Mr. Reed’s record.
One of the most important premises at the heart of the founding of Atlanta Progressive News is this: The most important social change that could possibly bring about progressive public policy on the local, state, and national levels, would be a concerted focus on capacity building and empowerment of low-income people to articulate their interests in the democratic process, including through voting and other important means.
There is one organization that I know of, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, for whom this premise also underlies their mission. They understand the importance of helping their clients, who are homeless people, in engaging in public policy advocacy, as the only real way to drastically reduce homelessness.
They recognize that the number one cause of homelessness is public policy that fails to protect affordable housing; not individuals’ personal failures. And look at what has happened to them, because they dared to oppose the demolition of public housing and the panhandling legislation?
Organizations like United Way and Central Atlanta Progress, as well as the City of Atlanta and Emory University, openly conspired to deprive the Task Force of all its funding! Currently in litigation, is a lawsuit that could result in a multi-million dollar victory for the Task Force because of this well-documented conspiracy that, under the law, appears to be tortious interference with private business relationships.
And so, the message is: do not oppose the power structure on issues of affordable housing and real estate development, or you too will be targeted, just like the Task Force.
There’s that saying: don’t give a man a fish; teach him to fish. Well, I say, don’t teach a man to fish when you can empower him to help enact public policy to give everyone a free fishing pole.
All the social services in the world will never help low-income people in a way that truly reduces poverty in the long-term, until nonprofit and advocacy organizations also focus on helping them to organize themselves to engage in the democratic process to articulate whatever concerns they decide are important to them.
It was so sad to me that, when the City Council in 2012 debated a new panhandling ordinance that would require minimum jail time for second and third offenses, and that allows significant jail time even on a first offense, there were very few advocates there to speak against it, despite the fact that we have homeless and destitute people all throughout our City who would be negatively impacted by this ordinance.
When in 2008, the Atlanta Housing Authority set out to tear down two senior highrises and twelve public housing communities, representing a loss of thousands more affordable housing units in our City, very few organizations spoke out. The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless spoke out. Elizabeth Omilami of Hosea Feed the Hungry wrote at least one letter. Joe Beasley spoke out, although likely in his personal capacity. Also State Sen. Vincent Fort, State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas, former Councilman Derrick Boazman, the resident leaders, and me; and that was about it!
For the last two years, I had the opportunity to serve as a Board Member and Vice Treasurer of Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority. FACAA has a lot of programs that I have been proud to help oversee: most especially, the Be Your Own Boss program, where we teach people how to start their own businesses! FACAA also provides low-income heating assistance, some limited additional emergency assistance [not enough in my opinion, as I have stated many times].
However, I have always lamented that we as an organization did not do enough of the “action” part of Community Action. Community Action authorities exist in almost every county throughout the US and have a federal mandate as part of the War of Poverty. I have advocated that we should be talking with our clients at the point of service delivery about the possibility of attending meetings where they can meet with other clients to discuss their concerns about public policy and then create organizing strategies to address those concerns.
As only one Board Member, I have not been able to get even an Advocacy Committee going, no one has even perked up when I have raised the possibility, even as US Congress continues to debate serious cuts to federal funding that makes up the vast majority of our program budget!
Recently, FACAA had an open call for applications for new Board Members, and we received six applications from people with extensive advocacy and social service experience.
At a meeting just a few days ago, the Membership Committee held an open meeting in which the Committee voted, with me being the only nay vote, to suspend the application process and re-open it.
Dr. Howard Grant, the Atlanta Public Schools representative to FACAA, has insisted he would prefer an “invitation only” process. A senior advisor to FACAA said the CEO of the Urban League has asked to join our Board but failed to meet the application deadline.
It has been noted that the Urban League has tremendous corporate support. Indeed, the Urban League has extensive corporate sponsorship and corporate executives on its Board, including ties to Georgia-Pacific [a company owned by the infamous billionaire Koch Brothers, who fund the organizational infrastructure in the war on poor people, as opposed to the war on poverty]; Walmart, the anti-union, sweatshop labor, welfare-subsidized corporation that destroys so many small businesses in its path; big banks that have foreclosed on our middle class; Cox Enterprises, the right-wing, corporate propaganda machine for Atlanta; and others.
I would hate to see FACAA go in this direction.
After I spoke about my proposal to approve at least just one strong advocate for low-income people to our Board, Dr. Grant said, “There is a White elephant in the room,” then winking at me, the only White/Caucasian member of the Board.
When I looked at him with a shocked look on my face, he attempted to backtrack by saying, “I winked at you when I said that.”
Dr. Grant was so set on molding the Board to fit his corporate, elitist vision for the Board, that he was willing to make a motion that would allow the organization to fall out of compliance with its by-laws by only having eight members, one fewer than the bare minimum number of members required by FACAA’s own by-laws. Grant said he could not support a single applicant. Grant refers to himself already as the “Incoming Chair,” despite the fact that he has not even been elected as such.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that a representative from Atlanta Public Schools would create so many board governance problems for FACAA.
Nonprofit board politics may sound like an obscure topic, but, getting back to the question of why nonprofits in Atlanta have failed to advocate for, or politically empower, low-income people, I think I’m witnessing the answer before my very eyes.
Perhaps a FACAA with more corporate sponsorship could bring in more money to support the organization’s programs, but it will surely cost the organization its voice and the voice of the low-income people FACAA serves.
It will be difficult to change the public policy direction in Atlanta until more organizations are willing to do the difficult work of low-income political empowerment and advocacy. The Task Force may be able to take up this work again if it wins its legal case, but Executive Director Anita Beaty is already looking forward to retirement, so somebody else will have to take the reins there.
Until the public policy direction changes in Atlanta, no amount of corporate funding for programs or services will be enough to truly end the cycle of poverty. No amount of rental assistance will make up for the failure to advocate for affordable housing policies, for example.
A new nonprofit organization, with a focus on, as it were, community action, may be one of the only remaining solutions.