Young men from the HEY! Henry Business Incubator attended the Black Men and Women of Valor “Black Men in Suits” event. (Photo by Kola Adetola)

A six-month journey has begun for the 2021 Center for Civic Innovation (CCI) Fellowship class – 15 leaders and entrepreneurs who work in education, healthcare, justice, agriculture and more – to address inequality in metro Atlanta.

“These Fellows are going to change outcomes for people in this city,” said Rohit Malhotra, executive director of CCI. “When the entire world is falling apart these are the people that show up.” 

CCI, a self-described community of “good troublemakers,” fights inequality by building civic knowledge and action, amplifying and investing in work led by local leaders and conducting research for better local public policy. Entering its sixth year, the Fellowship provides each leader with resources and support to help grow their efforts and develop solutions with measurable impacts. It culminates with a showcase, scheduled for late June, where Fellows share their vision with potential investors, partners, customers, friends and family. To date, CCI has raised more than $2 million for more than 80 local civic organizations.

“The beauty about our Fellows is we don’t tell them what to do – they are the experts –we’re their GPS to guide them to the destination they want to get to. And we are very respectful of that. We are also very conscious that their identities play a huge role in what their journey has been and will be,” Malhotra said.

Four Fellows embarking on the six-month course shared what they seek to gain from the experience.

“I’m hoping to translate my passion into language that other people understand,” said KaCey Venning, Helping Empower Youth (HEY!) co-founder.  “That people see smaller grassroots organizations that are steadily chipping away at things that keep folks stuck and realize we all have our role. That’s the goal; do this work, polish what we do and during the showcase present that to folks who want to support the work or make connections”. 

HEY! is a youth leadership development nonprofit focused on STEM, literacy, mental health training for adults serving youth and entrepreneurship primarily on the Westside and Southside. Based on their efforts with young Black men who sell water at intersections, HEY! was asked to provide guidance to the city of Atlanta’s youth entrepreneurship program.

“I trust CCI, their knowledge, relationships, network and process so much so that I’ve applied three times,” said Erica “Umi” Clahar, Umi Feeds founder and executive director. “I think they can help take me to the next level.”

Umi Feeds rescues food from grocery stores, private events, farms and more to distribute to seniors, the homeless and anyone who is food insecure. Clahar recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to purchase a mobile food truck.

The Restore More Team, from left, Naraffy Regis, Claudine Miles, and Kimberlie Milton. (Photo by Chanden Marzette)

The SAVE Institute (Service, Agriculture, Vocational Training and Entrepreneurship) is looking to purchase a larger urban farm and replicate their program beyond South Atlanta. The nonprofit works to save young people ages 14 to 24 from poverty, crime, incarceration and lack of purpose. On their existing farm, young people learn to grow food, raise animals and make herbal healing products. Vocational training also includes construction, culinary arts and natural healing.

“We plan to take our work to other cities and countries but before we can even think of that, we have to perfect our model and expand our network to get more access to support and funding,” said Atiba Jones, SAVE Institute director. 

After attending CCI events, Restore More co-founder Claudine Miles was eager to participate in a Fellowship with so many impressive alums like Tiffany LaTrice, who founded TILA Studios to empower Black women artists to create and showcase their art and has changed the way local and national exhibitions think about the inclusion of black female artists. 

“I wanted to put myself in proximity to them – to learn from them and figure out how we can support one another,” Miles said.

Restore More is an educational consulting firm that builds capacity among educators, parents and organizations for restorative practices, anti-racism and social emotional learning. They recently advocated for the Atlanta Board of Education to introduce policies that address the over suspension of students of color.

At CCI, “you can show up as your authentic self and be affirmed in that” Miles said. 

Erica “Umi” Clahar delivers rescued produce. (Photo by Jason John)

“To be given the grace to say, ‘we want your mom side, rough edges, business polished side – we want all of you’. That is just a beautiful feeling. That is something that sets CCI apart.”

Fellows are ready to explore innovation that responds quickly to community input and need.

“We can’t keep doing programming the same way. Top down. Adults, in a room trying to figure out what the trends are, creating programs versus asking young people and their families ‘what do you need’ and then designing programs around that,” Venning said. “The challenge with that is, those needs change. So how do organizations provide structure, because that’s what funders want to support, but be flexible enough to pivot when necessary?  I’m looking forward to hopefully being a thought leader for what that looks like and having HEY! be an example.” 

Because of COVID-19, a recession and a racial awakening – these Fellows understand what it means to pivot. HEY! used text messaging and Instagram to give youth their next activity or module.  SAVE delayed the launch of their high school until Fall 2021. Umi Feeds faces increasing need for food amidst a changing landscape for food rescue, as private events and conventions are cancelled. Restore More quickly shifted to virtual services and products – including an anti-racist kit with scripts for conversations on policy brutality, discrimination, allyship and more – and saw a jump in partners and revenue. 

These Fellows were doing the work long before these challenging times and are committed to forging ahead. 

“This cohort represents the best of everything. They are so clear and so focused on the fact that this is for their community. We should fight for them unapologetically,” Malhotra said.

Learn more about the 2021 CCI Fellows at bit.ly/2021fellows.

SAVE students after harvesting collard greens on the farm. (Photo by Khalil Muhsin)