The executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission spoke to Brookhaven’s Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission April 15, where he urged community engagement and drew some resistance by presenting racial equity as an economic issue.

Doug Hooker has led the powerful regional planning agency since 2011 and is the ARC’s first Black leader in its 50-year history. The day before speaking to the Brookhaven commission, Hooker announced his retirement, which will take effect in 2022.

Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Hooker stressed that it is important for the Brookhaven commission to start engaging with residents and, particularly, city employees. The commission’s subcommittees — vision and mission, hiring practices, procurement and contracting, and policing — all have to do with city practices and employees in some way. 

“If this work is to have a life beyond the commission that people grasp onto, commit to, and help to carry forward when you are no longer [in] seats of community leadership to help lead it, then get voices in the room early,” he said. 

Hooker said the commission should be wary of getting too far into the process without hearing from the people who will be affected by the changes the body proposes. The commission was created after last year’s nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality and is reviewing all city policies and practices. The commission is expected to present its recommendations to the City Council at the end of the year. 

Chairman John Funny asked Hooker why he thought it was important to adopt an equity lens for looking at city practices. Hooker said there is a moral, ethical and economic argument for doing so. He said in 2016, an ARC research team did analysis that showed if minority residents in the Atlanta area were earning at the same wage rates as their white counterparts, the economy would have been 27% stronger.

“That ought to tell us something,” he said. “Equity and inclusion and removing barriers to equal and fair access for people who have been left on the sidelines, have been denied, is not only a moral — though fundamentally for me, that’s the most important thing — proposition, but it’s fundamentally a good economic proposition.” 

Some commissioners pushed back on the idea of treating equity like an economic problem. 

“It seems coming from that point of view undermines what we’re trying to achieve,” said Commissioner Josh Hearshen. “If we approach it because of an economic advantage, we’re missing the entire point. We’re not seeing them as people, we’re seeing them as potential money.”

Hooker agreed with Hearshen “wholeheartedly,” but said in his experience, the argument is sometimes necessary. 

“You have to meet [people] where they are,” he said. “Some people, you can’t start with the moral and ethical argument — you can start there, but it’s a waste of your time. For me, it’s about trying to get a result.” 

Commissioner Conni Todd spoke to the complications of coming at the issue of equity from an economic standpoint.

“It’s really difficult when you know that [it’s] the right thing to do for so many reasons,” she said. “It’s a moral issue. But if folks believed that, we wouldn’t even be having this commission.”