In May 2020, the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis triggered historic nationwide protests. Some leaders in local governments, schools and the business community issued unprecedented statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and made calls for racial dialogue. A year later, what have they done to follow through on their anti-racism promises? The Reporter checked in with several to find out.
The cities of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs have formed official government bodies to examine issues of racial and class equity. Dunwoody, on the other hand, has made ad hoc efforts largely involving personal decisions by the mayor.
Brookhaven’s Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission launched last year and is in the process of a year-long review of every city policy and procedure. The Brookhaven Police Department improved access to some of its arrest and use-of-force data, with the SJREC and investigations by the Reporter exposing some concerns about race and ethnicity in the data that are among the items under the commission’s review.
Sandy Springs last year held a series of virtual community dialogues about race and racism that drew around 250 participants. This year, it launched a formal Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to make policy recommendations. An early proposal to rename Lake Forrest Drive and Forrest Lake Drive, sparked by concern that it had a Confederate and Ku Klux Klan inspiration, has been tabled after counter-evidence that the “Forrest” may have been a real estate developer and children’s hospital co-founder.
In Dunwoody, Mayor Lynn Deutsch expressed concern about racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and care, and pledged to increase the diversity of city boards and commissions. City spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher said Dunwoody provided federal CARES Act grants to nonprofits aiding underserved minority communities — something other local cities did as well — and noted a recent partnership with the nonprofit We Love BuHi to provide COVID-19 vaccines to non-English-speaking communities. She also said Deutsch generally “continues to have conversations with community members about issues of race and diversity” and attended a vigil for victims of March mass murders at metro Atlanta spas, most of whom were Asian.
Boettcher said that Deutsch “followed through on her commitment” to diversify city bodies. “From 2019 to 2021, minority participation on city commissions, committees and boards increased 200%,” said Boettcher, but she could not cite the actual numbers or names of the members.
Lydia Singleton-Wells, an activist who held Black Lives Matter protests in Dunwoody, said she has befriended Deutsch and continues to advise her. “Dunwoody’s leadership wasn’t diverse at all, and still isn’t very diverse,” said Singleton-Wells. “But the mayor and I are working very hard to diversify some of those channels, whether it be diversifying their social media, or diversifying the images that they have on their website [and] making sure that community events are well-posted so that more people can participate instead of the same few that have been participating for the last decade.”
In June 2020, a protest targeting prejudice in Buckhead’s private schools drew over 1,000 marchers to the neighborhood. Among the “Buckhead 4 Black Lives” organizers were brothers Franklin and Harrison Rodriguez, recent graduates of the Lovett School, which responded with a pledge of action.
Lovett spokesperson Courtney Fowler pointed to the school’s website, where an August 2020 “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” report lays out various strategies and policies. The focus areas are “Student Experience,” “Employee and Family Experience,” “Institutional Policy and Practice,” and “Pedagogy.”
“Our commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is forever, and our work is ongoing,” said Fowler.
Buckhead CID and Coalition
The highest-profile work last year by the Buckhead Community Improvement District, a self-taxing group of commercial property owners, and the Buckhead Coalition, a charitable nonprofit, was coordinating a “Security Plan” in response to rising crime that alluded to protests as reducing respect for law enforcement. However, the CID also stated its support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jim Durrett, who leads both groups, said the Coalition “has very intentionally increased the diversity of its membership” and will continue to do so as it adds new members through early 2022. As for the CID, Durrett cited its hiring of Walter Dixon as its first community programs coordinator. Dixon, who is Black, earned the opportunity through the Georgia Works program for chronically homeless men.
“Personally, I have been trying to learn from people wiser than I am, by reading [Ibram X.] Kendi’s ‘How to Be an Antiracist,’ for example,” added Durrett, “and I have been working with other Urban Land Institute members both locally and nationally to address diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging within the organization and within the real estate industry.”
Atlanta Public Schools
The Atlanta Board of Education responded to the protests by calling for “dismantling a racist and oppressive system,” which was backed by Meria Carstarphen, then the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.
Asked about work on that goal, APS spokesperson Seth Coleman emphasized work in carrying out an “Equity Policy” dating to 2019. That included the hiring of Tauheedah Baker-Jones as the district’s first chief equity and social justice officer.
“Tauheedah serves as a visionary and strategist who supports the district in defining its overarching vision, identity, and strategy for becoming a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization,” said Coleman.
APS also created an administrative division called the Center for Equity & Social Justice. And it developed a five-year strategic plan with 11 “equity commitments,” Coleman said. Baker-Jones works to make sure the district’s long- and near-term plans “are fully reflective of and inspired by an equity lens and reflect the district’s equity identity,” Coleman said.
The Atlanta BeltLine trail and transit loop under construction around the city is intended in part to boost economic opportunities for lower-income, majority-minority neighborhoods. But the project has seen controversies in recent years about gentrification and displacement of residents in those neighborhoods. A failure to meet affordable housing goals in 2017 led to the departure of the CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the organization building the loop, and caused Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who conceived the project, to resign from the board of its nonprofit arm, the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership.
Days after the George Floyd protests began in Atlanta, the current leaders of ABI and ABP issued statements promising to do more to address gentrification and inequity. Clyde Higgs, the CEO of ABI, blasted “systemic racism and inequities,” while ABP Executive Director Rob Brawner said the BeltLine must avoid becoming an example of “infrastructural racism.”
Since then, the organizations’ highest-profile political effort was the successful quest to raise property taxes on commercial and apartment-complex sites in the BeltLine corridor, a step they said is necessary to fund completion of the trail portion of the project. That “special service district” (SSD) generated debate over further gentrification effects and its focus on funding the trail and not the transit, which MARTA is spearheading.
In updates on their anti-racism efforts, Brawner and ABI spokesperson Jenny Odom cited the SSD as a key factor, not the least because they say it will enable completion of the trail. Brawner said the SSD will help to fuel programs to “address income inequality and support an equitable economic recovery fueled by completion of the BeltLine trail corridor.”
Odom said the SSD “will provide ABI the opportunity to advance equity within communities through housing affordability and small business support, job creation, and the increased hiring of Minority Business Enterprises. This continues ABI’s focus on procurement and contracting equity as a business imperative that will help ensure increased participation of Black-owned businesses.”
Both organizations also cited the creation late last year of a $12.5 million “Legacy Resident Retention Fund” intended to aid homeowners from being displaced in the BeltLine corridor by covering increases in property taxes through 2030. The lead funders are Georgia Power and Bank of America.
Brawner said ABP continues to work with a number of governmental and corporate partners “to deliver programs that connect people in predominantly low-income, majority African American neighborhoods with resources to stay in their homes and secure jobs along the BeltLine that pay a living wage.” He also noted that in January, Bentina Terry became ABP’s first Black and first woman board chair. “Bentina and all of the members of our diverse board of directors remain committed to advancing the vision of creating a more equitable community through the Atlanta BeltLine,” he said.
Odom pointed to ABI’s launch of a data-mapping site called Atlanta BeltLine Data Explorer. “Understanding metrics across the BeltLine Planning Area will help ABI design and implement more effective policy interventions to mitigate against unintended effects, such as rising housing costs and property taxes, that threaten to displace longtime residents and businesses,” she said.
She also cited ABI’s “equitable” focus approach to hiring and retaining its own employees, and the use of its social media platforms to “showcase” small and Black-owned businesses during the pandemic.