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Topics: Community

The Atlanta Project
A Community-Based Approach to Solving Urban Problems

Planning of large-scale community and civic revitalization projects is challenged by the dialectic that exists between the need for effective, centralized coordination and the affirmative value of neighborhood empowerment and control. For The Atlanta Project, striking this balance is both an ongoing challenge and a source of strength. Case study plus.

Case Study: The Atlanta Project

Case study by Michael W. Giles
Reprinted with permission from the National Civic Review, Fall 1993, pp. 354-362. Copyright ©1993 by the National Civic Review.

Planning of large-scale community and civic revitalization projects is challenged by the dialectic that exists between the need for effective, centralized coordination and the affirmative value of neighborhood empowerment and control. For The Atlanta Project, striking this balance is both an ongoing challenge and a source of strength.

Throughout the United States, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has increased steadily. This chasm is most evident in the nation's metropolitan areas, where rich and poor often live side by side. Atlanta is representative of this American crisis. It is in reality two cities: one of prosperity for the wealthy and educated and one of hopelessness for the poor and uneducated. Although Fortune magazine proclaimed Atlanta the country's best city for business, it is the nation's second poorest. Chosen to host the world for the 1996 Olympics, Georgia ranks worst in the country in infant mortality and children's well-being, and second to last in high school graduation rates. More troubling than the statistics of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and death are the feelings of despair and hopelessness they represent.

Troubled by this growing disparity between affluent and impoverished Atlanta, former President Jimmy Carter launched The Atlanta Project (TAP) in October of 1991. Under the auspices of the Carter Center, TAP is a five-year effort to confront the issues of urban poverty. Carter envisioned a collaborative, community-centered effort. This vision is captured in the mission statement of TAP:

". . . [T]o unite Atlanta as a community working to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. In the spirit of the Carter Center's problem-solving philosophy TAP will seek to empower citizens to develop solutions to the problems they identify in their neighborhoods and will foster collaboration among government agencies, other service providers, people who want to help, and those who need help throughout the area. We hope that The Atlanta Project can serve as a model and an inspiration for similar projects across America."

The goals of The Atlanta Project, drawn from this mission statement, are as follows:

The Goals of the Atlanta Project

    1. To Unite Atlanta as a Community
    2. To Foster Collaboration among Service Providers and Other Groups
    3. To Enhance the Quality of Life in Atlanta-Area Communities
    4. To Foster Empowerment

The goal of uniting Atlanta requires a building of bridges across the city's chasms of race and class. An important strategy for TAP in pursuit of this goal is volunteerism. By involving volunteers from suburbia and the inner city in initiatives where they work together for a common goal, TAP is beginning to link the diverse Atlanta communities and break down the barrier separating them. Volunteerism can also be an important strategy for improving the quality of life in targeted communities. While volunteers are not a panacea, some initiatives, such as tutoring and mentoring programs, are dependent on volunteers for their success. The goal of empowerment requires that citizens play a dominant role in defining the problems that are important to their communities and determining the initiatives TAP will pursue to address those problems. Without such ownership by members of the affected communities, sustainable change can not occur. The project's goal of empowerment means a detailed strategy for enhancing quality of life can not be specified in advance. The communities must play a key role in defining and prioritizing the specific quality-of-life goals for the project. Finally, the goal of fostering collaboration assumes that the skills, energies and resources for success exist within our communities, but that a lack of coordination often dissipates their impact. By encouraging existing agencies to work together, TAP seeks to develop new alliances that will continue after the project itself has ended.

The Clusters

Under its broad mission to unite Atlanta, TAP's focus is on the entire metropolitan community. However, TAP's mission to facilitate empowerment and improve quality of life requires a narrower geographic focus. Noting that teen-age motherhood and single-parent families coincide with troubled communities, areas with the highest occurrence of these conditions became TAP's target. These areas form a broad belt that runs east to west straddling I-20. The belt stretches across parts of three counties—Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton—and encompasses several independent cities and parts of the City of Atlanta. Approximately 200,000 households and 500,000 individuals reside in the target areas.

Empowerment requires the cultivation of citizen involvement and a focus on neighborhood conditions. Clearly, these requirements cannot be met within so large an area. For this reason, TAP's target area has been divided into 20 smaller units called "clusters." Because schools are the glue of every community, the boundaries of each cluster approximate the attendance zone of a high school and its feeder schools. The exact boundaries of the clusters conform to those for census tracts. Defining clusters in terms of census tracts simplifies data collection. However, it also means cluster boundaries do not always follow those of natural communities.

Although all clusters are similar in terms of the selection criteria, they vary considerably in other respects. Cluster populations vary from a low of approximately 8,000 to a high of almost 60,000. The 1989 median household income varies from a cluster low of $8,587 to a cluster high of $31,234. The percentage of minorities in1990 cluster populations ranges from a low of 26.7 percent to a high of 99.6 percent. Unemployment rates in 1990 extend from 5.8 percent to 18.3 percent. Of course, the actual unemployment rates are suspected to be higher than those reported in the Census of Population. As these numbers suggest, some clusters more closely resemble the demographics of the suburbs than those of a typical inner city.

Members of the original TAP Advisory Committee (discussed below), including President Carter, were assigned to a cluster and were given the responsibility to introduce the concept of The Atlanta Project to residents. However, the real work of developing a grass-roots organization awaited the hiring of "cluster coordinators." By the summer of 1992 sufficient resources were available to recruit, train and deploy five cluster coordinators. In September, resources were available to hire coordinators for the remaining 15 clusters. Thirteen of these positions were filled and the coordinators were placed in the field by October. Positions for two clusters, Archer and West Fulton, were not filled at this time because of a lack of qualified candidates. After additional efforts, a cluster coordinator for West Fulton was hired in May of 1993 and the Archer cluster position was filled in August of 1993. Assistant Cluster Coordinators were hired in February for the 18 clusters with coordinators at that time.

The cluster coordinators and the assistant cluster coordinators were required to be residents of the cluster. Each was also required to have an established record of involvement in community affairs. Beyond these characteristics the coordinators and their assistants vary widely in background. Thirteen of the coordinators and twelve of the assistants are women while six of the coordinators and six of the assistants are men. Educational levels range from graduation from high school to completion of advanced degrees, including two PhDs, one in Education and one in Anthropology. Some of the cluster coordinators have had military experience, some have been employed in education, some have worked in the public sector, and others in private industry.

Although all of the cluster coordinators had experience in their communities, the organizational task confronting them when they assumed their positions with the project was none the less formidable. Working at first by themselves and later with only one assistant, coordinators were assigned the responsibilities of organizing public meetings to explain TAP to the residents, recruiting residents to serve on various cluster committees, reaching out to existing leadership in the cluster, and facilitating a planning process. The demands on the cluster coordinators were further intensified by residents' requests that they perform "casework" (e.g., getting the utilities turned back on in a house, finding alternative housing for an evicted family, etc.). While not originally intended to be "caseworkers," the coordinators realize that doing such work and meeting the real, pressing needs of individual residents is essential to their credibility in the community.

The clusters vary somewhat in the extent of their organizational development. All of the clusters have held community meetings to introduce the project and generate discussions of community needs. A majority of the clusters have established a schedule for cluster wide meetings and organized their substantive committees (e.g., Economic Development, Health, Education, etc.) Sixteen of the clusters have created a Steering Committee, which typically consists of at least the chairs of substantive committees and may include service providers and representatives of major interests within the clusters. The Steering Committee is intended to be the leadership body for the cluster. Working through the committee structure, each cluster is expected to develop an inventory of social services and programs within the cluster, a needs assessment for the cluster, and a cluster plan. Only two clusters have completed all of these steps and two more have completed the needs assessment and the plan, but not the inventory. Most of the remaining clusters are engaged in completing this planning. Levels of participation among community residents in the general meetings and committee work varies somewhat from cluster to cluster. In most cases maintaining community involvement in this planning phase has been a challenge.

From a rational planning perspective, a master plan for each cluster should be in place before cluster initiatives are developed. Such a plan would give direction to specific initiatives and provide justification when resources are sought. However, many of the clusters have already developed and launched initiatives prior to completion of a comprehensive plan. For example, the Community Development Committee of the Southside cluster has implemented an SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) instructional program for high school students. In the Fulton cluster, an Emotional Support Task Force has been established consisting of doctors, social workers, ministers and community volunteers who work with and mentor students within the cluster schools. A large number of clusters have held various types of informational fairs (e.g., Job fairs, Health fairs, etc.). Grady cluster's Education Committee, as part of a community consortium, has received a grant from the State of Georgia to provide pre-school education programs beginning in the Fall of 1993.

The launching of such initiatives in part reflects the action orientation of the individuals hired as cluster coordinators. These initiatives, however, do have strategic functions. By involving community residents in TAP activities, these initiatives increase awareness of the project and the likelihood of more general participation. Early initiatives provide tangible evidence of TAP's work to raise the credibility of the project and garner the support of residents.

Corporate Partnerships

The goal of TAP to bridge the divisions within Atlanta is nowhere more concretely pursued than through the development of the Corporate Partnerships. Many corporations have provided financial support to TAP, which has been of tremendous benefit. Through the corporate partners program, a subset of these corporations has indicated the desire to go further and become involved actively in the work of the project. These corporations constitute a large segment of the major corporations in Atlanta and many have a regional and/or national presence. Included in the group are IBM, Cox Enterprises, Equifax, Trust Company Bank, John Harland Company, Mariott Corporation, Arthur Anderson Consulting, Coca-Cola, Atlanta Gas Light, NationsBank, United Parcel Service, Delta Airlines, Georgia Power, AT&T, First Union, Home Depot, Wachovia, Turner Broadcasting, BankSouth, SouthTrust Bank, Northern Telecom, Equitable Real Estate, Prudential, Kroger, and Bell South. Sixteen of the clusters currently have a corporate partner. Ln a few cases more than one company is working in a single cluster. Because of their historic commitment to a specific issue area, some of the corporations have chosen to work with all of the clusters as they become involved with a topic-specific initiative.

The corporate partners provide loaned executives who serve as liaisons between TAP and their corporations. Most of these work with clusters as "corporate advisors" and are integral parts of the cluster teams. The corporate advisors bring to the clusters tremendous organizational skills and experience, which have proved invaluable to the cluster coordinators. Additionally, many of the initiatives implemented by the clusters have been directly or indirectly supported by the resources of the corporate partners.

For example, in response to citizen concern about the lack of banking services for the poor, Trust Company Bank has initiated a pilot check-cashing service for cluster residents and offers seminars on personal finance. All residents completing the seminars are able to open checking accounts. Corporate partner Bank South has developed a similar program. In an effort to encourage entrepreneurship, corporate partner NationsBank established a $500,000 loan fund for black-owned small business development. Georgia Power Company joined with the Georgia Youth Science and Technology Center to install a hands-on science learning center at a cluster school. This facility will be a magnet center for teachers, students and residents. Similarly, Turner Broadcasting System established an Industrial Technology Room in a cluster school. Community classes are held daily at this location. While the corporate partners program is still taking shape, it is clear that the involvement of corporations has been a major benefit to The Atlanta Project.

The Collaboration Center

Initially housed at the Carter Presidential Center, The Atlanta Project moved to its current location at Atlanta City Hall East in September of 1992. The space, formerly a Sears store and warehouse, is provided by the City of Atlanta at a nominal rent. Designated the Carter Collaboration Center, the City Hall East site serves two functions. First, a significant proportion of the Center is meeting space for the organization, the cluster communities and service providers. The meeting facilities are state-of-the-art and include the capacity for computer facilitation of meetings.

The facility is equal to that available to any corporation or government. This aspect of the facility is an important support for TAP's effort to develop collaboration among service providers and also for the development of strategic planning by clusters.

Second, the Collaboration Center performs the function of housing the central administration of the project. The central administration performs standard functions such as purchasing, finance, human resources, and facilities management. Additionally, the central administration serves as a resource center for the clusters. It provides assistance in planning, project management, information systems, data analysis, and training. It also provides assistance in securing volunteers and seeking external funding for cluster initiatives. The central administration includes persons with expertise in the areas of health, education, public safety, youth and children, housing, and economic development. These individuals, on the one hand, are a resource to assist the clusters in developing their initiatives. On the other hand, these individuals also are charged with developing initiatives that have "TAP-wide" effects. Thus, while the project emphasizes de-centralization and empowerment of communities, it also provides a role for professional expertise in the development of initiatives.

The Collaboration Center has a total staff of 43 persons. Businesses, universities, service providers, and governmental agencies have loaned 16 executives to the project. This does not include those provided to the clusters through the corporate partnership program. Another five positions in the Collaboration Center are filled by long-term volunteers. Thus, only about half the positions within the central administration are actually paid for by the project and a large percentage of these are secretarial and support staff.

Governance Structure

Throughout TAP's initial phase, no formal structure existed for the creation and adoption of policies for the organization. To a large extent the "understood" policies that governed the operation of the project were drawn from President Carter's statements regarding his vision for the project and how he thought it should operate. The Advisory Committee, which was made up of leaders drawn from various sectors of the Atlanta community (i.e., higher education, corporations, nonprofits, local government, etc.), provided advice to former President Carter but did not have a policy making function. It should be emphasized, however, that the advice of this group did help shape the direction of the project. In particular, it played an important role early on when the external pressures to do something "now" threatened the community-empowerment focus of the project. The advisors, most of whom had been working in a cluster to introduce the project to the community, helped steer the project away from imposing quick-fix "betterment" initiatives on the clusters.

As the project moved beyond the start-up phase, it became increasingly apparent that a formal, identifiable means for establishing its policies and direction was needed. Given the emphasis of TAP on grass-roots involvement and empowerment, it was also evident that such a policy-making body needed to be inclusive in its composition. In particular, the body needed to have individuals who could be seen by the residents of the clusters as understanding their issues and representing their concerns. The need for such a body was accepted without opposition by everyone involved in TAP at a retreat held on January 5, 1993. The ultimate design of the policy body included expansion of the original Advisory Committee to enhance its representativeness, and creation of an Executive Committee to ensure efficiency in its operation and responsibility for setting broad policy for the project. This renamed Policy Advisory Board held its first meeting in June of 1993 with former President Carter presiding as the Permanent Chair.

The First Tap-Wide Initiative

The Atlanta Project model envisions both the clusters and the Collaboration Center as potential loci for initiatives. The Immunization/Children's Health Initiative (I/CHI) was developed within the health component of the Collaboration Center. Since this initiative required the participation of the clusters in its implementation, the leadership of I/CHI involved cluster co-ordinators in its development stages and sought the support of the clusters in a series of meetings once the plan for the initiative was finalized.

I/CHI involved three events. The first was the community walk-through, which occurred on April 17 and 18, 1993. During the walk-through, volunteers went door-to-door in the cluster communities distributing information about immunization and identifying children under six years of age. The names and other relevant information about the children and their families were copied onto forms and eventually entered into a database. The purpose of this data collection was to take a first step toward constructing a comprehensive system of tracking the children within the clusters. Such a system would allow follow-up on immunizations and boosters as they came due. The second event was an eight-day immunization drive later that month, which coincided with National Preschool Immunization Week. A total of 43 clinic sites were staffed at various times during this week and almost 16,000 children were examined. Most of these children were certified as current in their immunization status but 6,200 received vaccinations. Fulton County Public Health recorded a 250 percent increase in children seen for immunizations during April of 1993 over April of 1992. The increase in traffic was somewhat smaller for Dekalb County Public Health, 775, but still substantial. The third event was a celebration for all the parents of children who visited the clinics end for the volunteers. This was held at the Omni and featured an appearance by Michael Jackson.

I/CHI provided a test of two of the principal elements of the TAP model: the use of volunteers and the fostering of collaboration. As with any first initiative, problems occurred in the planning and implementation of I/CHI. On balance, however, the experience of the initiative validated both elements of the TAP model. The Atlanta Project was able to mobilize thousands of volunteers, both from within and outside the clusters, without whom the initiative could not have been conducted. Just as importantly, the volunteers had exceptionally positive experiences working together and meeting community residents. The success of I/CHI also depended on TAP's ability to get diverse elements of the health care community to work together during the immunization drive and to commit themselves to the long-term project. While the system is not complete, the various parties are working collaboratively to make it a reality. Thus, the experience with I / CHI clearly indicated that the TAP model can work.

Conclusion: A Continuing Challenge

The Atlanta Project has come far, both in terms of the maturation and articulation of its fundamental concepts, as well as implementation of programs. Clearly, much remains to be done and the project faces notable challenges. The most immediate challenge for TAP is to make the empowerment process work in the clusters. This will involve mobilizing a sufficient number of residents within the cluster organizations to establish legitimacy, and developing strong leadership among cluster coordinators. The creation of local initiatives and TAP-wide initiatives, like I/CHI, may be necessary to "prime the pump" for the organization. Strong leadership from the coordinator and "top-down" initiatives, however, work against the fundamental tenets of empowerment—a primary goal of the project. Striking the proper balance between the strong leadership necessary to get the empowerment process working and the freedom and openness of decision-making style necessary for empowerment to thrive will be a major and continuing challenge to TAP.

The progress TAP has made to date has not come easily. It has been earned by the hard work and commitment of all involved in the project. A singular characteristic and strength that TAP has developed during this initial period is the ability to accept criticism and to profit from it. Because of this characteristic, TAP will continue to reshape itself in light of the insights of others and the lessons drawn from its own experiences.

(Michael W. Giles is a senior advisor to The Atlanta Project. This article was prepared with the assistance of Atlanta Project research associates Bernadette Nye and Melanie Buckner.)

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