Equity-Focused Leadership Program in Atlanta Continues to Strengthen Neighborhoods

Posted December 1, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Man holds basket of fresh vegetables from a community garden

Three years after par­tic­i­pat­ing in the inau­gur­al class of Res­i­dent Lead­ers for Equi­ty (RLE), a pro­gram designed to help peo­ple in Atlanta’s Neigh­bor­hood Plan­ning Unit‑V (NPU‑V) effect pos­i­tive change, Jason Rhodes is still using what he learned and the rela­tion­ships he formed to strength­en his community.

RLE was a way to start doing things that oth­er­wise could’ve tak­en years or nev­er hap­pened,” says Rhodes, who has lived in NPU‑V since 2015. It brought togeth­er a diverse group of peo­ple who want­ed to get things done, and it cre­at­ed space for the cru­cial con­ver­sa­tions that need to happen.”

With sup­port from the Casey Foun­da­tion, the Part­ner­ship for South­ern Equi­ty launched RLE in 2017 to strength­en NPU‑V res­i­dents’ knowl­edge of racial equi­ty, neigh­bor­hood his­to­ry, dis­place­ment, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and oth­er issues affect­ing com­mu­ni­ties through­out South­west Atlanta. After a chance meet­ing at a neigh­bor­hood potluck with Nathaniel Smith, who found­ed the Part­ner­ship for South­ern Equi­ty, Rhodes decid­ed to par­tic­i­pate in the program.

Over the course of nine months, he found him­self work­ing with a small but ded­i­cat­ed group of peo­ple who want­ed to devel­op prac­ti­cal solu­tions to issues affect­ing their com­mu­ni­ties — for exam­ple, the lack of afford­able hous­ing.

There’s over­whelm­ing sup­port for afford­able hous­ing in our com­mu­ni­ties, but folks don’t always know what steps they can take to do some­thing about it,” says Rhodes. Through RLE, we got to hear from experts and con­nect the pos­i­tive sen­ti­ments to con­crete infor­ma­tion and viable solu­tions.” Since com­plet­ing RLE, Rhodes has con­tin­ued to build on the infor­ma­tion and con­nec­tions it pro­vid­ed. He recent­ly start­ed an urban agri­cul­tur­al pro­gram that trains and pays young peo­ple in the Pitts­burgh neigh­bor­hood to grow healthy fruits and vegetables.

Rhodes cred­its RLE with help­ing him to get the pro­gram up and run­ning and to secure a $40,000 grant to sup­port it from the Sta­di­um Neigh­bor­hoods Com­mu­ni­ty Trust Fund.

I’ve remained in close con­tact with some of the peo­ple in my cohort,” he says. Annette Samuels, who I met through RLE, intro­duced me to two local pas­tors who imme­di­ate­ly helped pro­mote the [youth] pro­gram and gave us spaces to gar­den and meet indoors.” Rhodes and Samuels, who’s also been deeply involved in the near­by Pitts­burgh Yards® project, hope to expand the agri­cul­tur­al pro­gram in the months ahead.

RLE is con­tin­u­ing to expand, too. Dur­ing its first three years of oper­a­tion, the pro­gram trained 60 par­tic­i­pants from 15 dif­fer­ent neighborhoods.

In 2020, the program’s suc­cess led to the launch of two new cohorts, the East Point Lead­ers for Equi­ty Acad­e­my — a sim­i­lar pro­gram that brings togeth­er res­i­dents in anoth­er part of Geor­gia — and Youth Lead­ers for Equi­ty, a five-month after-school pro­gram that equips young adults with the skills to advo­cate for and trans­form their communities.

Our pro­gram pro­vides res­i­dents with the guid­ance and learn­ing tools need­ed to unlock their poten­tial, embrace lead­er­ship and gain the skills nec­es­sary to address the most press­ing issues in their com­mu­ni­ty,” says Azizah Kahera, who serves as a facil­i­ta­tor for RLE and Youth Lead­ers for Equi­ty. When a par­tic­i­pant is giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn about the his­to­ry of their neigh­bor­hood and under­stand their poten­tial for dis­rupt­ing sys­tems of racism and inequity, they begin to real­ize that they can become the effec­tive lead­ers they are look­ing for. This is evi­dent in the amaz­ing work that stu­dents like Jason Rhodes and oth­ers are doing in their com­mu­ni­ties, from seek­ing for­mal lead­er­ship posi­tions to co-facil­i­tat­ing cur­rent RLE cohort classes.”

Kahera and her col­leagues are devel­op­ing a new pilot pro­gram, called Devel­op­ment Watch, which will pro­vide addi­tion­al guid­ance and sup­port to suc­cess­ful RLE grad­u­ates. It will focus on equi­table devel­op­ment, com­mu­ni­ty plan­ning and afford­able hous­ing through­out the Atlanta region. There also are plans to start a youth cohort in ear­ly 2022, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a local high school in NPU‑V. Rhodes hopes that more orga­ni­za­tions through­out the coun­try will sup­port sim­i­lar pro­grams: We make change through estab­lish­ing rela­tion­ships of trust, and by real­iz­ing that you have more in com­mon with your neigh­bors than you think. Start hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple who live right where you are.”

Learn more about afford­able hous­ing in Atlanta

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