We have had an opportunity to work with Atlanta’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to create something called the Social Equity Advisory Committee, which is charged with holding the planners and others at MPO accountable for issues of equity, balanced growth and inclusion. I think now, more than ever, it is very important for us as equity leaders to not only focus on winning the game, but also changing the rules.
How do we define and measure equity through the various planning agencies? How do we create formal processes where people get involved and engage in the decision-making? How do we create spaces and opportunities for communities of color and low wealth communities to actually be engaged—not just invited to the table—as people involved in moving our communities forward?
The civic engagement process initially was created at a time when you had the nuclear family—a two-parent household, suburban America, and people who had time to get involved in meetings. Now our society is a lot more diverse in terms of age, race and income. Because of that, there are diverse ways by which we must give our community the opportunities to engage and act. For me, that is also where the sweet spot exists.
“It’s not enough for us to do the research and come up with great ideas if people can’t hold onto them.The role of an organization like Partnership for Southern Equity or PolicyLink is to push for a re-imagining of how everyday folks can be involved in the decision-making process. It’s not enough for us to do the research and come up with great ideas if people can’t hold onto them and believe in them and be willing to sit at the table and push, because then they will just be reports on the table. It is our responsibility to not only educate and inform communities and be in places where other stakeholders may not necessarily have an opportunity to be engaged but to also push for new opportunities for engagement.
In metropolitan Atlanta, we are soon to decide whether to approve an 8 billion dollar transportation referendum. The MPO has done the best that they could in terms of providing opportunities for people to get engaged, but there is still a segment of our population that could not be involved. Unfortunately, there still are individuals in communities—specifically communities of color and low wealth communities—that still don’t realize the magnitude of this referendum. So, we have had to actually go into the community—with Partnership for Southern Equity—and have our own regional forums, not just about the referendum but about how transportation has become a barrier to opportunity. Using feedback that we receive from the people that are participating, we will finally create a transportation equity policy agenda for our region. That is the way we have to become more engaged, more involved, and create new and innovative mechanisms for people to not only be seen, but also be heard, which I think is even more important.
Nathaniel Smith is the founder and cheif equity officer of Partnership for Southern Equity, Atlanta. This interview took place at Urban Habitat’s State of the Region Conference 2012. To hear the full interview, visit urbanhabitat.org/rpe/radio.