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Mayor Kasim Reed: Another Term of Service

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed spent a busy first term grappling with ongoing challenges inherited from earlier administrators: filling out an understaffed police force, reforming the city’s unfunded pension liability, and turning around a $48 million budget shortfall. But he also found time—and startup funds, through the nationwide Cities of Service initiative—to make an impressive renewal of the city’s commitment to service: creating a cabinet-level Chief Service Officer position to head up five new service initiatives dedicated to educating and empowering youth, revitalizing neighborhoods, and promoting environmental sustainability.

The result is a string of high-impact projects—including the reopening of all 33 city recreation centers as hubs of learning, growing, and community-building—and created powerful new partner­ships with Atlanta nonprofits like Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students and GCN member Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta.

Just a few days after his January 6, 2014 inauguration, Mayor Reed talked with GCN CEO Karen Beavor about the long history and renewed vitality of Atlanta’s commitment to service, the progress his administration has seen as a result, and the opportunities for more nonprofit partnerships in his second term.

Karen Beavor: In your inauguration address, you said that you see Atlanta as a “city on a hill,” one that embraces its “sacred responsibility as a community of caring people.” Tell us a little bit more about what you meant.

Mayor Kasim Reed: I believe Atlanta is a very intentional city. I think that in critical times in the life of the city of Atlanta, certainly since the 1950s on, and even before that, we were fortunate to have caring individuals in the political community, business community, and in the civic and philanthropic community who made the right decision at the right time. If you look at our city’s history, certainly during the tumultuous times of the late 1950s of the 1960s, for a southern city, Atlanta was very forward thinking.

I think that has a great deal to do with the fact that we had very enlightened elected leaders like Mayor Hartsfield, Mayor Ivan Allen, and subsequently Mayor Maynard Jackson. And we had very forward-thinking business leaders, such as the founder of Coca-Cola Company, Robert Woodruff, and a list of his successors. If you recall, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize, the chairman of Coca-Cola hosted a reception for him and invited the leaders of the business community and philanthropic community in Atlanta. That was a very important event—maybe the most significant integrated event in the life of the city. When Bull Conner and others were making different decisions in Birmingham, Ala., which used to be a larger, more prosperous city than Atlanta, Mayor Ivan Allen went to Washington to testify in favor of the Civil Rights Act.

“When Bull Conner and others were making different decisions in Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Ivan Allen went to Washington to testify in favor of the Civil Rights Act.”

We have a history of thoughtful leaders who care about making our city better and more humane. And I think that caring about each other is a value that is a part of Atlanta’s DNA. We need to constantly focus on how we convene that, and how we need to do it, but doing it is something we should do—whether that is mentoring a young person or investing in young college students, having a homeless reduction program that houses more than a thousand people, or opening recreation centers where we now help more than a thousand kids in any given week, or raising money for the United Negro College Fund—where we typically raise more than $1 million a year. I think all of these are areas that we need to be engaged in, that send a message to the broader community.

Beavor: What role do you see the nonprofit sector playing in that vision of a city of a hill?

Mayor Reed: I think the future is very bright, because our government has engaged with the nonprofit sector as a partner, which is a force multiplier—really putting the energy, passion and drive that are contained in city government into our nonprofit partners.

We have a strong partnership in the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, who assist us in the Centers of Hope initiative. We partner with GEEARS (Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students) on getting every kid to read by third grade, through the Mayor’s Summer Reading Club. We’re partnered with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and several neighborhood foundations for the Love Your Block initiative. In three years we raised $1 million or more with the United Negro College Fund, and we are a key partner with the United Way of Greater Atlanta in their giving campaign. So all of those are areas where we are directly engaged, every single day, and we welcome any and all who want to give us help and a hand.

“Caring about each other is a value that is a part of Atlanta’s DNA.”

Just in the recreation center space alone, an initiative called Centers of Hope, we have more than $5 million in private philanthropy that’s been directed to reopening 33 recreation centers in the city of Atlanta. We made the fiscal decision not just to have recreation centers as warehouses for kids, but that we were going to provide high quality programming, that we were going to get strong partners, to make sure that young people have an alternative to getting involved in crime. Since then, we have seen crime reductions of more than 25 percent among teens in the city of Atlanta. This is an initiative that we are most proud of.

Beavor: I think that commitment has been a huge motivator, particularly when you created that Chief Service Officer position. Why do you think that role, and nonprofit partnership, is critical in your administration?

Mayor Reed: If you really do care about something, you have to have a competent person to organize the effort and work on it every single day. You don’t want a temporary solution to long-term problems or long-term relationships. That’s why Amy Phuong isn’t just the Chief Service Officer, she is also a member of my cabinet—so she is able to get a global perspective of what the city of Atlanta is doing in a variety of areas. She also gives the nonprofit community a “one-stop shop” to decide how they would like to engage with the city.

“We made the fiscal decision that we were going to provide high quality programming, that we were going to get strong partners, to make sure that young people have an alternative to getting involved in crime.”

I believe we send a clear, unmistakable message to the nonprofit community, that if you want a strong partner, someone who has similar values and a strong sense of mission, then the doors to the city of Atlanta are open. And I hope the people who read this article will know that we have a highly qualified leader in the form of Amy Phuong, who works at this every day.

Beavor: You travel a lot. How do you think Atlanta’s nonprofit sector compares with other cities’? What do we do well? What can we improve on?

Mayor Reed: I think Atlanta’s nonprofit [sector] is the strongest in the southeast, and one of the leading nonprofit communities in the United States of America.

In terms of what we do very well, I think we solve complex problems, and stay at it. When you look at our nonprofit community, most of our charitable giving has been directed and continuous. That shows a toughness, a commitment to solving complex problems. That is rare in this age of short-term satisfaction. At the same time, I think we need to look to support new ideas, and to be open to more innovation. I would like to see Atlanta play a greater role as we begin to explore “social impact bonds,” which is a tool that is gathering support in other cities around the world and in major cities in the U.S.

I think we have a vibrant nonprofit community. Obviously we are the home to you all, home of The Boys & Girls Club of America, CARE, which is one of the leading service delivery organization in the world, Points of Lights, Habitat for Humanity, and Hands on Network, among others. That really speaks to who we are.

Lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

Listen to the podcast, A Conversation with Mayor Kasim Reed.   

Karen Beavor is President and CEO at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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