Sharing as survival, capitalism as public purpose: Ambassador Andrew Young on a lifetime of giving backBy Sir José Bright | Georgia Nonprofit NOW, Winter 2017
For his whole life, Ambassador Andrew Young has been serving others – in his New Orleans neighborhood while growing up; across the South as a pastor, educator, and activist; in Washington D.C. as a congressman and a U.S. ambassador; and, especially, in his adopted home of Atlanta, as a civic and business pioneer, a major philanthropist and city spokesperson, and a two-term mayor. In his current role as chair of the Andrew J. Young Foundation, he supports organizations and initiatives in the U.S. and around the world doing vital work in areas like civil rights, humanitarian relief, civic service, and entrepreneurship.
More recently, Ambassador Young has also been working closely with Sir José Bright, GCN’s Vice President of Consulting, to plan the Foundation’s strategy for the next three years. He sat down with Sir Bright to discuss the journey that led him to become one of Atlanta’s – and the nation’s – most prolific and effective public servants, his thoughts on the future of the foundation he helped establish, and how Atlanta became a thriving, world-class city while other urban centers fell behind.
Bright: You’re one of the nation’s most prominent public servants and philanthropists. When did you first discover service as a guiding principle, and how did your passion for it evolve?
Young: I consider myself one of the most blessed people on earth, and not just in monetary terms, but in terms of love from family and friends, educational opportunities, and travel experiences. I had a mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather, all of whom were educated – except for my grandmother on my mother’s side. She was not formally educated, but may have been the wisest one.
I was born in 1932, and grew up in a mixed neighborhood: There was an Irish grocery store on one corner, an Italian bar on another, and the Nazi party on the third corner. At four years old, my dad had to explain white supremacy to me. He said, “White supremacy is a sickness, and you don’t let sick people get you upset. They can’t help being sick – and getting upset with them is how it becomes contagious. When there’s conflict, don’t get mad. Get smart.” I remember those lessons exactly:
It was the education that carried me through to today.
I was the youngest and the smallest, and the only way I could keep from getting bullied was to use my head… I survived by sharing. That’s where my philanthropy began.
At 6 years old, I had to go to an all-black school they called the Bucket of Blood, where I went into the third grade. I was the youngest and the smallest, and the only way I could keep from getting bullied was to use my head. I got along with people because I knew I had to understand them, and to understand why they didn’t like me – and that was envy. So I knew I had to find a way to share.
To keep the bigger guys from taking my lunch money, I’d organize us so that we could all have lunch. I’d get everyone’s money together: Most of it was mine, but everybody had to put in their pennies and their nickels. You could buy a loaf of bread for ten cents, you could buy a nickel’s worth of baloney and a nickel’s worth of cheese, and everybody would have sandwiches. And we’d buy a couple of the biggest, most sugary drinks you could find, and, if we got enough, a couple of Moon Pies that we could break up. I survived by sharing. That’s where my philanthropy began. Philanthropy for me is a means of survival.
Bright: And the Foundation came from those lessons?
Young: The Foundation is just a way to let other people help me share, because I never made enough money to do as much as I wanted. I was always in control of money – I managed the money for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the most part, and helped raise it. I was the one who usually wrote the proposals for the Field Foundation, before I served on their board. The Ford Foundation was also very supportive of our work:
Almost anything we wanted to do, they told us to write it up on one page.
The Foundation is just a way to let other people help me share, because I never made enough money to do as much as I wanted.
For instance, the Field Foundation gave us $35,000 in 1960 or ’61 to train people to read, to write, and to register voters in their communities. With three staff people, we agreed to train 200 people, and somehow had enough to do that. We each took $6,000 salaries, and we drove around the South looking for people who had PhD minds, but not the opportunity to get an education. We also found the wise men and women who, even with an education, didn’t understand politics or economics that well. It was a leadership training program.
We did all the work we had agreed to do in the first seven or eight months. The Foundation was so pleased with the results, they gave us another $30,000 to finish the year, and continued to give at the rate of about $50,000 to $100,000 a year for the next six years. We probably trained 6,000 poor people across the South, from Virginia to East Texas, including somebody in just about every county in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. I’m convinced that it’s the children and grandchildren of the people we educated who are now elected officials across the South.
I didn’t consider that philanthropy, I considered that a meaningful life. Almost every day, my grandmother said, “Remember: To whom much has been given, of them much will be required. It’s not suggested, it’s not expected: It’s required. You have to pass on your blessings.” When I graduated from college, I didn’t know what my life was going to be. I knew that God puts everybody on this Earth for some purpose, but that you don’t know it but one day at a time. That was another one of my grandmother’s verses, Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” I’ve lived that way, and it has worked for me.
Bright: To that point – finding your purpose one day at a time – how do you see the Foundation moving forward to keep providing for those in need?
Young: Nothing infuriat
es me like people who dole out money that somebody else earned, while making judgments about work that they never took part in. Sixty years ago, I could walk into the Ford Foundation or the Field Foundation and speak to people who had been directly involved in created the wealth that sustained their giving. That’s why, at the Field Foundation, we decided to give all the money away and shut it down.
I don’t like begging, so I’m trying to find ways to earn money through program-related investments. I think about Hartsfield- Jackson Airport, which generates $50 billion a year in economic impact. It gets no city money, no county money, and barely any federal money – it’s all private money. If, when we were putting that together, we had put in the contract that one percent per quarter should be set aside for the needy, that would have been enough money to meet most of their needs.
My concept of philanthropy is to repay or pass on the blessings that I’ve received… I want to see to it that the institutions to which I am directly indebted give other young people that same chance.
Because he was building his business in Zimbabwe in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, Strive Masiyiwa set aside two percent of the profits of his multi-national corporation to feed and educate children, and last I heard they’ve helped somewhere between 250 and 300,000 children in Southern Africa. That’s a model I like. When we put Young Foundation money into something like aquaponics, we don’t expect a return on investment, but we do ask that they give back two percent per quarter when they start making money. It’s voluntary, not contractual, but it would put a constant stream of funds into the Foundation, which would let us keep the small staff we have.
My concept of philanthropy is to repay or pass on the blessings that I’ve received, and those blessings for me have largely come from the families supporting the church, supporting the YMCA, supporting historically black colleges. If we can sustain those institutions, we have a chance of producing others who will carry on this kind of work. As long as I’m able, I want to see to it that the institutions to which I am directly indebted give other young people that same chance.
Bright: You’ve just published a new memoir, The Making of Modern Atlanta, which I expect a lot of young people will be reading. What would you like them to get from this book?
Young: That, in a free enterprise system, you don’t have to take from the rich to give to the poor. You grow an economy and include everybody, and people get their share according to their abilities. That, basically, is what I call “public purpose capitalism.”
Atlanta works because, ever since it was burned down in the Civil War, it’s always been led by the vision of rising from the ashes. Atlanta functions because we pulled together, when all the other cities were pulling apart. In order for the city to succeed, we know we have to include everybody: black and white, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight. For example, if we had not included everybody in the mass transit vote, we would have lost it – it only passed by 400 votes in two counties. It was that close.
Atlanta works because it’s always been led by the vision of rising from the ashes… because we pulled together, when all the other cities were pulling apart.
In addition, we built the city with private money. There’s far more private wealth on the planet than there is public wealth, created through taxes. Everyone resents paying taxes, but there are people with more money than they know what to do with, people who will step up if you give them something to invest in like the airport, or industrial parks, or housing enterprise zones. That airport probably cost us $25 billion, and we’ve never put a penny of city money into it – and it generates $30 to $50 billion every year. We have known what we’ve been doing in this city since 1973, in a way they don’t seem to in St. Louis, or Detroit, or Cleveland, or any other city.
The other thing is, we made ourselves a part of the global economy. So it’s not Washington money coming in here, it’s money from Japan, from Holland, from Germany. There are over 2,000 German companies in Atlanta and almost 1,000 Japanese companies. People say that globalization has stolen jobs, which is true in part. But the thing about capitalism is, the larger you grow the pie, the more there is for everybody.
Sir José Bright is the vice president consultant for GCN.