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Cities of Hope: Carter's Atlanta Project Seeks New Face for Poor Neighborhoods

This article is the second in a series of three to explore new strategies being used by the philanthropic community to aid urban America.

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ATLANTA--On the cover of an Atlanta Project brochure is a compelling photograph.

The background features this city's gleaming skyline, a metal-and-glass vision of a prosperous late-20th-century metropolis.

In sharp contrast is the foreground, where, underneath a raised highway, a series of makeshift shelters stand, surrounded by weeds and trash.

The picture seems to capture a metaphor former President Jimmy Carter has used to explain the mission of the Atlanta Project, the large-scale, private-sector initiative he is spearheading to improve the quality of life in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"Atlanta is in many ways a rich city, but the disparity between rich and poor is so great, that in effect we have here two cities," Mr. Carter observed at a meeting of local business leaders last year.

Since he left public office in 1981, Mr. Carter has gained renown for his humanitarian work both overseas and around the United States. But that work acquired an ambitious new focus in the fall of 1991, when Mr. Carter decided to turn his attention to the problem of chronic poverty here in the capital of his home state.

The creation of the Atlanta Project--an effort encompassing community and economic development, health, education, housing, and criminal justice--was spurred by a series of conversations Mr. Carter had with James Laney, the president of Emory University here.

Mr. Carter was also inspired by a visit he and his wife Rosalynn paid to Atlanta's Grady Hospital, where they encountered a premature infant weighing barely more than a pound. The baby girl was born to a crack-addicted teenage mother who had not even known she was pregnant and had given birth on a bathroom floor.

Although the infant survived, said Gwen Davis, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Project, today she has multiple disabilities--including vision and hearing problems--and lives in foster care.

The girl's story "just speaks to the very critical conditions under which people live or exist," Ms. Davis said.

In addition, she noted, the city spent approximately $300,000 to bring the child up to normal birthweight, an expense it could have avoided if her mother had had access to prenatal care--the kind of need the Atlanta Project is seeking to address.

Not One, But Many Crises

The genesis of the project, observers point out, differs notably from that of another nationally watched urban initiative, Rebuild L.A. (See Education Week, June 2, 1993.)

The Atlanta Project was not born out of one monumental emergency like the Los Angeles riots, but was created in response to a multitude of less visible crises. For instance:

  • Atlanta ranks ninth among the nation's cities with 100,000-plus populations in the number of residents below the federal poverty level, according to the Census Bureau.
  • The number of drug cases heard in juvenile court in Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta, has increased 17-fold over the last five years, according to Bradley J. Boyd, the court's chief probation officer.
  • Georgia ranks at the bottom of the 50 states in infant-mortality rates and high school dropout rates, and in percentages of low-birthweight babies and single teenage parents, data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation show.

"It's not the kind of crisis that knocks you over with a high wind," said Patricia Willis, the director of corporate and education affairs at the BellSouth Corporation, which is aiding the Atlanta Project. "But it's an embarrassment that all this is going on and you don't even know about it."

That sense of embarrassment is heightened for many Atlantans by the approach of the 1996 Olympic Games, which the city will host. Civic leaders are acutely aware that Atlanta--both its glamour and its flaws--will be at the center of international media attention.

With the Olympics looming, said Dan Sweat, the coordinator of the Atlanta Project, local leaders resolved not simply to "get the homeless people out from under the viaducts and hide them out somewhere, and hang banners out at the airport, and then [when the Games are over] get everybody out of the bushes, take down the banners, and it's business as usual."

One of the first objectives of the Atlanta Project was to drum up support in the private sector.

Inner-City Tour

Last May, for example, Mr. Carter took corporate and foundation officers on a tour of the encampments of some of the city's homeless people. The tour was followed by visits to social-service organizations, to show how such groups were aiding the homeless.

Strategies such as these appear to have hit home. Already the Atlanta Project has obtained $18.5 million in cash commitments and $12 million in in-kind contributions--enough to support the open-ended project through its first five years.

Most of the grants have come from corporations and foundations based in Atlanta, but support has also come from national philanthropies such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Greenwich, Conn.-based Casey Foundation, and the ARCO Foundation in Los Angeles.

"There are a lot of similarities between the Atlanta Project and the New Futures effort and other things we're involved in," said Ira Cutler, the director for planning and development at the Casey Foundation, which has stressed a comprehensive approach to community problems in efforts such as its New Futures project.

Mr. Sweat described the Atlanta Project's mission in simple terms: "To make life better for people who always get left behind."

Formulating the solutions, however, is clearly a complex task.

Not 'Santa Claus'

The project, its staff members stress, is not intended to be a "Santa Claus" program that directly distributes resources. Rather, they say, it exists to convene and support neighborhood structures that empower residents to develop solutions to community problems.

At the outset, the project targeted 20 "clusters," or neighborhoods, based on the high incidence of single-parent families and school-age mothers residing in them. Some 500,000 individuals live in the region encompassed by the 20 clusters, which spans three counties in the metropolitan area: Fulton, Clayton, and DeKalb.

Each cluster was established by identifying the neighborhoods served by one of 20 public high schools and its middle and elementary "feeder" schools.

Each cluster has a full-time coordinator paid by the Atlanta Project. The coordinators--all of whom must have lived in their clusters for at least five years--work with a volunteer steering committee of community leaders to identify problems and formulate a local plan of action.

No Single Answer

Sitting in her small office at Alonzo Crim High School one day last month, Mary D. Brown, the coordinator for the Crim cluster, said that initially there was some confusion over what purpose the Atlanta Project served. Some social-service providers, for instance, saw it as an attempt to replace them, she said.

"People are very turf conscious in this area," she said.

Since then, Ms. Brown and her steering committee have worked "to let them know we're not the new kid on the block trying to take over everything." Instead, Ms. Brown said, they have explained that the project's purpose is to serve as a "catalyst ... to bring people and resources together."

The emphasis on galvanizing each neighborhood to seek its own remedies means that in education, for example, there is no one sweeping reform agenda for all 20 clusters.

"We are trying to be very careful so we aren't coming in with a 2-by-4 and beating up on people's heads," Mr. Sweat said. "It's not our role to run in a bunch of high-powered consultants and say we want to reform the school system."

Instead, Ms. Brown noted, "the plan for each community has to come from within the cluster," and project staff members can in turn offer resources and technical help.

In the Crim High School cluster, for example, the 11-member steering committee hopes to establish after-school programs at all of the cluster's 11 schools, to recruit volunteers and apply for grants to help the schools, and to provide preparation programs for the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Lining Up Partners

Each cluster is also matched with a corporate partner--in Crim's case, the Marriott Corporation. In addition, Ms. Brown is making sure individual schools within the cluster have their own business partners.

Meanwhile, other corporations have elected to work on a specific issue on a clusterwide basis.

BellSouth, for example, has decided to focus on adult literacy. In addition to contributing about $500,000 and assigning three full-time staff members to the project, the Atlanta-based corporation has mobilized its employees to serve as volunteers.

A top priority of the Atlanta Project's headquarters staff has been to help the cluster coordinators and steering committees tap into existing resources. Elise Eplin, a project manager, was hired to oversee a $350,000 grant the Carnegie Corporation awarded specifically to identify what already works. Ms. Eplin is currently working to create an electronic data base of information on "best practices" in service provision.

"We want it focused on looking at what's already existing and working so the Atlanta Project doesn't reinvent the wheel," she explained.

A Call to Service

In addition to its success in raising money from leading corporations and philanthropies, the project has conducted a massive volunteer-recruiting effort to support both citywide and cluster-level projects.

This spring, for instance, volunteers played a pivotal role in staging one of the project's first major events. In late April and early May, some 12,000 Atlantans canvassed the city in an eight-day, door-to-door child-immunization campaign. As a result, some 17,000 of the 54,000 preschool-age youngsters who live in the cluster areas were immunized or had their vaccination records updated.

"I think it's been a phenomenal drawing of manpower in Atlanta," remarked Robert H. Hull, the president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations.

In addition, he noted, "the corporate community almost seems to be competitive in trying to support the effort, [in seeing] who can make the larger splash."

Questions and Momentum

But the Atlanta Project has not been without its critics. During the project's early stages, for example, some black community leaders criticized it for an approach they said was too "top down" and lacking in sufficient grassroots input at top decisionmaking levels.

Another hurdle during the first year has been providing enough tangible signs of progress while not rushing through the planning stages.

Many residents, Ms. Eplin remarked, "look and say, 'They've been at this for a year; what have they done?'"

She and others characterized the recent immunization drive as an important step--a visible indicator of what the project can do and a move that has both built morale and kept momentum going.

Alicia Phillips, the executive director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Foundation, who also advises one of the clusters, suggested that "one of the stumbling blocks" of the project has been "saying things before we have the capacity to do them."

"There were a lot of carts before the horse; we had to move so fast to catch up," Ms. Phillips said, referring to the influx of volunteers the project experienced before it was sure how it would utilize them.

One of Ms. Phillips's hopes for the future is to see a strong network develop that links the Atlanta Project with other similar urban-renewal initiatives, so they can learn from one another's successes and failures.

"We need to have a way of communicating and convening," she said. "I think it's critical."

Next week: The Baltimore-based Enterprise Foundation teams up with the city government and residents to transform one neighborhood.

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