Friday, August 21, 2015

Organizational Collaboration not Fragmentation Will Help Atlanta Public Schools

Atlanta Public Schools (APS) relies heavily on human and financial resources from non-profit organizations to support the system in educating Atlanta’s youth. Fragmentation of Georgia’s non-profit sector has diluted the pool of resources so sorely needed by APS, and as a result, those who would benefit the most – children and families – end up not receiving the support they need.

Rendell Jackson, Assistant Director of Athletics, Atlanta Public Schools; David Jernigan, Atlanta Public School Deputy Superintendent; Isaiah Jimerson, L.E.A.D. Ambassador, Benjamin E. Mays High School c/o 2019. Isaiah donated $1,000 to his middle school alma mater Jean Childs Young as the recipient of the APIVEO Player of the Month.

Georgia’s fragmented non-profit sector exists, in part, because organizations that focus on the same issues – poverty, for instance – are unwilling to work together for the betterment of who they wish to serve. These organizations may understand the various causes and effects of poverty, but they each have their own ideas about how to deal with it – sometimes to the detriment of those they are looking to serve. In my experience, when the leadership of an organization focuses on their own interests instead of the needs of the ones they are trying to help, then service or charity becomes patronizing and toxic. There is a big difference in providing people what they need as opposed to what one thinks they need and wants them to have. (A great read on this topic is a book called Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton.)

As an APS partner, L.E.A.D. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct) provides resources that empower inner-city black males to create a sustainable life for themselves for the betterment of their communities. We work, and have worked, with organizations that understand what it means to serve and those that just don’t get it. For instance, in 2010, we started working with another non-profit organization who admired the work that we were doing and wanted to become involved in APS. We thought we could work together towards a positive outcome for APS, its students and families. As we began to cultivate a relationship with this organization, I started seeing signs of fundamental differences in how our organizations sought to serve. One day it became very clear at a weekend youth baseball game.

L.E.A.D. invited the other organization’s members to come out to a Saturday baseball game in the fall of 2010, to show support for our players and witness the partnership in action. When my family showed up at the field, we saw a table piled high with used clothes. After wading through several disgusted stares from our families, we found out that the items were intended for them. Needless to say, I was incensed. Neither our leadership nor our families ever indicated a need for clothing, used or otherwise, and no one from the other organization ever asked us if this was a need we needed to fill. This action showed a lack of organizational collaboration and a lack of understanding of what it means to serve in such a way that others maintain their dignity. Although they may have had good intentions, their actions ended up sending the wrong message to our families who are looking for empowerment and not hand-outs.

Lesson learned: Many want to serve in the inner city of Atlanta, but few know how to do it in such a way that those being served are given the opportunity to maintain their dignity.

We’ve also had times when we’ve had to admit that some of our own programs weren’t working. Just this past year, we had to humble ourselves and realize that the education piece of our programming wasn't working the way it needed to in order for our Ambassadors to improve academically. Since math is an area where most students struggle, we decided to implement a math camp as part of our summer programming. I can only describe the two years we did this as a "don't throw the baby out with the bath water" experience. There were a few good outcomes of the pilot, but not enough to justify keeping this aspect of our programming in house. That's why this year, we partnered with Odyssey Atlanta; an educational non-profit organization that serves students in grades 1st-12th from economically disadvantaged communities. Odyssey’s academic enrichment program focuses on students with unmet potential, preparing them for high school graduation and supporting them on their path to college. It made absolutely no sense for L.E.A.D. to provide a math camp, or any other kind of academic offering, when Odyssey has an established track record of excellence in this area.

The lack of mutual support among Atlanta organizations has not always been the case. I remember like it was yesterday, as a Grove Park Elementary School student in the early 80's. Dr. Alonzo Crim was the Superintendent for Atlanta Public Schools back then. In fact, in 1973, he became ”the first Black Superintendent of schools in a major city in the South”. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who was the President of the Atlanta Board of Education at the time, had recommended him for the position.

Dr. Crim began an initiative that he called a “Community of Believers” - a network that consisted of Atlanta organizations and individuals who believed in the potential of the City’s children and who were willing to invest time and money into that potential. When Dr. Crim became superintendent in 1973, he promised to build a school system ''where students would know that people cared about them'' and would help them achieve.

Under Dr. Crim's leadership, students’ performance levels in basic skills rose to above the national average, attendance increased significantly to over 92%, and the graduation rate rose to more than 70% (Page, 2000). He was the longest tenured African-American superintendent in the nation by 1986. Dr. Crim’s legacy is captured and continued at the Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence at Georgia State University

I look forward to a time when we can get back to a collective focus among Atlanta’s organizations, and that it rivals that of Dr. Crim’s Community of Believers. I also look forward to the time when, through a concerted, authentic effort, Atlanta Public Schools become the school of choice for Atlantans, and there will be no need for voucher programs. In order to break the cycle of poverty, we must come together with collective influence and understand that new voices with proven track records deserve a seat at the table.

C.J. Stewart speaking to United States Senator David Perdue about L.E.A.D. at U.S. Military Academy Day 2015


Wednesday, August 5, 2015


The Inaugural Safe at Home Game was played last Saturday and was a huge success! It was the final activity of a month long series of events that were designed to build rapport between Atlanta’s inner city youth and cops. The final score was L.E.A.D. Ambassadors 10, Atlanta Police Department 7. The Ambassadors won the game! However, I think everyone who participated would agree that both groups won the series because Safe at Home was a game changer for them and the communities in which they live and work.

Working with APIVEO and the Atlanta Police Foundation to create the Safe at Home program has been one of the best decisions that we’ve made as an organization. Our work together created opportunities for the Ambassadors and the police officers to interact on a level playing field. As a result, police officers saw the Ambassadors as potential leaders, with purpose, and hope for a better future.

They were all very polite and genial. I could sense that they had hope and an idea that they are going somewhere in life. The hopelessness and its collateral effects that I normally see in kids from their neighborhoods doesn't operate in them. ~Lieutenant Jim Hodges

C.J. Stewart exchanging game jerseys with Lt. Hodges of the Atlanta Police Department. Photo credit Jim Stacey.

Additionally, because L.E.A.D. Ambassadors effectively connected with police, they learned to see the officers’ human side.

I learned that everyone is human and has different emotions. The police started to get a little frustrated when they made errors and I realized that we do the same thing on our own team. So no one should get mad at someone else because they didn't do correctly on the field or at the plate. We should all keep our heads high and continue to have a great game. ~ L.E.A.D. Ambassador Cameron Giles

L.E.A.D. Ambassador Cameron Giles (B.E. Mays High School, Atlanta Public Schools) and Lt. Jim Hodges. Photo credit Jeff McPhail.

I also came to realize a few things from my own experience over the last month. For starters, we don’t take time to get to know our police officers. We tend to put more effort into learning about celebrities and their lives, than we put into getting to know those whose job it is to protect us.

Another realization hit me, as I participated in a police ride in Zone 3 - the area around Atlanta Braves Turner Field. Dispatch alerted us that several shots were being fired in a neighborhood nearby. As a civilian, my instinct was to get as far away from gunfire as possible, while the officers went into it. This made me think about what would happen without a police presence in our neighborhoods. I urge you to think about the chaos that would ensue in that scenario.

It also occurred to me later, while speaking with our police officers’ wives during the first two innings of the game on Saturday that the officers have families, same as me, only I don’t put my life in danger like that on a daily basis.

I can honestly say all of this has been humbling. I'd also like to think that I represented my community well, and that the time I spent with the officers on the ride-along helped raise awareness of the work we are doing through L.E.A.D. and with our Ambassadors.

Photo credit Jim Stacey.
The relationship between APIVEO, Atlanta Police Foundation and L.E.A.D. is stronger now because of our work together on Safe at Home, and that is a big win for all three organizations, especially our Ambassadors, police officers, families of both groups, and Atlanta’s inner city communities. Together our voices will be heard as we develop Atlanta’s next generation of leaders. You can help….ask us how.