Shirley Franklin: Building Better Communities

Shirley Franklin: Building Better Communities

The former Atlanta mayor talks her nonprofit organization and fighting poverty

Chris Williams

by Chris Williams, November 15, 2012

Shirley Franklin: Building Better Communities

The issue of poverty continues to remain as a stain on the fabric of American society. There are currently 46.2 million people living below the poverty line, which means 15.1 percent of the population is suffering under unbearable living conditions. As a result, one nonprofit organization has moved to combat this issue in the cities of Atlanta, New Orleans and Indianapolis. Purpose Built Communities was launched in 2009 by Thomas G. Cousins, Warren Buffet and Julian Robertson with the intention of breaking the cycle of poverty through holistic community revitalization. Former mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin came on board a year later to spearhead the organization as Chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO.

EBONY recently sat down with Shirley Franklin to discuss the history behind the nonprofit and their plans to address poverty.

EBONY: How did you first become involved with public service?

Shirley Franklin: When I went away to college to attend Howard University in 1963, all of the students across America were interested in politics and public issues. My first involvement in politics came in college. A number of my classmates at Howard were very involved with the Civil Rights movement. I was enthralled and inspired by their leadership. Some of them formed SNCC, the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee. So that is how it all began.

EBONY: Poverty is a topic that goes unnoticed by many citizens. What made you decide to become involved with the nonprofit organization, Purpose Built Communities to break the cycle of it in our communities?

SF: I’ve been interested in the issue of poverty since I was a teenager. I was moved by the challenges put forth by Civil Rights leaders Dr. King and Malcolm X and the leadership of women such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, Patricia Harris, Harriet Tubman and lots of other people. If I could have designed my whole career, which is something we rarely get to do, it would’ve been to focus on the challenges that poverty presents to millions of Americans. My primary interest has been on the conditions of all people from different backgrounds who live in poverty in America. It seemed to me if my family and my neighbors could be a part of the economic mainstream, then everyone should have an opportunity.

As a teenager, I didn’t know how to direct that energy and then I met the people I described earlier and it helped me to form public policy. The opportunity to come and work with an organization that has developed a model to combat poverty has been wonderful. I was part of the development of the East Lake model, which Purpose Built uses and we’ve been able to see some positive outcomes in people’s lives. We’ve seen improvement in student performance, maintenance and sustainability of safe communities. Places where people of limited financial means can live safely and see opportunities to move up the economic ladder and clear opportunities for their children to break the cycle of poverty.

EBONY: Many people may be unfamiliar with the term holistic community revitalization. How would you describe it so people can understand its effectiveness?

SF: You can’t deny success and quality of a first-class education for any group of people, but especially those who have suffered from poor education. The combination of housing, community-based programs, and investment in commercial real estate makes us believe we can move the needle faster. So – instead of working on one initiative at a time; you adapt to a philosophy that you must work on those issues simultaneously. And this is over a period of five to ten years. This is what we’ve done at East Lake. This is what we see underway in Indianapolis and the Bayou district. I’m convinced as a former mayor that it’s the shortest distance between two points. It’s certainly not the only way to do it, but it’s the shortest distance between two points, which means fewer people suffer longer.

EBONY: Why do you think so many people in power turn a blind eye to those who are suffering in our society?

SF: I’m a steadfast supporter of the President, Vice President and their administration. They were dealt a very tough hand. The banks and the auto industry were about to collapse, the debt was rising faster than anyone anticipated and there were two wars raging so given all that the initiatives of the Obama administration has addressed some of the issues of poverty. The access of college and secondary education was greatly advanced by the administration. There are five to six examples of it ranging from the extension of unemployment benefits to the massive increase in funding to post-secondary education to the Affordable Health Care Act. I think the administration has done a good job in this regard thus far. These programs have helped working people, who,

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