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, like a lot of us, live paycheck to paycheck. So sometimes preventing poverty is as important as an investment in anything else.
EBONY: There was a national conference held by your nonprofit recently. What were some of the ideas and solutions that were discussed?
SF: We had a wonderful conference. This was our third annual network member conference. We have eight network members and we have another twenty cities we’re working with who are interested in the East Lake model that was developed here in the 1990s with the housing authority, the residents of public housing and private philanthropists. It is a model that is a fully integrated approach. Each conference we invite our network members where some of them make presentations or they’re just participants. We also invited others who were interested in the initiative. We had twenty six cities in attendance. There were philanthropic organizations, business people, school board representatives, housing authority representatives, governmental officials and concern citizens who were civically engaged. We talked about what it means to reform education and what kind of models work best.
We also talked about how we can develop the financial model to allow these initiatives to be sustainable. We had conversations about urban agriculture and grocery stores and the importance of closing the gap on food business in low income neighborhoods. We discussed how to provide job training, financial literacy and community wellness programs in these areas. Our theory is the most predictable change from blighted, impoverished communities occurs at the neighborhood level. The other part of the conference was on leadership.
EBONY: How many communities has your non-profit helped since its inception?
SF: We have eight network members and a couple dozen more that we work with. We would say we’ve influenced the thinking of people far more than the network members. Our goal is twenty five communities in the next three to four years that would have a model like East Lake, the Bayou district or Avondale Meadows in Indianapolis. In the mean time, any time we can help to inspire or support people who are doing part of the approach we’ve adopted we would be happy to do so.
EBONY: What are your plans for the organization over the next five years?
SF: Our intention is to work with twenty five communities who are committed to transforming the most impoverished neighborhoods in their cities. We will serve as supporters, coaches and facilitators on a pro-bono basis. Our administrative costs are covered by the philanthropic gifts of our three founders. We work free of charge. We’re not developers. The decisions about who the developers are, what businesses decisions are correct, what schools work for them are made by local leaders. We’re in the business of encouraging people to invite us in and to give us some time to tell our story. And, then we engage with them in getting the work done in their communities.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.