What happens when you are born in a neighborhood that gives you a 4% chance to make it from poverty to upper middle class?
“I was born in a part of Atlanta where there’s a lot of multi-generational poverty because people don’t have a lot of access and opportunity,” shares Andre Dickens, one of the two remaining candidates for mayor of Atlanta, who was born in Adamsville, Georgia. “But I believe once given that opportunity, we rise to the occasion.”
The first to go to college in his family, Atlanta City Council member Dickens won the second spot in a Nov. 30 runoff against current City Council President Felicia Moore. “Here I was a little engine that could in a crowded field of 13 other people—all trying to get out our messagest out with a crowded field of 13 other people on the ballot,” says Dickens referring to the large number of candidates in the Nov. 2 general election where one person needed to win at least 50% of the vote. Moore received 41% of the vote, followed by Dickens with 23%. For months, he was not only the little engine, he was the faceless and voiceless PR engine. “Every newspaper, every TV screen showed the campaign as a two person race: Felicia Moore versus former mayor Kasim Reed,” remembers Dickens. “During the debates, I got to speak maybe six times. Now I’m talking 12 or 15 times.”
Off-camera, Dickens strategy was to push his “body of work” as an eight-year council member with two day jobs as head of the nonprofit TechBridges and a deacon at New Horizon Baptist Church for the past 15 years and wait for word of mouth to spread to the then 40% undecided voters. ”I have endorsements from Former Mayor Shirley Franklin, former mayor and Former Ambassador Andrew Young, and the majority of the City Council and the Atlanta school board.”
There’s nothing new about his platform. Across the board the issues are the same: public safety, affordable housing, transportation, good jobs, and more. The force behind his drive and momentum is his perspective. Remember when Atlanta was lovingly called Chocolate City? Well, so does he.
EBONY: When you were 16 you wanted to be Mayor. The city was a lot different then.
Andre Dickens: I had never been anywhere but Atlanta but it was the best city in the world based on what I saw on TV. We got Martin Luther King Jr. All our schools are named after Black civil rights leaders. We create music. I went to school with nothing but African Americans. The principal, the school superintendent, the mayor, the police chief, the fire chief—all those people were thriving, successful Black folks. And everywhere I went, I could find leaders.
What happened to that world?
We will get back to those glory days by making sure we have access to great training to get great paying jobs in order to live in the city. For a long time all of the companies recruited to come here have been importing their talent. This is how we ended up with this slow decline in the Black majority. We didn’t wake up one day and say, oh man, we no longer have Black majority. It was systematic. If you allow companies to come here and not require them to train local talent, Black folks are going to get pushed out to the suburbs while others move into the city center where the good real estate is—where you don’t have to drive far to go to work. It is a shift based on economics. I want to make sure we get the balance back.
How do you do that?
We have companies like Microsoft, Airbnb, Google that come to Atlanta from the West Coast or New York and the first thing they do is import talent—meaning they bring the talent with them. And I’m telling them, you’re messing up our ecosystem. Because the imported talent is making $150,000 to $200,000 and they plop them right next to someone who is making significantly less which leads to gentrification. Then people start saying, you need to solve this crime problem. You need to get rid of these vacant properties. You need to fix the homeless problem. Well, how did they get that way? Oh, because the rent got so high; the cost of living is so high. The root causes of these things are that there has been a lack of economic inclusion. So I say come here and build a bunch of $70,000 people and allow them to grow to $100,000 people versus having talent migrate.
You wear a lot of hats. How does your work in the private sector help the community?
I created the Technology Career Program within my nonprofit to train low income people for free. Over the last three years, 500 low income people are now making $70,000. As Chief Development Officer of TechBridge I meet with CEOs and executives for tech companies across Metro Atlanta and I have them tell me and others on my team what they’re hiring for six months down the line.
What are some examples of the tech jobs you are creating?
We’re teaching them how to fix iPhones, fly drones, coding, mobile app development and web app development. I have folks that were working at Walmart. Now they’re working at Accenture or Google in four or five months. Literally takes people from poverty to prosperity.
We have a lot of untapped local talent here.
Does the $70,000 salary require a college education?
We no longer need a college degree, or five or six years of experience in some of these technology fields in order to get a job. The technology fields pay a lot of money. We wanted to cut to the chase and help people earn certifications. Once they have the certification, they can get a job, pay for school and keep on going. We all have friends who started college but couldn’t finish because of money. Or, your family got sick. Some people, you know, just can’t finish college. I’ve even taken that program and moved it down into the high school and middle school where we’re training kids to code—because we can make $70,000 in Atlanta and be straight.
Access and opportunity are two words you use a lot. How do they translate to your work on the city council?
I’ve created policies that require private developers to set aside 10 to 15% of the units that are now being developed to have affordable housing. I created the $15 minimum wage for the 8,500 city employees. That’s important because you’re talking about Georgia which has a prohibition on cities setting their own minimum wage. So I can’t tell McDonald’s or Walmart to pay $15 an hour because the state precludes me but I can pay all of our city employees $15. And that’s what I did.
If you are elected, what is top on your agenda?
I plan to reopen City Hall, but reopen it safely. The public needs access to the government. And right now it’s closed so everything’s still virtual. We’re going to have to mask up and get in the same room at times. People from the private sector and the public sector are going to join me at City Hall to get back to running the government like a world class organization. So, I’m going to have to let some people go and I’m going to have to bring on some new people.
But we also have a labor shortage. The city is operating at 25% vacancies. We have city services that have fallen short like street sweeping and picking up yard trimmings. This is to me about management and leadership. How can we operationalize as a skill set? And then there are logistical challenges that require an engineering mind. We think based on seeing everything as a system. Let me just give you one logistical challenge in the pandemic. If you have to be six feet apart, how do you put three men on a garbage truck so they can do their job in a sprawling city where they could be 12 miles away from where they start their pickup route—and you don’t want to increase taxes to make this happen. So the questions needed to be managed are how do I get more equipment? How do I manage more pickups? How do I get people to a service level delivery where my garbage is going to be picked up every week. On time. And meanwhile, I got less vehicles and less people to do it. You really do need someone to engineer what happens next.
I also want an aggressive plan to build 20,000 units of affordable housing over the next eight years. We have 800 acres of vacant land across that the city owns in various locations and we would party with for profit and nonprofit developers. This is something I’ve been working on as a council member. Because it is government land, we don’t have to make a profit off of it. This will be affordable for people making about $45,000 and not have to pay more than 30% of their income on rent.