The need for intergenerational dialogue between Young Turks and Old Guard
A specter of change is engulfing Atlanta, a sunbelt city that for decades has been promoted by marketers as a “city too busy to hate.” Because of the number of African Americans, black millionaires, HBCUs and educated Blacks from around the country and world here, African Americans have embraced Atlanta as a mecca, a destination where dreams are created and can come true. How much longer will this be true (if it ever was)?
Our city is undergoing a tremendous transition, and dialogue between the old and new guards is needed now more than ever. The gap between the rich and poor is growing? Many seeking affordable housing cannot afford the homes being built or renovated throughout the city. Too many of our youth are uneducated, unskilled and unemployable.
The rapid gentrification that is underway throughout the city has serious implications for mass displacement, with political implications for new constituencies. How will this affect the upcoming elections for mayor, city council and the school board? Who’s talking to whom about what?
I received spirited responses to my column last week about a split between the black old and new leadership in the city. I used the Atlanta School Board’s recent decision not to extend Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s contract, despite the urging to the contrary by a few (who are considered old guard), to illuminate the divide.
Upon reflection, I recall when I was 36 years old and first elected to the Atlanta City Council some 30 years ago. Back then Marvin Arrington, who at the time was President of the Council, labelled me as one of the “young turks,” which literally means a “young person eager for radical change to the established order.” I do not believe he meant the label as a complement, but I embraced and relished the role.
Certainly, I was a member of a new guard of elected officials who, along with then councilpersons Bill Campbell, Thomas Cuffie, and others, aimed to make positive and progressive changes in our beloved city. Irrespective of how history judges us now, individually and collectively, we did make important contributions: a citywide first source jobs policy that required city contractors to offer jobs first to local residents, the Westside TAD, a Vine City and English Avenue community trust fund, a revamped airport principal concessionaire contract to open up more contracts to small businesses, and citywide ethics reform legislation that required more disclosure of elected officials doing business with city contractors—to name a few.
As a young turk, I devoted much time conferring with and listening to mayors Maynard Jackson and Sam Massell, councilpersons Carolyn Long Banks, Myrtle Davis, Ira Jackson, and Rev. Hosea Williams; specifically, because they were older, and I thought their experiences to be valuable.
In the broader community, I often met with business, civic, education, and religious leaders, including haircare entrepreneur Nathaniel Bronner, Sr., Rev. Dr. W.L, Cottrell, Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley, entertainment manager and political consultant David Franklin, insurance magnate Jesse Hill, NAACP leader Jondelle Johnson, educator Dr. Mack Jones, construction magnate and first black to chair the Metro Chamber Herman Russell, former councilman and attorney John Sweet, real estate developer Ronald Wilson, and many others to seek advice and counsel. I did not always take their advice, but I always sought it.
These conversations were intergenerational, and they helped me understand the history, points of debate, and, what Ira Jackson called the “long view” on policies. Above all, these dialogues taught me how to avoid pitfalls and dead-ends. I attained knowledge and wisdom that often helped make my proposals salient and easier to sell to those on the fences. The old guard did not dilute my youthful idealism, it provided me clarity and perspectives I could not have arrived at on my own.
It troubles me today to see the new leadership struggling with many of the same issues we struggled with or addressed 30 years ago. Gentrification did not just crop up two or five years ago. We saw Inman Park, Kirkwood, Grant Park, and other mixed income and predominately black neighborhoods gentrify three or four decades ago. What did we do wrong then that allowed such widespread displacement to occur? What lessons have been learned for today’s leaders?
Mayor Reed’s administration enthusiastically supported the development of the Mercedes Benz Stadium without even superficial dialogue with those of us who helped negotiate the Georgia Dome. If there had been dialogue perhaps we could have prevented the stadium from being built smack in the middle of Martin Luther King, Dr., cutting off the black Westside communities from downtown. Maybe the historic black churches would not have been razed to make way for Arthur Blank’s billion dollar, oversized playhouse. Maybe an honest discussion of the shortcomings of the dome stadium community trust fund would have resulted in something better and more community-controlled than the Westside Fund that is out of reach of our community.
Intergenerational communication between the old and new guard is a special challenge for the African American community because we lack think tanks and policy centers where this much needed dialogue usually occurs. While there is still time, there needs to be a knowledge transfer from the old guard to the new guard that could start with a high level summit organized by several of the colleges that comprise the Atlanta University Center (CAU, Spelman, ITC, and Morehouse). Beyond this, it would be wise for the old and new guards, along with community leaders, to break bread together on a quarterly or semiannual basis. These past and present leaders will get to know one another better, improve communication, and possibly hear from experts on best practices.
Being an elected official is an awesome responsibility but not one to shoulder alone. And, above all, we need our elected and public officials and community leaders to be politically progressive and totally committed to serving the needs of the “least of these” who are often without voice or resources.
Let us blend together the best ideas available. Let us engage with each other like we’ve never done before. Let us, to paraphrase Acts 2:17, unleash the power of the prophesies of our sons and daughters, the visions of our young, and the dreams of our elders.