Investing in Opportunity: Georgia’s Civic Engagement Network

Like much of the South, Georgia is a racially diverse state rapidly growing even more so. Thanks in part to booming immigrant and refugee populations, it is projected to become majority-minority by 2025. And like its neighbors, Georgia has more than its share of challenges, including political representation that is not truly representative and persistent poverty, which is most acute in rural areas. Seventeen percent of Georgians live below the poverty line, with women and people of color disproportionately affected, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI), which provides nonprofits, policymakers and journalists with nonpartisan research and analysis.

Taifa Butler, Georgia Budget & Policy Institute

“When the Great Recession hit, we saw 20 years of wage growth disappear,” said GBPI Executive Director Taifa Butler with a snap of her fingers. “One million of the 1.5 million Georgians in poverty are black and Latino. Women make 70 cents to the dollar. Eliminating the gender pay disparity alone would bring $14.4 billion dollars to the Georgia economy. We have to get these ideas into the hands of the members of the public who can build political will to make changes.”

Fortunately, Georgia boasts a burgeoning civic engagement network fighting to do just that: mobilizing around distinct challenges with shared resources and aligned strategies. Statewide organizations are partnering with grassroots groups to develop skilled leaders and build a broad coalition working year-round on local, state and federal issues to advance social and economic inclusion for low-wealth families, immigrant communities and people of color.

ProGeorgia coordinates this 31-member network, helping to align strategies and messaging, strengthen members’ capacity, and offer technical support, re-granting, and resources for issue campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts. “The work these organizations are taking on is dealing with people as whole people, more than one issue or identity,” said Executive Director Page Gleason. “How do we, together, create the Georgia we want? There wasn’t one organization or person or thing that got us into this mess, and there’s not going to be one organization or person or thing that gets us out of this mess.”

Another statewide group focusing on leadership development and grassroots civic engagement is Project South, whose work builds on a tradition of young people leading the movement toward a more socially and economically inclusive South. One of their primary undertakings is connecting people across socioeconomic barriers while helping communities develop leaders who have personal stakes in the issues they’re facing. “People most impacted by poverty, violence and economic problems have to be in the leadership of finding solutions to those problems,” said Co-director Emery Wright. “That’s easy to say, but if we take it seriously, our major priority has to be to create space for those people to be in leadership. Some leaders are leaning back on old practices, but we have to find ways to innovate in the face of great change, which could be a great crisis, but it could be a real opportunity.”

Southern Regional Organizer La’Die Mansfield added, “Project South focuses on looking at local leaders, things moving in communities, and uplifting those communities, seeing what they need: Who are the leaders? What are the issues? They already know, they don’t need anyone to come in and tell them. How can we give you the tools you need to help you engage in leadership development, to have someone who looks like you in this position?”

The statewide groups have mutually reinforcing connections with a web of support organizations also focused on leadership development, economic opportunity, voter engagement, and mobilization of directly affected people around pressing issues.


One of those issues is the 2020 census, the accuracy of which has far-reaching consequences, including district boundaries, policy decisions, House seats and allocation of federal resources for hundreds of programs. Many groups are historically underrepresented, including minorities, low-income households, renters, non-English speakers and young children. Advocates and the Government Accountability Office are especially concerned about the next count, however, for several reasons. Facing funding gaps, the Census Bureau plans to allow responses via phone and internet in addition to paper forms and door knocks. In rural areas, where poverty is prevalent and the communications infrastructure is weak at best, that could mean drastically inaccurate counts. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 25 percent of rural Georgia – more than 626,000 people – lacks access to adequate broadband access. A census undercount will result in further disinvestment in education, health, infrastructure and other public goods.

Another cause for concern is the heightened fear of self-reporting in neighborhoods where anti-Islamic rhetoric and deportation raids are driving people underground. “Civic engagement work is often parachuted in – folks without trust in the community come in for an election,” said Tamieka Atkins, Co-director of ProGeorgia. “Our partners are trusted messengers; they’re from the community or have connections, so there’s more trust to open doors. These organizations are community staples, so there’s more trust to fill out forms. We need to do more of that work, grow it to scale. There’s value in finding trusted messengers.”

Adelina Nichols, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Helen Butler, Coalition for the People’s Agenda, Aisha Yaqoob, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Estela Martinez, Georgia Alliance of Latino Elected Officials
Adelina Nichols, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights; Helen Butler, Coalition for the People’s Agenda; Aisha Yaqoob, Asian Americans Advancing Justice; Estela Martinez, Georgia Alliance of Latino Elected Officials

Several of these groups are banding together to reach the communities they represent. “We are hoping to use coalition members as trusted organizations for census and redistricting work,” explained Aisha Yaqoob, Policy Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “People won’t want to fill these forms out truthfully, but the government will use the data to make policy changes in the future. A top-down approach doesn’t make sense for our communities.”

Voting Rights

This coalition is also registering and educating voters, tackling barriers to the polls and encouraging people to run for office. “A big piece of what we do is encourage people to enter the space to see the power they already have,” says Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez. “It’s a paradigm shift; everyone has the ability for leadership. We have to create space to allow others to contribute to the broader community – a safe space for people to see themselves in that light for first time, to find their civic voice and have the strength and courage to speak up on issues important to them.”

These groups believe boosting immigrant communities’ representation and voter turnout will force policymakers to be more responsive, and their efforts are paying off. A new study by GALEO finds Georgia’s Latino voter turnout in the 2016 election surpassed 2012 and the national average. Over 53 percent of the state’s Latino voters came out, up from 47 percent in 2012. Nationally, nearly 48 percent of Latino voters participated. “Latinas led the way, because they came out in Georgia at 73 percent, which is historic,” said Estela Martinez, who chairs GALEO’s Leadership Advisory Council. “Our method of change, of shifting power and sharing power, is access, engagement and representation. We have to address the language barriers and the extra scrutiny for Latinos and Asians at the polls. We have to help people navigate the civic engagement pipeline to feel more comfortable every step of the way.”

Advocates in rural areas report more threats and voter intimidation – tactics like placing polling sites far from bus lines or moving them on election day. In Baker County, for example, which has a high senior population, many residents must travel more than 20 miles to vote, so on Election Day, the Southwest Georgia Project coordinated vans to get people to the polls. “Voter intimidation is real in Southwest Georgia and getting worse every day,” said Program Director Amber Bell. “We have to stand up and say, ‘we won’t accept this.’”

Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

Another challenge is convincing policymakers to apply an equity lens to major public works projects to minimize displacement and gentrification. The Atlanta Beltline is a 22-mile ring of green space, trails and transit encircling central Atlanta. As portions are completed, nearby housing prices skyrocket. A Georgia Tech study found home values within a half-mile of the beltline increased 40 to 70 percent between 2011 and 2015, far exceeding the citywide average of about 17 percent. 

“Public policy is, in essence, a reflection of the values of the people in power,” said Nathaniel Smith, founder of Partnership for Southern Equity, which promotes balanced growth and inclusive prosperity in and around metro Atlanta. Smith is pushing for the project to include an affordable housing strategy that would establish a housing trust fund and allocate some of the public money to subsidize affordable and mixed-income transit-adjacent housing. “Development should happen with people, not to people. They should have a role in land use decisions.”

Another organization advocating for a seat at the planning table for communities affected by the project is Georgia STAND-UP, which describes itself as “a think and act tank” for working communities. “Atlanta is a tale of two cities,” said Executive Director Deborah Scott. “The challenge is to take those areas the beltline hasn’t quite turned around, to look at those neighborhoods and see what they need with racial equity at the center of it, to make sure people aren’t swept out of their neighborhoods.”

Nathaniel Smith, Partnership for Southern Equity; Valerie Wilson, Atlanta Beltline Partnership; Deborah Scott, Georgia STAND-UP
Nathaniel Smith, Partnership for Southern Equity; Valerie Wilson, Atlanta Beltline Partnership; Deborah Scott, Georgia STAND-UP

Like the construction equipment shaping the beltline, the distinct issues these advocates take on may come and go, but the civic engagement infrastructure is in Georgia to stay. And its members see those issues both as handles to greater equity, representation, and social and economic justice, and as means to an end. “How do we get people to understand that the issues they care about are the ones to drive them to the polls, be they transportation, education or a living wage?” asked Atkins. After all, it’s the connections of the organizations, the engagement of the communities and the power of the people that will move the state forward.

“Big relationships will change the American South, and we have to create the ecosystem of various partners to make the South what it needs to be, and at the same time honor the legacy of those who have come before us,” said Smith.

Disclosure: Jerry Gonzalez serves on the board of the Babcock Foundation. 



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