Aim of Atlanta Project To Aid Community
Carter links neighborhood values and national goals
DOUGLAS DEAN, one of 12 children in a single-parent family, knows about poverty and crime.
The 44-year-old Atlantan grew up in Summerhill, an inner-city neighborhood where the average annual income is still $6,700 per family. Now, Mr. Dean is president of Summerhill Neighborhood Inc. and a member of the Atlanta Project advisory board.
The Atlanta Project, a new program launched by the President Jimmy Carter Center, aims at attacking the poverty and crime of Atlanta. Former President Carter is marshalling community resources to wipe out joblessness, drugs, illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, and the lack of housing in the premier city of the South.
"This project will keep eight- and nine-year-olds from being shot down in public housing," says Dean. "If we can mobilize the rich and poor and form a real partnership, we can do something about this city's poverty and crime."
Almost 70 percent black, Atlanta is a model of racial harmony and professional opportunity. Fortune magazine recently hailed the corporate and cultural hub as the best place to do business in America. And Atlanta will host the 1994 Super Bowl and the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Despite its success, Atlanta residents rank second poorest per capita for cities in the country. Just a few blocks away from the sprawling convention facilities and sleek high-rises, many inner-city neighborhoods are ravaged by drugs, violence, and poverty. One-third of Atlanta's families live below the federal poverty level of $15,000 a year. An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people are homeless, even though nearly 12 percent of the housing units owned by the Atlanta Housing Authority stand vacant. The city 's crime rate is one of the highest in the nation, and violent crime among juveniles has tripled in the last five years.
Mr. Carter is determined to bridge the chasm between the haves and have-nots and remove the sense of hopelessness among families and community and government leaders. "Somewhere in God's world we need to demonstrate that progress can be made," he says.
The former president wants to better connect those in need with the agencies and services that can provide help. He also wants to coordinate efforts among the city's 110 federal agencies. Long-term commitment
Carter is not just lending his name to the Atlanta Project. Though he will continue working on international issues, the Atlanta Project is now his major priority. Since he first announced his ambitious plan last fall, he has been visiting local schools, public housing units, shelters, and high-rise complexes. He has also met with 1,500 civic, community, business, and religious leaders to determine the city's most immediate problems.
And while Carter quickly admits that tackling poverty and crime is "fraught with the possibility of failure," he points out that "the real failure, for Atlanta and cities like it, would be not to try."
"Carter is a godsend. With his contacts around the world, he can do more for this city in five minutes than we can do in five years," says Mayor Maynard Jackson.
The project is headed by Dan Sweat, the former president of Central Atlanta Progress, a business development group, and a full-time secretariat representing individuals in community development, education, housing, juvenile justice, and religious groups.
While the secretariat and the advisory committee are still discussing fund-raising and staffing, the members are taking a bottoms-up approach to create a sense of ownership and inclusion within local communities.
The secretariat has targeted 20 neighborhoods with a high number of single parents and pregnant teenagers - two factors that correlate with high rates of drug abuse, crime, homelessness, and school dropouts. The committee is moving to identify local coordinators who will work out of public high schools designated as service centers. By late spring, each coordinator will pull together a committee of local residents to develop a unique neighborhood plan and enlist volunteers.
The project has an annual budget of almost $4 million, primarily from federal money, grants, and donations. But the real backbone of the effort is community volunteers. Older mothers can become "grannies" and help pregnant teens learn to care for their infants. Adults can serve as mentors for potential dropouts and juvenile delinquents. Churches can adopt a family and renovate a boarded-up housing unit and tutor children. Even children can participate by helping truant friends get to school every day. National model
Emory University President James Laney first proposed the idea of working on domestic issues to Carter, citing the need to bring home the coalition-building approach that has served the Carter Center so well in the international community.
The unusual project is not without its critics. Civic leaders support the effort, but some community activists fear the project will be snarled in the red tape typical of so many programs. Others fear that Carter is not getting enough input from the "folks in the trenches," particularly from the black clergy and those working with the homeless.
The Rev. Gerald Durley, director of Community Education at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and a member of the Concerned Black Clergy, notes that the secretariat has made some mistakes in contacting the right people to serve on the committee. Reverand Burley says, though, "They're trying to correct them [the mistakes], and all of the pieces are coming together."
Some people are still skeptical. Sandra Robertson, the director of Georgia's Citizen Coalition on Hunger and editor of Street Heat, a magazine for the homeless, says, "People on the street are glad Carter is willing to roll up his sleeves and get something done for the poor, but they have a wait-and-see attitude."
Bill Bolling, founder and director of Atlanta Community Food Bank Inc., supports the project, but adds, "There's no easy, shortcut answer to education, housing, and jobs problems. They are systemic problems that require time and long-term commitment."
Carter and the secretariat remain optimistic. Carter, who has been in contact with Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Louis Sullivan, secretary of Health and Human Services, hopes that Project Atlanta will become a model for other cities across the nation.
He says, "I don't intend to see this project fail. Let the Atlanta example prove that hopelessness need not prevail."