Shirley Franklin has earned a lot of titles.
She was Atlanta’s first female mayor, serving two terms between 2002 and 2009, as well as the first Black woman elected mayor of a major southern city. She has served on more boards than I can count — including formerly serving on the Delta Airlines board of directors and currently serving as a director for Mueller Water Products. She co-chaired the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
Beyond her (many) accomplishments, Franklin has an exceptional ability to puzzle together resources to unlock meaningful solutions to complex problems. Perhaps nothing captures this spirit better than Franklin’s work as executive board chair for Purpose Built Communities.
Have you heard of Purpose Built Communities?
Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, works with struggling neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of disinvestment. Its model focuses on housing, education and wellness simultaneously with the help of a "community quarterback" — an organization that works to align strategies and services so the benefits of local initiatives compound.
The results are astounding.
Take its first project: Atlanta’s East Lake district. East Lake, a predominantly low-income, Black community, used to have a violent crime rate 18 times higher than the national average, according to Franklin.
Through Purpose Built’s model, East Lake saw a 90 percent reduction in violent crime between 1995 and 2011. During the same time, the neighborhood’s employment rate jumped to 73 percent (up from 13 percent), and 99 percent of students met the state math standards (up from 5 percent).
These stats are almost unbelievable and fly in the face of the traditional housing authority method to eradicate poverty. The success caught the eye of investor Warren Buffet, who became a co-founder of Purpose Built Communities to take the model to more neighborhoods.
"This model works and when you get a model that works, you want to pound the hell out of it," Buffett said at Purpose Built Communities gathering in 2017.
Today the organization works with 28 communities across the United States, all of which suffer from poverty and lack of opportunities.
Why am I telling you about Purpose Built Communities and Shirley Franklin?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling despair at how intertwined and broken our economic and social systems are. We’re failing low-income and Black communities, we’re terrible at handling a pandemic and we’re not decarbonizing the economy fast enough.
But Purpose Built Communities’ incredible outcomes show addressing multiple challenges at once isn’t just more effective — it’s necessary to make lasting, systemic change.
This is the same philosophy behind VERGE. GreenBiz created an event composed of the key markets driving the clean economy because we’ll never be successful if we silo them from one another. Problems this intertwined require a holistic approach from every sector.
So I reached out to Shirley Franklin to hear what we can learn from her work as we move through this messy moment, and how we can all become more than the sum of our parts if we work together. Questions and answers are edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Golden: There have been a lot of conversations recently about something that has been true for a very long time: The sustainability sector is doing a bad job of including low-income communities and communities of color. Are there ways that sustainability professionals could do better at including and serving the types of communities you're talking about?
Shirley Franklin: When you have a situation where people have been marginalized or left out of the economic mainstream, there is a tendency, in my observation, to assume that perhaps they're not upset about it. What they might talk about is, "I want my child to graduate high school. I want my child to get a better education then I have. I need a better bus route. I want neighborhoods that are safe. I don't want to have to duck from bullets." Those may be the first five, six, seven, eight issues.
When you have a situation where people have been marginalized or left out of the economic mainstream, there is a tendency, in my observation, to assume that perhaps they're not upset about it.
And usually, people close their notebook and they believe that is the whole story. But you don't get the whole story unless you stick around and develop some relationships.
The long-term solutions, the ones that are sustainable, the ones that reach beyond the immediate problems that people face, take developing a trusting relationship and a relationship where you are listening as much as you're talking. Which is very hard for all of us to do.
Golden: We work with corporations, and we work to drive forward systemic solutions. I know the philosophy of Purpose Built focuses on neighborhoods, and corporations are almost structured in the exact opposite way; they're spread out and have a presence that is dropped in. What can corporations be doing to help move along systemic challenges, given they’re stretched across so many different neighborhoods?
Franklin: Every single one of our network members has deep relations with the business sector, the not-for-profit sector and the public sector. It's often corporate leadership, in addition to foundation leadership, that steps up to actually tackle some of these problems.
I can't think of a single network member that doesn't have some strong corporate leadership. We would say it is essential. We would say this is a public-private partnership in a lot of ways.
I mean, in my 40 years of public experience, the reason neighborhoods lack investment has little or nothing to do with the residents. It has to do with the external sectors and factors. When you bring them all together, they generally want the same thing. They want a healthy neighborhood. Businesses want employees who are safe, who can perform at their highest level, and residents want the best job opportunities and business opportunities they can find.
So there's no lack of alignment in terms of objectives. Historically the lack of alignment has been around the resources and the collaboration.
Golden: One thing that has come up with coronavirus is how centralized supply chains create different kinds of risks, and it has raised questions about community resilience. What doesn't it mean for these communities to be resilient?
Franklin: Resilience requires several factors.
One of them is persistence. What you'll find in every one of these neighborhoods is persistence. People who work hard, who earn little, who have few opportunities and not much external assistance. If they are anything, they are hopeful, they are resilient and they are determined.
We have found, in a couple of our network members, a real focus on small and micro business. Both in Birmingham and in Atlanta, there's been a focus on micro and small business, and they’ve teamed with university or college or training programs.
I can't think of a single network member that doesn't have some strong corporate leadership. We would say it is essential.
We've all been tested. Every community has been tested with the pandemic. Even if you did not want for resources, you're tested because your whole way of life has shifted and changed. So developing strategies and techniques to reinforce resilience of families, of neighborhoods, of children, of cities, those are the skills that we're all going to need. The good news is that with our network members, there is a quarterback, which we define as a cross-section of people who are dedicated to the well-being and long-term health of that neighborhood. The pandemic has really stretched everyone.
Golden: A big drive for us is around finding solutions to climate change. I know that a lot of your work is so locally based. I'm curious about your view of how focusing on the local works to address the larger pervasive issues we face, like climate change.
Franklin: Well if you ask a former mayor, all good things happen locally.
Mayors and cities and counties are closest to the people. If you're trying to make a social change, a behavioral change, a directional change, it requires leadership that people will follow. Who will they follow? In many towns and cities across America, people follow local leaders. They follow their council member, their alderman, their county commissioner. They know them, they follow them because they have relationships with them.
To a large extent, if you do not include the local component of addressing the issues of cultural change, you're just making your work harder. I'm not for a moment suggesting that the global initiatives are not important. But equally important are the local initiatives.
In almost every organization I'm a part of, I urge them to make connections with the organizations of locally elected officials. That is the way you scale, and that is the way you can actually implement innovation and not just talk about it.