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Greater Equity Through Data Collection, Courageous Conversations, and Collaborations

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Vicki Pozzebon

Can data collection and community mapping make strides toward greater equity in American cities? One Southern nonprofit says yes.

Data collection and mapping can often be a tedious process. Partners jump on and off these types of projects all the time. Collaborations can fall apart in a collective impact model, or, if the process meets completion, the results often end up too difficult to decipher and are left unused. But the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) is doing data collection and mapping for social equity different, and it’s having an immediate impact.

A History of Community Action

Started in 2009 by Nathaniel Smith, Partnership for Southern Equity has made great strides in just a few short years in creating opportunities for transportation, economic inclusion, energy, and equitable development. Smith was born and raised in a community action and social justice family – his parents were civil rights activists alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – and has dedicated his career to the study of equity and social justice, working first as the Director of Partnerships and Research for Equitable Development at Emory University and now as the Chief Equity Officer and Founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity. His philosophy is simple: “The push for equity in our communities is the deciding challenge and opportunity of our time. We have to begin to think about how to engage all people to ensure we maintain all levels of prosperity in our nation.”

The Partnership for Southern Equity’s mission is laser focused on equity, pushing for policies and actions that promote equity and shared prosperity in metropolitan Atlanta. Through forums, research, and organizing efforts, PSE brings together the regional community to lift up and encourage just, sustainable, and civic practices for balanced growth and opportunity.

Organizing and Community Change

In a part of the country where the primary community anchors were black churches and situated in the cradle of the civil rights movement, Partnership for Southern Equity weaves together a tapestry of grassroots organizing groups, policy makers, and grasstops organizations already doing complimentary work. Where churches once were the heart, soul, and safe spaces for activism, Partnership for Southern Equity now hosts real talk in community convenings that empower collaborators to take on issues that will drive the effort forward for an equitable Metro Atlanta. Through those conversations, key areas of longtime inequity ranging from housing to transportation to environmental issues quickly became apparent and rather than focus on the problems, Partnership for Southern Equity aimed to figure out how to use the information brought forward by partner organizations to create a tool that would provide data, input, community buy-in, and results. Taking all of these areas into consideration, embarking on a data collection mapping project to identify and spotlight key areas of inequity became a way to move forward with solutions, Smith says. 

The Metro Atlanta Equity Atlas (MAEA) creates ways for citizens, organizations, and government leaders and policy makers to engage in effective ways to deal with Atlanta’s generations of inequity and transportation issues. Many organizations, universities, and government agencies have embarked on community mapping projects across the country that aim to point out the assets, gaps, opportunities, and issues where inequity exists or the infrastructures necessary to correct them. Often the information is gathered it can then live in databases online, unused by the very citizens who so desperately need the services the data purports to change. Without action, the data becomes useless. What MAEA has done in the Greater Atlanta area is bring together all these entities to not only map the useful data but celebrates its results and inspires the community and the various organizations that can step up for immediate action.

The maps cover a list of areas: demographics, economic development, education, environment, health, housing, public safety, transportation. The website features an instructional video on how to use the maps and implement the data. Partner organizations have hosted events for citizens to learn about the tool, engage in its results, and discover what their role can be to support or help organizations or policy makers. Smith says it’s important that the website be accessible to all citizens and is democratized, because it levels the playing field over who has the power of information. MAEA is about inclusion and justice, and has created a historic mapping tool for the South that has never existed.

Courageous Conversations

In order to continue to keep conversations just and inclusive, it’s important to host community events that allow its participants to fully engage. Putting the powerful MAEA data in the hands of community members and celebrating its results has been the key to successfully implementing change. Looking at history and how the structure of racism plays a role in development and communities, and putting power into the hands of its citizens is democracy in action. Community conversations look at real examples of development that have divided community around racial lines. Starting from a baseline of understanding shared history and values creates an environment where everyone can be a contributor. MAEA has become a way for everyone to engage in a movement that is bigger than the individual.

Smith knows well that collaborations can fail, projects fall apart, the funding runs out, and the capacity of an organization to keep taking on a leadership role of this nature is stressful. Over the years he’s learned that honoring those who came before and learning from mistakes keeps his work moving forward. As he says, “it didn’t start with me and won’t end with me. I’m just playing my part to realize what Dr. King called The Beloved Community.”


Vicki Pozzebon is a purveyor of all things local. She is the owner and principal consultant of Prospera Partners, a consulting firm that designs local economy networks, systems, and developmental plans for businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies that put our communities first. She is a skilled facilitator, public speaker, and blogger about all things local. www.vickipozzebon.com

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