A child of civil rights activists, Atlanta native Nathaniel Smith had advocacy in his bloodstream. After an early start as the national youth spokesperson for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he moved to the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, where he helped create pro-equity policies including ordinances for anti-predatory lending, inclusionary zoning, a local housing trust fund, and a tax set aside for affordable workforce housing in the Atlanta Beltline. Now, Smith is the Founder and CEO of the influential Partnership for Southern Equity, which presses for actions and policies that promote equity and inclusive prosperity in Georgia and beyond.  The organization’s notable accomplishments to date include the establishment of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Social Equity Advisory Committee; supporting the creation of the nation’s first equitable development plan for a large scale neighborhood transformation project – the Atlanta Beltline; and convening the inaugural Equity Atlanta Forum.

Groundswell caught up with Smith to ask about his path to advocacy and his vision for an equitable Atlanta.  Here’s what he had to say:

On what drew him to advocacy

I initially was introduced to this work by way of my parents, who worked for a civil rights organization, and under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

While King had been dead for a few years before I was born, I had an opportunity to grow up in that environment and hear the stories of leaders both known and unknown who engaged in this work.  I was holding up picket signs before I knew what they said. It was really kind of ingrained in me about the importance of people, and also of systems. How systems, and in particular racism, has played a part in fueling public policies – and marginalized, in particular in the American South at that time, black folks. That really took me down the policy path and understanding the importance of building power through organizing, and the importance of the moral argument for change.

Of course, I was also influenced by growing up in a neighborhood that became gentrified right in front of my eyes, and seeing the tension between new residents and old residents. Trying to understand why six years ago white folks didn’t want to live in this community and now they do. Why is it different now? It helped me to understand the importance of markets and systems, and of having folks who are there to help provide clarity to the community.

On his vision for the Partnership for Southern Equity

I think that ground zero for the struggle for justice in America in my opinion is the American South. And I think that there have been times where various efforts to change the dynamics of the American South have rippled out and changed world forces.  The civil rights moment in many ways was strengthened by the heft of black church, who in the past had more clarity in their role as change agents.  As that role diminished, it left gaps.

For me as a child, seeing that ecosystem weakening -- for me it was: How I can play a role in continuing to strengthen that ecosystem, in a way that was grounded in the American South, that understood the history of the South, that would move the conversation from equality to equity, and bring the process of nurturing and the community power that would transform the south through systems change.

Our tactics are focused a lot on grassroots organizing, collective impact work, relationship work. For us, again, its about not just being a part of the ecosystem for equity and justice but to do all we can to ensure that that ecosystem is strengthening and supported. Because we know that one organization will not change the American South.

On developing relationships with unconventional allies

We have relationships with Cox Enterprises. We have relationships with Cigna insurance. We also have worked with Georgia Power, and we have a formal relationship with the Atlanta Regional Commission, where we’re helping them develop an equity playbook.

As far as developing relationships, first, it’s understanding that equity is a way and not a what, and doing the best I can to really mirror the principle of equity.  It’s meeting people where they are, and creating opportunities for them to engage. It’s grounding the relationship in facts, and not being judgmental, and realizing that not everyone is a good guy or a bad guy.  It’s looking at people as human beings who are being affected by a system that they may not be aware of. 

On what has worked in Atlanta that could also work in other cities

We were the lead organization in expanding our public transportation system for the first time in 45 years, so I think the grassroots strategy around expanding infrastructure, not taking a top down approach, is important. We also have lent our voice and courage around the negative growth trajectory of the Atlanta Beltline. And now the newspapers engaged, as well as others.

We brought the term “just energy” to the city of Atlanta, and we brought the term “energy equity” to the climate lexicon, so we’ve done a lot of work around developing the conversation about this. And, the Atlanta Regional Commission is now beginning to see itself as an agent of change, which is essential.

We just passed a resolution with the city of Atlanta to make it renewable by 2030, and there’s a strong equity component.  I could go on -- there are a lot of things I’m excited about.  But I’m even more excited about the broader community beginning to have this conversation.

On how communities can advocate for themselves

First it’s a matter of getting communities to understand that in spite of the challenges they’ve been facing on a day to day basis, that they are the change agents that they have been waiting for. There is no Wonder Woman coming to save them.

And then it takes an amount of time to get them to understand how a system that they don’t see is affecting their day to day lives, and being specific about ways that they can change that system by being engaged and being organized.

Another part of it is helping them to understand how they fit within the ecosystem of change.  And also grounding them in the understanding of the history of that inequity. And then starting the process of connecting them to like-minded people, while at the same time building power for themselves.

On the biggest barrier to racial equity in Atlanta and the American South

Our bankruptcy of values.  We have to acknowledge that our built environment is really a reflection of the values of the people in power. We have to have a revolution of values that reflect not only the folks who are in power, but the folks who have been affected. As long as we don’t understand the connection between values and policy, we will continue to create these problems.  

On what gives him hope for the future

I think we’re beginning to see more leaders that are emerging that are willing to take on that mantle of the civil right movement, and not use the same tactics per se, but continue to move that work forward.  What also gives me hope is that now philanthropies are beginning to see the American South as a key battleground – as maybe the battleground – of the battle for equity, and direct more resources here.

I’m also really encouraged by the emergence of white allies in this work, particularly young white people, and their willingness to step out and ask about white privilege and embrace the fact that there are systems in place to minimize the opportunities, or even the life, of people of color.