Celebrating the Black Leaders Building an Equitable Future in Georgia
February is Black History Month, a time to honor the accomplishments of Black leaders. These inspiring Georgians are among those paving the way for a bright future in our communities.
Rodney Bullard, CEO, The Same House
Bridging social and economic divides
During a 2019 speech at Beloved Benefit in Atlanta, the late Congressman John Lewis proclaimed, “We’re one people. We’re one family. We all live in the same house. The house of Atlanta, Georgia.” But although we share a “house,” it’s one where the same opportunities don’t exist for all residents.
“This strange dichotomy of our city’s successes and challenges is on display if you drive only a few miles from one neighborhood to another,” Rodney Bullard wrote in an AJC op-ed in January. “A person living in English Avenue on Atlanta’s Westside has a life expectancy of just under 64 years. A few miles away in Buckhead? A resident there is expected to live upwards of 87 years.”
In the same piece, Rodney announced the formation of a new nonprofit, The Same House, with a name inspired by Lewis’s speech and convictions. The new organization was formed to build on the concept of Beloved Benefit, a high-profile annual event that has raised $12 million to support economic mobility since 2019.
In partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, The Same House will help “bridge societal division through our common humanity and help create greater economic opportunity through education, entrepreneurship, and employment programs.”
“Our vision is to create a ‘house’ where we all can thrive and feel more connected to one another,” Bullard explained. “Because no matter who we are and where we come from, when we come together to do good for all, each of us goes farther than we ever thought possible.”
In the spirit of coming together for the greater good, Rodney is also lending his wisdom to HOPE Atlanta’s Strategic Plan Committee, where he will support the organization’s bold new vision for the future.
Shan Cooper, CEO of Journey Forward Strategies LLC
Working at the intersect of people and business strategies
Shan Cooper has been hailed as a highly engaged and respected business leader in Atlanta for decades. But she maintains that she learned her most valuable life lessons growing up as a pastor’s child in Alabama, where she watched her parents serve the community.
“That upbringing, being a PK (pastor’s kid), you learn to give back, you learn to love people regardless of how they’re shaped, the color of their skin, their economic status,” Cooper told the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “You learn just to love and appreciate people.”
This focus on people has been at the heart of her success. She founded consulting firm Journey Forward Strategies, LLC in 2021 with the belief that “successful business strategy is most effectively executed when a sound people strategy exists. In essence, Mission First, People Always (TM).” Before starting her own company, Cooper served as Executive Director of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, which provides leadership on key issues to economic growth and inclusion for all citizens in the City of Atlanta.
She is also the former chief transformation officer of WestRock and served as vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company.
Her leadership has been widely recognized in Georgia. Cooper has been named to Georgia Trend’s “Most Respected Business Leader” and its “Most Influential Georgian” lists. She has also been honored on the national scale, having earned a spot on Black Enterprise’s “Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America” list and being named one of the American Association of University Women’s 2015 “Women of the Year.”
The nonprofit community has also benefited from Cooper’s guidance. She serves on the Board of Directors for The Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta and the Board of Trustees of Emory University and the Woodruff Arts Center. She is also on the Board of the Technical College System of Georgia, a member of the Atlanta Rotary Club, and a Life Member of the Board of Councilors for The Carter Center.
Cooper has also been leading HOPE Atlanta’s strategic planning process, which will help the organization maximize its impact as it looks to permanently reduce homelessness and help build a brighter future in our communities.
Collie Greenwood, CEO and General Manager, MARTA
Advancing prosperity, connectivity, and equity through transit
Access to transportation plays a huge role in a person’s quality of life and ability to thrive. The same goes for their communities. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, households in low-income areas typically own fewer vehicles, have longer commutes, and have higher transportation costs. People in predominantly low-income and non-white regions are also more prone to road traffic injuries, more likely to live near highways that reduce air quality, and more likely to live in “food deserts” with little access to healthy food.
With a mission to “advocate and provide safe, multi-modal transit services that advance prosperity, connectivity and equity for a more livable region,” MARTA understands its role in building more equitable communities. At its helm is CEO Collie Greenwood, a 35-year transit veteran and former bus operator responsible for leading MARTA’s “largest and most ambitious expansion and modernization program” to date.
“I love transit and have known since my days of driving a bus how vital it is to people and their communities,” he said in a press release. “I am eager to get to work enhancing and expanding service in the metro Atlanta region.”
Last summer, Greenwood was appointed to the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Strike Force of government and nonprofit leaders. This announcement came shortly after MARTA announced a $100M funding increase through the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group to identify opportunities for more affordable housing development near MARTA stations.
MARTA is currently planning Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects along the Campbellton Corridor and in Summerhill, which promise to improve connectivity, accessibility, and mobility in these communities.
Because transit stations often become a refuge for people experiencing homelessness, MARTA is also committed to addressing homelessness through a humane, service-centered approach. In 2020, MARTA partnered with HOPE Atlanta to assist people sheltering in stations and on trains.
Nathaniel Smith, Founder & CEO, Partnership for Southern Equity
Seeking sustainable growth and opportunity for all
As the child of Southern Freedom Movement Activists, Nathaniel Smith has been passionate about racial equity in our communities from a very young age. Growing up, he witnessed the injustices and inequalities placed on people from underserved communities. The South continues to see high rates of poverty, racism, and income inequality; despite being an economic powerhouse, Georgia has one of the country’s lowest rates of economic mobility.
Smith was driven to create a platform to not only expose these inequities but also bring the issue of racial equity to a larger scale. Today, that platform is called the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE), which Smith founded in 2008 to “end racial inequity and advance a shared prosperity.” It does this by driving policy initiatives and action in three focus areas: energy, growth and opportunity.
“We are at a watershed moment where we actually have an opportunity to leverage our transition toward the clean energy economy and the work happening around decarbonizing our world for creating more economic opportunities for those that have been left behind,” Smith said during a recent interview with Rose Scott.
Smith and team created the South’s first equity-mapping tool, the Metro Atlanta Racial Equity Atlas, an interactive tool that combines data with stories of lived experiences and historical insights to contextualize equity issues facing Atlanta. Under his leadership, PSE has also been instrumental in leading a coalition of stakeholders to support a referendum that expanded MARTA into a new county, distributing more than $500,000 in COVID relief funds, and creating the Justice 40 Accelerator designed to assist organizations with innovative front-line community climate projects.
Smith is well-regarded as a racial equity champion and thought leader and has received numerous awards. His recent accomplishments include being named an inaugural recipient of Bank of America’s Neighborhood Builders: Racial Equality award and being named co-chair of the Drawdown Georgia Leadership Council, which addresses climate change in Georgia through the intersection of climate and equity. He was also honored by the Georgia House of Representatives with a special proclamation recognizing his tireless efforts toward advancing racial equity.
Vicki Lundy Wilbon, President of Real Estate, Integral Group
Changing the commercial real estate game
Commercial real estate is a notoriously white and male-dominated industry in the U.S., where the successful have drawn upon generations’ worth of exclusive social networks. But Vicki Lundy Wilbon has been making waves in the industry for decades.
As president of Real Estate, Wilbon leads the operation whose innovative master planning has been behind some of the nation’s most successful and transformative residential and mixed-use developments.
Named president in 2021, Wilbon joined Integral shortly after the organization was founded. From the earliest days, the company’s focus was creating affordable, mixed-income communities — a new concept during a time when low-income housing was typically concentrated in one location.
“I love this company for all that it has done to introduce holistic community development and mixed-income housing to much of the country,” she said in a press release.
Wilbon quickly earned a reputation for identifying and assessing development opportunities, incorporating community-impact initiatives, arranging financing sources and structures, and executing implementation strategies and organizational processes.
Some of Integral’s many well-known revitalization projects include mixed-use developments in Downtown Atlanta and Doraville. Recently, Microsoft tapped the Integral Group to help envision the future of its new 90-acre campus in Grove Park. The project aims to engage community members throughout the process and dedicate a portion of the development to affordable housing.
Besides leading Integral’s real estate division, Wilbon also lends her leadership and talents to the broader community, serving on the Saint Joseph Health System (Atlanta) Board of Directors, the Georgia State University Honors College Board of Advisors, and the Board of Directors of Reinvestment Fund.