“This is a communications problem. We need more people bridging the gap between those who need help and those who want to help.”
POLL: Are there enough diverse voices in local leadership?
A changing Hamilton County
Black, non-Hispanic: 70,496
Other, non-Hispanic: 13,927
White, non-Hispanic: 246,541
2064 Population Estimates
Black, non-Hispanic: 99,626
Other, non-Hispanic: 61,318
White, non-Hispanic: 243,076
Source: Tennessee State Data Center
Community leaders respond to Chattanooga Next
› Tia Capps, communication’s director of Co.Lab:
“The report rings true to me. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with a lot of organizations called out in this report about this very issue. It is something people are actively thinking about. I think reports like this are good. They give us ammo to go back to our staff and talk about this.”
› Lori Quillen, program officer with the Benwood Foundation:
“It’s incredibly important that we have greater diversity in leadership positions in our community. Benwood has taken a few steps towards greater inclusion, as have many of our partner organizations, but we can always do better.”
› Maeghan Jones, executive director of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga:
“As a sector we need to continuously strive to be more diverse and inclusive to ensure that we are addressing the most important social problems in the most effective and culturally relevant ways. As community leaders, when we find ourselves in positions of power and influence we need to look around the table and ask, ‘Who is missing from this conversation? What other voices need to be heard and how can we engage them in ways that are meaningful?’”
› Jonas Barriere, executive director of UnifiEd:
“UnifiEd is committed to diversity. Our board is 50 percent people of color and our staff is over 50 percent people of color. UnifiEd is truly a community-led movement. Anyone that says otherwise clearly doesn’t understand the scope or breadth of our work.”
› Andy Berke, mayor of Chattanooga:
“Chattanooga is at its best when it uses the talents of the widest range of citizens. Not only is it good for those who are engaged — when people from different backgrounds solve problems, they can exchange views to help find the best solutions.”
When Tonya Rooks was elected to head the residents council of Chattanooga's most troubled public housing project in 2012, she thought she knew what her neighbors needed.
Like many of them, she was looking for work. Like many of them, she was recovering from addiction and haunted by a criminal record. And like many of them, she wanted to find the straight and narrow road that led to middle-class security.
But her big idea — to offer on-site GED classes for residents of College Hill Courts — was dead wrong, she quickly found. It may have been a smart, educated guess, she said, but the money spent would have been wasted.
She found that out when she turned to her neighbors and asked them about their needs and opinions.
Illiteracy was a bigger issue in the Westside area of Chattanooga than the lack of high school diplomas, she learned after giving out surveys to residents. And how could those without reading skills study and pass the GED?
"You have to talk to the people you are serving," said Rooks, who has since earned an associate's degree in social work and works for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development contractor in Oak Ridge. "That is why people don't move forward; organizations are putting funds into things that they don't know if people need."
These types of disconnects are common, experts say.
"Philanthropy has not been particularly successful at targeting its resources to the communities and populations that need them most," says a report published by the D5 Coalition, a national collective of foundations and funders working to advance philanthropy's diversity, equity and inclusion.
And Chattanooga Organized for Action (COA), a local activist group that has challenged local housing and development policy, is calling for a change.
Many poor and minority residents have been left out of Chattanooga's renaissance, according to a new COA report, "Chattanooga Next: Moving Beyond Good Intentions."
The Chattanooga area boasts a vibrant nonprofit sector. In fact, Hamilton County has more foundation dollars per capita than Shelby, Knox and Davidson County, with $3,032 per person, the report says. Shelby County, which includes Memphis, has the second-highest with $2,025 per person. Davidson County, which includes Nashville, has $1,789 assets per capita. And Knox County, which includes Knoxville, has $1,134 assets per capita.
But to leverage this advantage and correct societal ills such as rising childhood poverty, foundations and nonprofits must work harder to diversify their boardrooms and staff rolls, argues the scathing report written by Tennessee State University assistant professor Ken Chilton and released today by COA.
Local organizations have spent millions in hopes of improving local public schools, addressing food deserts, curbing violent crime and promoting the region's economic viability, among other things. Yet little has changed for most of the children growing up in struggling families, who remain disproportionately black and Hispanic.
There is also a concerted effort across organizations to develop a tech economy and recruit jobs. But most local public schools graduates can't fill those jobs because they receive no training after high school — whether at a university or a trade school — that would allow them to compete for the high-paying positions being recruited to the city.
"Local foundations have done tremendous good over the last 30 years, and Chattanooga is a better place because of their investments. Efforts to bridge the digital divide are deserving of national recognition. Efforts to improve public education are laudable," Chilton wrote. But "despite all the investments and programs, large segments of the community remain mired in poverty — especially children under the age of 18."
"These concerns are real and based on the failure of previous plans to positively improve the lives of citizens in Alton Park, East Chattanooga, West Side, Avondale and other poor neighborhoods who live with rising rents and displacement related to gentrification but who have no input on policies and programs to manage these disruptive processes," the report stated.
A national study published last year by Harvard University showed poor and middle-class children in Hamilton County have some of the worst chances for economic mobility in the U.S. Using anonymous tax data, researchers showed much of this was because poor, mostly minority communities are isolated from the wider community.
And economic mobility will likely remain limited unless those with fewer opportunities get a place at the table, Chilton said.
"Neither the boards nor the employees of these organizations truly represent the diversity of the community. Yet, they are extremely influential in planning our children's education, our city's economic development and our community's amenities," the report stated.
"Some might react to this criticism by saying, 'It's their money and it's none of your business.' This is true," Chilton wrote.
"Foundations and nonprofits can spend their money as they see fit. However, when non-elected civic leaders intervene in ways that affect the curriculum of all students or the property values of all residents, then it becomes the public's business. Moreover, as a 501(c)(3) organization, they receive generous tax benefits underwritten by the general public. Their performance in reaching stated goals is important."
As of February, Chilton's analysis of a dozen influential public and private organizations showed more than 80 percent of 149 board members were white, and a vast majority of staff members were white. However, several organizations named in the report say they have added minority employees and board members since February.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Chattanooga is 56.6 percent white. By 2064, however, state and census demographers estimate the majority of county residents will be nonwhite.
And changing demographics are just one of many reasons foundations and nonprofits must begin to change their own makeup, experts say.
Last month, the Chambliss Center for Children released a study with data gleaned from a series of focus groups held with local, low-income parents, and some findings were unexpected.
The idea to engage those parents came from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which asked the Chambliss Center to pursue local perspectives before moving forward with a proposal to address a shortage of local child care options.
The reason was twofold, said Jon-Paul Bianchi, a program officer at Kellogg.
Foundations that work top-down rather than bottom-up can miss insights and invaluable information by assuming the answers to their community's problems lie elsewhere, he said. Yet, in an era of data-driven accountability, neatly boxed programs claiming a high return on investment can be tempting, Bianchi acknowledged.
"There is good knowledge and good know-how in the lived experience of families that foundations rarely tap into," said Bianchi. "Organizations can be good-intentioned but acting on old information. They can continue on with a wrong path thinking they are out there doing the Lord's work and thinking, 'I am doing this great work, and you shouldn't question how I am doing it.' But there is a step in here that's been missing."
Another reason, Bianchi said, is that the nonprofit community needs to build trust with minority communities if it is going to address the complex problems of a 21st-century America.
"There are a lot of folks of color who have been specifically marginalized and positioned furthest away from opportunity," Bianchi said. "This is one of the approaches we take to give a voice to those who have not had a voice before."
Diversity is also imperative for innovation to take place, said Tia Capps, communications director for Co.Lab, one of the organizations named in Chilton's report and a key player in the city's new innovation district.
"You have to have people who can identify problems to solve," Capps said. "So if you are working with a set of people who come from a uniform cultural and socioeconomic background, you really aren't empowering people to tackle all the problems that are out there. Different people with different cultural upbringings can identify different problems to solve."
There is much truth in the COA report, she said. Organizations like Co.Lab, a business accelerator that works to help companies grow, have much work ahead of them. But in the last year, Capps said, she's began to feel as if the tide was turning. This year, the accelerator's most recent class was 50 percent minority. The organization also has hired a staff member to work full time on recruiting minority candidates.
"I can't tell you how many conversations I have had with a lot of organizations called out in this report about this very issue," Capps said. "It is something people are actively thinking back."
Moving toward diversity isn't easy, however, said Marty Lowe, an African American who co-owns Main Street Innovations with his wife, Donna, who is white. By day, the two promote minority businesses and help businesses recruit minority talent, and by night, they host community discussions on race and inclusion called Chattanooga Speaks.
Minorities and low-income individuals often have limited social capital, Lowe said, which means they often don't find out about the job, grant or service opportunities that arise. Many also aree unprepared for the job market.
So for real progress to occur, those with power must extend their own social capital and seek relationships with those unlike them, Lowe added.
"Unconscious bias can start if there is not intentionality," Lowe said. "We preach against groupthink in business school, but in the hiring process, many of us go for those who will fit in."
White executives seeking minority talent often don't know how to build these relationships. They aren't in clubs with African Americans or Hispanics. They don't go to church with them. They don't see them in their neighborhoods, Lowe said.
"This is a communications problem," he said. "We need more people bridging the gap between those who need help and those who want to help."
Sadly, though, some nonprofits that sought to bolster the minority community and serve as that bridge have lost trust in recent years, said Deacon White, a black former sociologist. White retired to his hometown of Chattanooga after a teaching career that took him to Michigan State University, Temple University, Northeastern University, Brown University and his alma mater, Morehouse College.
In 2011, a city audit of the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce, formerly known as the Chattanooga African-American Chamber of Commerce, uncovered questionable financial practices, extravagant salaries and misappropriation of funds.
In 2014, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, an African-American museum and event hall, came under scrutiny after former employee Torrey Hines was accused of stealing about $42,000 in cash.
The disparities in the black community are serious and a legacy of white supremacy must be dealt with, White said. Yet, often, the middle- and upper-class blacks sitting on foundation and nonprofit boards fail to acknowledge the voices of low-income residents themselves, he said.
"You have to get people who aren't in it for self-aggrandizement," White said. "Part of what has set the black community behind is a bunch of boot-licking, comprador, plantation yes-men, poverty pimps."
Diversity is far more complex than race, Marty Lowe acknowledged. While African Americans certainly share common experiences, they don't all share the same perspectives, politics or ideals. And successful African Americans and Hispanics able to easily navigate the social and business world thanks to their own social capital may begin to believe, wrongly, that there are no structural barriers keeping black families from moving forward.
Still, turning a blind eye will lead the city to heartbreak, Donna Lowe said. The tension rising between poor, mostly minority neighborhoods and police departments is just one example of that.
"You don't know what you don't know," she said.
"Very soon we are going to be a majority-minority nation," Marty Lowe, chimed in. "So I want to tell my white friends, get used to being comfortable with being uncomfortable."
Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at 423-757-6601 or firstname.lastname@example.org.