It Takes an Extended Village

By Michael Burns

MBA Students from Clark Atlanta working with the city of Lithonia, Georgia at the Lithonia City Hall.

MBA Students from Clark Atlanta working with the city of Lithonia, GA at City Hall.

There is an old Nigerian proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. Its basic meaning is that a child’s upbringing is a communal effort, in which the responsibility for raising a child is shared with the larger, extended family. Even the wider community gets involved, such as neighbors and friends. This proverb, and many others like it, focuses on the values of community, unity, cooperation, and sharing.

Today’s modern village is more than just an actual geographic place where individuals and families live, work, and play together. For underserved communities like Lithonia, Georgia, the horizons of the contemporary village extend beyond the town line to include colleges and universities, some local and some not so local. Through efforts like the College-Underserved Community Partnership Program, this wider community of students and professors are being engaged to build long-term partnerships with small municipalities and provide no-cost technical assistance to help the towns accomplish their planning goals.

With the success we had in getting Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College onboard, I began reaching out to other schools to participate. I had met Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson shortly after she was elected, and really wanted to provide a partner for her to help her city move forward. I reached out to Dr. Charles Richardson from Clark Atlanta University to see if he could work with Lithonia. As I was in his office discussing the possibility with him, one of his MBA students walked in to talk about what they would be working on the upcoming fall semester. Dr. Richardson turned and looked at the student and said “Shake hands with Mr. Burns, he just gave you your class project for this semester.” And just like that, another school was added.

Clark Atlanta University’s MBA students formed an Organizational Development Planning Team to help “rebrand” the city. They developed an organizational structure that allocated different responsibilities not only to members of the Lithonia Business Alliance Group but to local residents as well. They established membership guidelines, governance principles, and scheduled guidelines for meetings and events to keep things well organized. They identified benefit sets for members and potential collaboration opportunities that would ultimately help increase community involvement. They also identified marketing tactics for the association and business members of the business alliance.

They did a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threat (SWOT) analysis of the city’s economic situation and provided valuable recommendations to the city to help it move forward.

  • They worked with the City to help rebrand to improve their ability to promote the city.
  • They worked with local businesses, and provided recommendations on how they could work better together, and how the city could help them move forward.
  • They provided recommendations on how to attract business to become a part of the city.
  • They also worked with the City to help them identify grants to address their brownfields site in the downtown area.

We often talk about the benefit the program provides to our underserved cities and communities, but the value to the students who participate is also great. For these students, the CUPP Program has given them an edge in competing in the marketplace for jobs and opportunities. One of the students had this to say:

“This [project] personally helped me in my career to be organized, to be an intelligent decision maker, and to most importantly take a risk to make a real difference! I am extremely proud of Clark Atlanta University for recognizing talent when they see it and they certainly saw something in Dr. Charles Richardson who pushed us to our limits and encouraged us to work smart. Thank you Clark Atlanta University! Thank you Dr. Charles Richardson! Thank you to the City of Lithonia, GA!”

Efforts like CUPP illustrate that it takes a modern, extended village not constrained by geography to make a difference. It’s a timeless reminder that a community will thrive if the whole of society works together. We are not just making a visible difference in communities; we are making better students entering the workplace. Both sides are winners!

About the Author: Michael Burns is Senior Advisor to the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 4 in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously he worked for the U.S. National Park Service, where he served as the Acting Superintendent of the Tuskegee Institute Park and worked with communities in Alabama.

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