Season 3, Episode 5: Transcript
Season 3, Episode 5: Accelerating Community Engagement
Community Leaders Dayle Bennett and Rohit Malhotra Talk Social Impact On A Local Level
Veanne: Hello and welcome to Atlanta Business Impact Radio. We’re your host, Veanne Smith, and Sarah Lodado. We’re excited to have our listeners join us for another episode of Season three where our theme is innovation and how business leaders in Atlanta are incorporating it into the workplace. In today’s episode, we’re focusing on the importance of community engagement and innovative approaches employers can take to increase participation in their community. Here to speak about this topic are Creative Director Dayle Bennett, an Executive Director and Founder, Rohit Malhotra of Center for Civic Innovation.
Sarah: Rohit is the founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta, his hometown city. His background is in social entrepreneurship, digital communications, open data, and community organizing. In 2015, he was appointed to the board of directors of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce where he is the youngest serving member in recent history. Rohit was named as one of Atlanta Business Chronicles 30 under 30 and in June of 2015, he was awarded the prestigious echoing green global fellowship. He earned his B.A. degree from Emory University and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He’s also a self-appointed expert on pizza and hip hop.
Veanne: Dayle drives the look and feel of the center and is responsible for building the center’s membership base. Dayle has over 25 years of experience in branding and design. Her creative mind has helped shape companies like Hallmark where she drove the Product Red campaign, West Elm, and Neiman Marcus. Dayle is a graduate of the prestigious Atlanta portfolio center and hails from Baltimore, Maryland. It’s so great to have you both here with us, Rohit and Dayle. Thanks for coming to Atlanta business impact radio today.
Dayle: Hey! Thanks for having us.
Rohit: What’s up?
Sarah: We are super excited to have you both here and I already know that this episode is going to be one of my favorites as I’m very well acquainted with the Center for Civic Innovation and passionate about the work that you guys are doing there. So, for listeners that are unfamiliar with CCI, can you two explain what it is that you do there?
Rohit: Sure. The Center for Civic Innovations mission is to inform, to engage, to connect and empower people to shape the future of their city. In a time, especially like right now, our cities have become laboratories for what they’re going to look like and what our country is going to look like over the course of the next decades. There’s a lot at stake and especially in a city like Atlanta where we have a ton of resources and incredible opportunities and some of the world’s most recognizable brands and companies. We also are a tale of two cities because on the flip side we have the highest income inequality gap in the United States. Upward mobility is stuck at four percent. So, we have this ultimate question of how does a city that is filled with talent and resource, make sure that it becomes a smart city but also an equitable one.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Dayle: Yeah. I mean it’s very important that for CCI that we are able to engage the public and get them motivated to, you know, participate in what’s happening in the city and it’s something that the city has had a problem with and we recognize that not only do people not know one another but there are not really motivated to get involved and that’s where we feel like we can come in and really get people rallied around that.
Sarah: Yeah. That’s awesome. Can you share a little bit in detail about sort of from a services standpoint or, you know, direct sort of examples of how you drive out that mission?
Rohit: Yeah. Sure. So, you know, it’s exciting when we started this thing up. We never thought that it would get as far as it’s gotten because when you think about politics or you think about civic participation it’s not sexy. Over the past decades, we’ve watched voter turnout and voter engagement and neighborhood engagement fall off a cliff. If you look at numbers in the 70’s and 80’s, numbers were sitting around 60 to 70 percent of people voting in local elections. In the last mural race in Atlanta, only 17 percent of people voted. Over 80 percent of people just at home. So, what we do is we have really creative, engaging programming. So, it will look like a town hall.
The characters will look the same as what a town hall should have but we’ll walk away with something to do afterward and, you know, we’ve had conversations on when Marta was considering a half penny tax. People were wondering, for what? We’ve been told before transportation is going to get better and it’s going to be accessible for everyone but when you put leaders of from our transportation system, from the belt line, from the city, in the same room with citizens not only do you get to hear what their true plans are from their own mouths but you also get to have community give input on what they’re concerned about, and why they’re concerned about it, and what it is that they want to see happen.
The Center for Civic Innovation gets to be a kind of a trust broker between community and decision-making institutions. So, we hold programs. We have a physical space where people who are doing the work can meet and talk to one another but also if you’re coming in from the outside we have these types of hubs for tech companies and for other industries. For the social sector, it’s hard to find who’s doing the work.
Sarah: Right. Exactly.
Dayle: Then, you’re going to have delegations come visit and stop by the center and, you know, only just to come in to see what we’re doing but also be motivated and inspired by the work that they were doing that they can take back with them wherever they live and kind of start the same movement where they are. So, that’s also a great thing that we are able to do that is not a part of like our direct mission but it’s a great way that other people are inspired. So, they bring people with them to keep it going around the world. It’s really great.
Sarah: Exactly. Right. That’s awesome.
Veanne: Well, I love that your passion for civic mindedness is what brought you to founding CCI road hit. I would love to hear what prompted you to go out on your own versus just getting involved in civic issues in some other way. I mean what really brought you to founding the organization?
Rohit: Yeah, so, I was doing my thesis work down here in Atlanta and honestly decided to do my thesis work in Atlanta because it was a free ticket home to get Indian food. My parents are here and that was the main goal and I ended up falling back in love with my hometown city which is becoming a narrative of young people around the country is we’re realizing that everything we talk about happens on the ground and it happens locally. Everything that national debates are bringing up today from issues around schools, or criminal justice, or affordable housing these are local issues. So, coming back to Atlanta what I found is that across industries there are incredible people who care deeply about their city.
You have somebody who’s sitting in a music studio right now yelling about income inequality and somebody who’s sitting in a room filled with policy nerds saying the same exact thing and those two people need to know each other. So, through my thesis work what I was able to find is just incredible characters that love the city. We started getting together on a regular basis just to talk about, within our respective industries, what can we do to move the needle forward? Ultimately what happened is we said well actually we all need to be working together. You need to bring your networks with our networks.
This can’t just be everyone talking in echo chambers on a regular basis. We’ve got to build a larger forum for conversation and so…
Veanne: We need to organize.
Rohit: Organize, exactly and it worked. So, that’s how we found Dayle. That’s how we found our other teammates and of the current team of eight people we have, four of those people started off as just people who were coming up and showing up at a conversation inside of an abandoned building.
Dayle: There were some great snacks there as well and some…
Rohit: Right. I bought…
Veanne: You got to have snacks.
Dayle: I mean. Yeah. It was great.
Rohit: A lot of pizza. That’s good.
Dayle: I mean one of the things that Ro sometimes doesn’t say, which I think is important, and a reason why a lot of people gravitate to him and his vision. He’s really good at storytelling and I think one of the things that I think it’s really great is like a lot of the people that we originally had just helping us formulate what CCI was going to be and like it’s future where they were also storytellers and they could build on the story that he kind of put together and I think that’s what made it real for us. That we can actually see what we had planned and that people were really buying into it and not that we were pulling something over their head but they actually could bring something to the story to make it real.
I think that is the reason why I know I wanted to get involved because I could see what it was going to be and the potential of it. I think that’s the reason why I think we thrive.
Sarah: Right. Yeah. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Rohit present about what you guys do a few times. Not as many as I wish I had but I swear every time I’m like about to start crying. You were pulling at some sort of emotion in me. I’m like, I’m going to do everything.
Dayle: I want to do all the things.
Sarah: Please. Yes.
Dayle: Sign me up.
Rohit: This works personal, right? I think that truth is that all of us care about the places around us and the easy thing to do is to get lost and feel disconnected from the place around you. The second you fall in love with it you’re hooked. I think that people are truly falling back in love with their own backyards and they’re saying we’ve got to take it very honestly where it’s at and what’s working and what makes it amazing but also not forget about the things that could be better. That’s I think the opportunity and the fork in the road that we get to play in.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Veanne: Yes. Well, I’ve been in Atlanta now for a little over 30 years. So, I lived here longer than where I was born but I just love the energy of everybody moving back into town and walking the streets and it’s just so vibrant now. It really is a great place to live. We’re so lucky.
Dayle: We are. This is my second time living in Atlanta. So, I mean it’s definitely… like meeting Ro at the time when I came back to Atlanta was actually really important because I felt like he was saying like falling in love the city again and just understanding what you can bring to where you live is really important and it’s always a great time because I was in that a place where I really wanted to give to my city but I didn’t know how. Just meeting other people like Ro was really important because I felt like, “Wow! I’m really home.” This is great and I know I have something to contribute. So, the fact that we can affect other people that same way is really awesome.
Sarah: It’s awesome.
Veanne: I think it’d be interesting. I don’t know if we have enough time for that but you have such an interesting background yourself, Dayle. You know, all the lifestyle brands that you worked with are so impressive. So, there must have been something that just hooked you in because what you were doing before had to be really exciting and creative and always a challenge too.
Dayle: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it has and, you know, I speak humbly about my background. I moved to different cities and done a lot of different things for a lot of retailers, and different lifestyle brands. A lot of times they have their own mission and so you kind of get wrapped around about what they want to do. I’ve been lucky enough to choose the places where I wanted to work because of their missions and what they do with their companies and how they interact with their communities as always in me. So, I think that is the reason why I can connect the dots from one retailer or one lifestyle brand to the next because they all have that common thread. So, it’s not that hard for me to be able to relate one thing to the next chapter in my life. So, it was just natural.
Veanne: Natural progression.
Dayle: Yeah. Yeah, and a leap of faith.
Veanne: Yeah. Just go for it.
Sarah: It makes everything more fun, right?
Dayle: Why not?
Sarah: So, I know CCI strongly advocates community involvement and political actions. I know you sort of alluded to that a little bit, especially at the local level. So, what are some of the ways that you’ve been able to get people excited about their local elections? Events, marketing, you know what have you sort of done and what’s working?
Rohit: So the first thing is to, you know, oftentimes the engagement with policy makers or decision makers happens in the middle of the day at 2:00PM and then they wonder why town halls are empty and people aren’t there because folks are working and living their life. So, you know, first and foremost, it’s about creating opportunities that are accessible for everyone.
Rohit: What’s beautiful about the events that happen at CCI and when we’re talking about affordable housing or we’re talking about underground Atlanta or equity, is you see every part of Atlanta from Buckhead to Bank Head in the room to advocate what’s going on in their own neighborhood and that perspective is what makes those events really special. So, the first is curating events that have not just diversity but inclusivity. Meaning everyone in there has the ability to speak, to share their perspective, and be a part of that work. The second thing that we do is really about getting information creatively outside of four walls. Sometimes when you have a cool space you can bring people in and then it just stays there.
Rohit: We have a community engagement team that actually engages with residents on the ground to get perspective back from them. That helps us be more informed on what is it that people do know and don’t know? So, for example, a lot of people who are concerned about schools are attending meetings at City Hall to talk to the Mayor about school reform.
Rohit: The truth is Atlanta’s mayor has no oversight over the school system.
Sarah: Yep. Yep.
Rohit: So, making sure that people know the nuances and presenting that information in a creative way, having a creative director that can help not just say “Let’s put a transcript or a one page or a white paper out on this” but how do we visually tell this story in a way that the city hasn’t been able to do in a few decades.
Sarah: I think that’s awesome. It’s like if as a normal resident, right? Like the last time, I learned anything local, I don’t know, I probably took a civics class in like middle school or high school.
Sarah: You know I feel like as an adult we need to get like the city org chart like who do I get to for what?
Veanne: [Laughs] Yeah.
Sarah: Like I was talking actually to one of the teammates here the other day. He was at the Capital building for some sort of event and was trying to… He was sort of like waiting in line to speak to one of our representatives and just kind of wanted to – he never got to. It was delayed and then he ended up having to come back to work and in the same sort of vein I’ve always been a local voter and like the smaller elections but inevitably, I find out as much as I can via the Internet because nobody else around me is doing it and then I get to the polling place and they’re still like 60 percent that I didn’t realize I was going to be on the ticket and I have no idea.
Then I just end up voting like maybe along party lines or something like that. I’m like man I don’t want to do that. I just have to… you know?
Dayle: A lot of people do that. I mean, the thing that I can honestly say that’s great about our staff is we’re researchers. We might not be like, you know, certified researchers but we do it in our own way because we have to get the information right. We want to make sure that, like Ro said, “To be prepared” and to be prepared you have to do research about times and what kind of people, like what is the goal? Who are you trying to have a number on? So, if you’re trying to capitalize on different people who have different kind of backgrounds, different neighborhoods, and different work ethics, and work types, and styles you got to have the timing right. You got to have the right size.
There’s a lot of things that go into that to make sure you’re trying to capture the most people at the right time. Then also, it is like you said gathering information. Like our whole staff since we’ve been there all of us have moved at one point to one district to the other and we don’t even know the information. So, it’s like he said it’s personal. So, we have to go through it ourselves to say I’m pretty sure somebody else doesn’t know this information.
Dayle: So, it just prompts us to think ahead of the game, then an event, and then afterwards the follow up part. So, it’s not just throwing information out there or having a place where people can gather. It’s about what do you do afterwards? What did you do beforehand to make sure it’s at least what our measurement of success is?
Dayle: Sometimes, it’s just about getting that information out or just putting the right people in the room. We try not to overwhelm ourselves with a lot of checkpoints of getting it right. It’s really about like did we get to point A? Did we get to phase one? We know the work just continues.
Dayle: So, yeah.
Sarah: So, a little follow up to that question. I spend a lot of time at work, right? All of us do. Maybe if, we have jobs. I don’t know.
Veanne: I’m sorry, Sarah.
Sarah: No, it’s a lifestyle choice.
Sarah: You know. We put a lot of time in and we get a lot of our information and a lot of our socializing through the things that maybe we do professionally. So, do you all feel that it’s important for employers to, you know because they have sort of this power and this attention and audience, to encourage their team to be engaged within their community? You know we’re not supposed to talk politics in the workplace, necessarily. I’d love to know maybe.
Dayle: Don’t come there.
Sarah: Your whole job is politics. So, what are some ways that leaders, I guess, in a variety of organizations where that might not, you know, necessarily be kosher motivate their teams to get excited about what’s going on in their city?
Rohit: Aside from events and having a space where folks can gather and connect, we have a program that’s focused on social entrepreneurship. So, what we do is we find community leaders who have been doing the work for a long time and we help facilitate investment in their work and treating social startups the same way you would a tech startup with the same risk tolerance, the same support system, the same technical assistance and watching them grow as businesses. Truth is that social enterprises and social work and problem solving has to be a part of our local economy if we actually want to take this work seriously.
Rohit: Otherwise, it will always just be charitable. So, oftentimes, when we think about social impact work we think about it as how much money can we raise in the workplace and then give away? That’s not social impact work. That’s causal marketing. That’s fundraising. What we think is the best way for organizations that have high quality talent and talent that wants to really engage with the community is use your talents to connect with people already doing the work.
Sarah: That makes sense.
Rohit: You don’t have to create your own new organization or your own new initiative.
Sarah: I think that’s the hardest part, right? I don’t have time for that.
Dayle: Or just bring them into the space. Sometimes, it’s not about them encouraging them to do the work. Sometimes being in the presence of that, just being in that space, you know, encouraging people to have their meetings in our space so they are feeling surrounded about what’s going on and they’ll be influenced by the things are happening around them.
Rohit: Beyond that though, right? Don’t just show up. That’s the problem.
Rohit: Is that in corporations and in organizations, we are there for the photo op and then we’re out. Truth is that when even if you’re sitting on an Excel sheet all day long and you’re wondering, “Man, I wish I could be giving impact.” You sit down with a farmer and help them track what the unit economics are around their seeds and their tomatoes and their zucchini, you’ll start to see their lives change and that entire industry change. That’s where talented people who work inside, we call them entrepreneurs, they have the ability to actually engage with already existing work. You don’t have to recreate work.
Sarah: Better off that way too.
Rohit: Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah: Then, you get to sort of utilize your mastery of X skill set. They do as well.
Rohit: Exactly because way too many people come in and they say, “Well, you know, I’m a social entrepreneur but I don’t know what I’m social entrepreneur-ing.” Right? So, what makes the center special is we don’t try to take entrepreneurs and people with entrepreneurial talent and turn them into subject matter experts. We take subject matter experts and help them turn into entrepreneurs.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Veanne: That’s so cool. All right, we’ve talked about the growth here. It’s been exponential in Atlanta. Rohit, this is your hometown. I’d love to hear your perspective on how you’ve seen innovation influence the development in the growth of the city.
Rohit: I don’t think it has yet. To be honest, I think where we’re at right now is that innovation is a buzzword in this city that gets us away with doing the same old same. We can’t hide under the veil of this word and not actually hit on what it means to be innovative. You know, there’s been a lot of research on what innovation actually means and it doesn’t always mean you got to do something crazy different. Sometimes, it means doing something that’s more effective and efficient. So, I think that this city has started to embrace that it is a hotbed for innovation. Meaning, we have all the resources to really look at ourselves and say how do we make our 911 calls faster and more efficient?
If we can get a car to understand where the highest concentration of people are we can also use that same technology to help an ambulance understand where it can be posted up and picking up the most people. So, I think it’s about we are moving toward a smart city. I think we’re taking care of our tech companies but we really need to think about how that is making impact socially but I do think eyes are on Atlanta right now.
Rohit: This city has everything going for it but what it does will depend on which side of the road it decides to go on. A city cannot be smart if half of the city is left behind.
Dayle: Yeah. Not informed and doesn’t have a voice like that’s the part that we push hard. Like Atlanta has to tell its own story for once and not let other people come in and tell us how we’re innovative and how we should do it. We need the citizens to give their voice.
Veanne: To rise up.
Dayle: I wasn’t going to say it. You know, when you say that, it’s just like give them the vehicle to do that. You know like don’t say rise up and you don’t listen to them. People in the communities, they are hungry to really get their ideas out there and have their voices heard and give their opinions about how they want to see their communities developed. The only way that’s going to happen in innovation in a city and it’s going to happen in a way that’s pleasing to the people who live here that they have to be informed. They have to have the same equal opportunity to be able to try and [Crosstalk][Inaudible][23:24].
Rohit: That work has been happening in Atlanta. We just haven’t called it innovation. I mean with social impact work, I would argue that Atlanta is filled with some of the highest quality talent of people who are making impact within communities and are building models that could be transferable all around the country. On the mere fact that we don’t call individuals like that entrepreneurs or we don’t call that innovation, we’re missing out on a huge opportunity. One, I think yes, let’s embrace the language in the words and the resources but let’s put it to work.
Veanne: Do you think a little bit of it is a mindset issue? Like we have to think differently about who we are here in Atlanta.
Rohit: I think we have to be honest about where we’re really at. So, storytelling is a marketing exercise but problem solving is an authenticity exercise. So, if you are serious about your city being better, it’s not just about telling the great story and shouting it from a rooftop. It’s also saying that people have been in these neighborhoods for generations. How do we make sure that the culture, the traditions, and people who have lived here can still even afford to live here and be a part of the narrative that we’re building on their backs? So, what’s interesting about being an innovation center is you come into our office like we have, I think we’re on Windows 98 and when you come in you sign in on a piece of paper, we don’t have fancy technology inside of our center.
Not because we don’t value that type of work but truth is innovation doesn’t just mean fancy equipment and technology.
Veanne: Tech, right.
Rohit: Innovation means that you’re doing something differently and pushing toward a better outcome and result.
Dayle: We do love tech. I want to put that out there. We do love tech.
Rohit: Dayle’s [Crosstalk][Inaudible][25:18].
Dayle: Dayle wants that new iPad. We deserve it.
Veanne: Keep working. You can get more than Windows 98.
Rohit: That’s right.
Veanne: You really can. Keep pushing, Dayle. Keep pushing.
Dayle: Community uses technology too and it definitely could be helpful in our research.
Sarah: I think you’re right though it’s an engine by which like the innovation might travel but it in itself is not the innovation.
Rohit: Absolutely, technology is purely a means to an end.
Rohit: People are not data points. We’re not going to be able to get data and information that’s going to help tell us really what where we need to be. We have to talk again. We actually have to have face-to-face conversation and dialogue with people to meet them where they’re at.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah.
Rohit: Not just send a tweet about it and say, “Look how innovative we are.”
Dayle: Be an actual community. Be neighbors.
Rohit: I know we can be. I say this with optimism, right? This is not a pessimistic “Oh! We’re doing this so poorly.”
Sarah: See, I told you he always makes me cry.
Rohit: I’m super optimistic about this city. When you meet people, we just spent just yesterday. Was it yesterday?
Dayle: Two days.
Rohit: Two days ago.
Dayle: I told you it was a long week.
Rohit: So, 24 years ago.
Rohit: Two days ago, we launched an initiative with Sarah Blakely’s foundation.
Sarah: We saw that.
Rohit: That is investing in ten female led social enterprises in the city. Now the reason that matters is one, finally someone has taken a bet on social enterprise as an actual industry in this city but number two, we cannot just keep asking women to lean in and not actually provide the support to fix the inequity behind why these challenges exist in the first place. Only four percent of venture capital goes to women led companies. It’s three times harder if you are a woman to get lending than it is to be a male dominated company.
Rohit: We have to look at data not for us to justify what we’re doing but to help dictate where we’re trying to go. So, I think, the reason I’m optimistic is people are finally starting to use data in the right way and I think, additionally, we’re starting to redefine what entrepreneurship means and who it’s for.
Dayle: What it looks like.
Rohit: Yeah. It cannot look the way it looks today because with the way it looks today, innovation is not representative of what this country or the city actually looks like.
Dayle: Yeah. Without using like the buzz words like diversity and all these other things.
Dayle: It has nothing to do with that. It’s just like there’s people out here who have great ideas and they need the support and a lot of rich to make the impact that they put out there, you know? It’s just plain and simple as that and if we saw all entrepreneurs in communities like that then we would get places a lot faster.
Sarah: Faster. Yep.
Dayle: So, that’s what we’re doing. We’re just exposing that and getting people on board to support these community leaders.
Sarah: That’s awesome. I love it.
Veanne: You’re an accelerator.
Dayle: We’re all the things.
Rohit: Yeah, right.
Sarah: So, it’s funny talking about things I’m going to do in 2017 and I’m like we’re approaching March here but…
Dayle: It’s okay.
Sarah: It’s always a new year. Glass is always half full.
Dayle: It’s not a race. It’s not a race.
Sarah: That’s right.
Dayle: You should check the box.
Sarah: Never too late in the year, right?
Sarah: To set some goals and I’d love to hear what some of your goals are. You guys have accomplished a ton in the last couple of years.
Sarah: So, what do you sort of honing in on this year?
Rohit: So, first and foremost, Atlanta is going to be electing a Mayor, City Council, and School Board this year. If you are listening to this, there are some dates you need to mark on your calendar right now.
Veanne: Get your pens ready.
Sarah: Get your gel pens out.
Rohit: Get your gel pens out and your little curly q’s.
Dayle: Get your washy tape.
Rohit: Whatever you need. So, first and foremost October 10th is when you need to register to vote. You need to register to vote locally. If you’re not registered, make sure on the Secretary of State’s website you are registered. Go to City Hall if you need to. If you have questions about it, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. We can help direct you to the right place. We’ll get you all the information too but make sure you’re registered but registration’s not enough. You got to show up. On November, the 7th is when you need to show up to be able to be a part of this election and vote for the next Mayor, City Council, and School Board and the third thing is that there will likely be a runoff because there’s no way that I think we have 15 mayoral candidates right now.
Dayle: Yeah 15 now.
Veanne: More than I knew last year.
Rohit: Yep. There was more than there were two days ago.
Veanne: That’s just so sudden.
Dayle: News flash.
Sarah: News flash. I signed up.
Rohit: December the 5th. It was when the runoff is. December the 5th. So, those dates are important. Our goal is to get people more informed and engaged in this next electoral cycle.
Rohit: The second thing we plan to do is invest in 16 locally based entrepreneurs. We’ll be launching an application for that soon and the third thing that we’re doing is trying to open up our programs to even more people.
Rohit: We need people in tech not to have meet ups about civic work. We need you all in the room when civic conversations are happening because people are talking about tech. People are, you know, informing themselves about what’s going on but we never have technology leaders and entrepreneurs in the room during civic conversations. It’s always separate as a civic tech conversation.
Rohit: So, our goal is to diversify our audiences a little bit more to include folks like that.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Dayle: [Phonetic][31:03] Heck if phones cannot fix that
Rohit: You’re right. That’s right.
Dayle: There’s no room for that. No I mean, Ro was right. Our goals are really clear. The information and engagement of the community and around this local election is super important for the center and we’re wrapping our entire year around it and our energy to get people the information that they need. Also, get these people who are running for these offices to meet the people. Like these are the real people who are going to be voting for you and you need to hear what they need and how you can actually help them. If you’re elected, how can you help these people be better? How he makes these communities grow and turn it around? I mean it’s just not them. It’s a community effort.
Sarah: Right. Yeah. That’s awesome.
Veanne: So, the energy in this room is just awesome.
Veanne: So, thanks for that and it’s so clear how excited you are and passionate about what you do. So, I’d like you to reflect back on some of the moments that you were most invigorated, excited. Where you were at an event, you started an event, you did something that was kind of out of the box or really cool, anything you can share about things you’ve done in the past.
Rohit: Yeah you know I think one of the greatest things is watching people who have been doing this impact work in their own communities turn around and feel like their work is being validated. Our civic innovation fellowship program is the most powerful thing that we do. Not because of just the impact that it’s going to make and what it does to our economy by supporting social enterprises. We have a barber who is inside of a barber shop who’s dealing with kids, day in, day out coming in an out. More kids talk to their barbers about what’s going on than their guidance counselors.
Veanne: Wonder if that’s my neighborhood barber?
Rohit: Yeah. [Laughs][32:57] Maybe.
Veanne: I know that happens there too.
Rohit: Judging by your fade it might be the same guy.
Rohit: You know this guy he’s been talking to kids forever and he knows what they’re going through but what he did was as rates of suicide among young black males is going up he trained his barbers and himself to identify trigger words and go through a full mental health training to be able to identify when you’ve got to connect a kid up to other resources and support and help. That’s an entrepreneur.
Sarah: That’s amazing.
Veanne: That’s really cool.
Rohit: If you go to him, he’ll be like, “I’m a barber at university barber shop. We’ve got another woman who’s created a…
Veanne: Barber therapist?
Rohit: Barber Therapist. That’s right.
Deane: I mean we all talk to our barbers.
Dayle: Barber, bartender you know. Same thing.
Rohit: So, for me, that’s the most powerful part of our work is watching farmers who are now able to grow fresh produce and food and get it into the hands of people who are food insecure. Those are entrepreneurs for us. So, that’s what I’m most proud of I think of the work that we’ve done over the past couple of years ago
Veanne: That’s a good one.
Dayle: I have two. One is you know we have been trying to get community leaders around to support what we do on a yearly basis so we have fundraisers. Our summer fundraiser last year was really fun because we set the tone. We had a comedy show and it was really awesome. It wasn’t just because we were making people laugh. We were trying to get people together to kind of just have a good time raise some money for some great causes and to really just rally. It’s just a great time just to rally around. Different groups that are doing different things and leaders who are really willing to step out of their norm to kind of play in the role of CCI to see where they can be supportive and helping us grow and in helping others help others. So, that’s always a great thing for me to see.
Rohit: The comedy show is called More Money More Problems.
Veanne: That looks good.
Dayle: You were either on more group or more problems group. It was awesome. We had an awesome time but then the second thing that I think really does it for me is like when I get to see, we have co-workers, businesses that work in our space and they’re also civically engaged groups, and watching them do what they do. I get to see them in their little offices and when they’re there and they’re typing on the computers but when they bring their work to the center or I’m invited or someone in the center is invited to participate and what they do in a community. Oh, man. You talk about the tears? I am like Miss Sappy Pants.
I always have to have tissues with me because I’m just and I’ll text like Ro and like, “Dude, you don’t even understand like they’re doing this and the kids did that and this is amazing.” So, it just makes me feel good to see people do good. It’s nice that they invite us into their world of what they do and it makes me just energized again. Like when I get back to the office like something else I have to improve to make their lives easier when they’re here at the center. It just makes me feel good and I like watching the other people who work with us. The staff come back in the same way and then they have the same reactions and it just validates that we’re doing the right thing. It is just a happy sappy time all around.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Veanne: I’m curious to know how you guys don’t get overwhelmed. How do you prevent yourselves from getting overwhelmed?
Rohit: I think you have to stay grounded in the work. I think that as long as you keep focused on why you’re doing this in the first place I think that you continuously want to keep going. It’s not that the work isn’t an overwhelming. It’s how we deal with it being overwhelming and for me it’s grounding every time I meet with an entrepreneur. I see my parents journey of coming to the United States and having to figure all of this out alone. Trying to be entrepreneurs by themselves and break themselves out of poverty so that their kids have the ultimate privilege. Which is to grow up poor, not knowing you’re poor.
Veanne: Yeah. Yeah.
Rohit: When you do that and every moment, I just take a deep breath before I enter a room with an entrepreneur and that’s why we do our work. It’s not about us at all. It’s about the people who are actually making a dent in this city and you know the noise that comes with that is overwhelming because then you get pulled and stretched in different directions but each and every one of our staff members dedicates a portion of their time doing one on one support for our entrepreneurs and the people who are within the community. We are required to get out of the office and be on the ground to actually see these issues play out because there is a whole wave around social impact work that’s getting built.
That is a bubble. It’s just the feel-good part of it but it doesn’t allow you to get into the messy part of it which are the tears that an entrepreneur has or the struggles. We’ve had entrepreneurs in the middle of our program start to experience homelessness and when you watch somebody who’s experiencing homelessness or has to bring their kids because they can’t afford to get a sitter but still is dedicated to making a dent in the community that they’re serving or a person who was locked up for 16 years say that I want to make sure no one else ever experiences this again. I mean there is nothing that can make you think about yourself and the purpose of your work in a different way.
Dayle: That’s why I’m here. That’s part of the thing I do. I help take care of our staff. Our staff is a family and that’s the first thing Ro said to me when I first met him. There is self-care that has to happen so we don’t get overwhelmed because we’re human beings as well. We know for our staff to be their best that we have to look into what makes them tick and what makes them fizzle. Wellness all around for our staff or the people that we work with is super important to me. It’s probably one of my focuses this year to make sure that someone can get out of bed and do it all over again for whatever how many hours they need to. To me, you’re only as good as the energy you can bring to the room and nobody wants like funky energy in a room.
There has to be a feel good. One of the things that Ro and I talk about all the time is what is the feeling in a room and how we can get people to, just like he said, take a moment, take a breath before we enter a room or just take a break and take a breath so we can regroup and get the energy we need to get through what we need to get through because we’re in it together. So, we have that frame of mind going into anything that we’re working on and if that person feels supported then it’s a win-win. So, to me, it really is important that you remember that you are a human being and that we’re dealing with other human beings with all kinds of issues in different kind of energy.
The goal is to not make it a rah-rah situation but that everybody feels good about the goal of the reason why they’re in a room in the first place or out in the field. That to me is super important.
Sarah: Yeah. Awesome. Yeah.
Sarah: So, I have a question. So, I tell a lot of people about the center and I have seen it grow and I just happened to be in the same building where you guys were planted the roots. So, it’s always been the go to, to me, for folks that are interested in doing things like that. I want to know are there centers for civic innovation in other cities? I know, not yours like I know you’re not a franchise.
Dayle: Not as cool as ours. [Laughs][40:48]
Sarah: Are you all franchising? Does this sort of thing exist elsewhere or is this something that’s really, you know, unique for what you did for Atlanta?
Rohit: Yes. There are a lot of cities that have portions and pieces of what we’re trying to do. The reason why the Center for Civic Innovation is unique is because it is a reactionary organization to things that were missing and were gaps within the Atlanta market. The reason why we’re informing people about what’s going on in our city is because there weren’t good vehicles to get that information. So, there are social enterprise centers around the country. There are co-working spaces for social impact organizations around the country. There are partners that support on the ground work around the country.
We consider all of those folks to be peers but what I think gets troubling is when we have seen organizations in other cities that claim to be social impact organizations. Try to expand to other cities without understanding the culture of where they’re going.
Rohit: That’s why a number of spaces and organizations in Atlanta have failed.
Rohit: It is because they didn’t understand that Atlanta is not a place where you just go talk dollars and cents and leave. You’ve got to break bread and drink some sweet tea [Crosstalk][42:20] before we even get to the next step of the conversation.
Dayle: [Crosstalk][42:20] That’s right.
Rohit: We watch people do that day in, day out. So, we have peers in other cities that we share information with.
Rohit: This is not a competitive space because there’s kind of a huge need. What I’m hoping it happens around the country is co-working spaces and social impact spaces start paying attention to their own back backyard.
Rohit: You’re watching that shift happen but not fast enough.
Dayle: Yeah. If we’re to be authentic, every city has their own issues and their own problems and what they feel is a priority. The one of the things that we’re trying to say is that the only way you can make impact in your city is to know your city. So, we don’t know what other cities need and want and you know only the people who live there know that and it takes years to figure that out. You know only the people who live there will be able to extract that information so you can get the ball rolling. I mean that’s basically how CCI got started. So, we can’t be naive to think that we can just pick this up and take it to another city without having that kind of research and that buy in from people in the city who are actually there.
That’s what makes CCI rock because you’ve got people here who’ve experienced Atlanta from different angles who can reach other people in the city to get to the issues and start planning on how we’re going to fix it. So, it’s like Ro says, “It’s not a competition.” It’s is about really being authentic and really getting to the core of the problems and coming up with solutions to fix it.
Rohit: Defining scale differently.
Sarah: Yeah, sure.
Rohit: A lot of people define scale based on width. How many cities can I be in?
Rohit: How fast can I get there? We define scale by depth. So how deep are we going into the neighborhoods that we’re in? If that in and of itself becomes a model that’s replicable we want to share that with peer cities so that it works but we’ve got to get it right here in Atlanta.
Sarah: Right, yeah.
Veanne: Yeah. All right, so it just hit me. I know our listeners can’t see this. Rohit, it just hit me that you have a band on your wrist that says innovation. That is just amazing that you are wearing that band.
Rohit: Yeah. Yeah.
Veanne: I just caught that.
Veanne: That is cool.
Rohit: Yeah so it says it’s the Center for Civic Innovation on there.
Veanne: I am like that’s so cool.
Rohit: We will get you one. Yeah.
Veanne: You wear that every day?
Rohit: I do. I do.
Dayle: He does. All of them.
Veanne: I see some other ones but the innovation word was staring right at me and I had to plug that. That’s really cool.
Dayle: It’s not staged. It’s normal.
Veanne: He is the master innovation and he wears it on his sleeve.
Dayle: All day.
Rohit: It’s a cool reminder of every time I look at that I think about the work of the people that we’re working with. Which is we all got these because we realize that the social impact community in this city is so small. In the sense of it is a family thing and when you watch people start to work together, when you watch an educator and a farmer get together on an initiative it is such a cool feeling. It is such a proud moment and I hope that everyone gets to feel that in their life at some point in time. Is to feel like your contribution is something that you can be proud of authentically. Not just be able to say it.
Veanne: Going through a motion.
Dayle: It’s not a campaign.
Dayle: It’s a real feeling and the fact that we and we all have our own respective circles from our past lives. To see that the work that we’re doing is influencing those circles in the way they rethink how they want to engage in a community that’s the thing that I feel is super. Like I just love seeing people ask us questions like, “You know what. We used to do this but I really admire the way you guys are doing it. How can we get in the gate so we can shift our powers to help in the way that we can help?” Like to me, that is something I never really anticipate happening but I see it happening with the staff. They are able to bring more people on board who are allies in helping us do the work that we want to do.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Dayle: Which is important.
Veanne: The energy in this room has just been so amazing. You guys are great. It’s been a lot of fun. I hope that our listeners can feel as much as I felt here at the time we spent together. So, okay guys. Rock this out. How do you get everybody behind you? Where can they come?
Veanne: You know when can they meet with you? How can they reach out? How can they get involved?
Rohit: Yeah so, start by showing up. Come to one of the events that are happening here. We’re having almost every other Tuesday Mayoral candidate are going to be doing breakfast at the center.
Veanne: At your center downtown?
Rohit: Yep. We have a physical space that exists in the heart of downtown, right next to Underground Atlanta. It’s on MLK between Peachtree and Prior and the M. Rich building. So, it’s 115 Martin Luther King Jr. drive.
Veanne: Are those in the evenings?
Rohit: We have morning events and evening events.
Dayle: Seven thirty.
Veanne: That’s an early way to get started.
Dayle: Yes, that’s the breakfast.
Rohit: Yeah so, our breakfasts are usually around [Crosstalk][Inaudible][47:24].
Sarah: Was it like a breakfast all day kind of thing?
Rohit: Yeah. Exactly! Yeah. It’s unlimited pancakes.
Rohit: It’s really amazing.
Veanne: Dayle will be cooking.
Dayle: Yeah. Literally.
Veanne: You probably have done that, haven’t you?
Rohit: Yep. Showing up to an event is great. You could find out to find those events at civicatlanta.org.
Rohit: We are also on all the social medias. It’s @civicatlanta. So, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram we’re @civicatlanta on all of those different platforms. We’d love to just see more people showing up. Don’t be afraid. There’s no barrier to entry. We’ve got nerds. We’ve got cool kids. We got you know people who are right in between and we are really intentional by making that room inclusive for everyone.
Dayle: All ages, everything like you know bring your kids. This is a great learning experience for them too. There’s something for everybody. Surely. Truly Please check us out. Go to our site. Check out our blog. It tells our story really well. We would just love to see more people come out and support and get involved.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Sarah: Last time I went to a center event I met a train conductor.
Sarah: I just kind of lost it. I was like, “What? You’re a train conductor?” He was like it’s not that cool. I was like, “Yes you are!”
Dayle: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Rohit: When you watch a train conductor meet a hip-hop artist in the same space. You’re like, “What?”
Dayle: Exactly. Exactly.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Dayle: It’s just amazing things are happening at the center and that is the place to meet other civic minded folks.
Sarah: That’s great.
Veanne: Thanks for all you’re doing and well done.
Dayle: Thank you. Thank you for helping us get the word out.
Sarah: Thank you both so much for coming on the show. I’m delighted to have you here.
Dayle: Thanks for inviting us.
Sarah: Yeah! We’re excited to see what comes next.