Community Connectors kickoff: Six key takeaways from our convening in Atlanta

Last month, more than 100 participants from the 15 communities selected to participate in the Community Connectors program convened in Atlanta to start building trust and relationships, plan out the scopes for the capacity-building grants they’re receiving from this 18-month program, and lay the groundwork for their ambitious projects to reconnect their communities.

The Community Connectors is a program to support leaders in small and mid-sized communities—in and out of government—to repair the damage of divisive infrastructure. 15 teams from communities across the country have been selected to receive a capacity-building grant to advance these projects. Learn more about the teams here.

Joined by our program partners from America Walks and Equitable Cities, and designed by the New Urban Mobility Alliance, the two-day Atlanta convening was organized as a series of facilitated workshops to help each team create a roadmap for success and featured inspiring speeches from Nathaniel Smith of the Partnership for Southern Equity, Atlanta DOT Commissioner Solomon Caviness IV, Mariia Zimmerman from the Office of the Secretary at USDOT, and James Hardy from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, among others. 

Here are six things to know coming out of the Community Connectors’ Atlanta convening

1. The Community Connectors cohort brought plenty of energy and excitement, both during and outside of the program

A speech is being given in front of a large crowd, in the background, a projector screen reads Community Connectors Atlanta ConveningThe Community Connectors cohort brought a palpable sense of enthusiasm and determination to the convening. Two days chock-full of back-to-back working sessions and challenging conversations could take a toll on even the most steadfast, but the Community Connectors cohort remained engaged, building a strong foundation and charting the path to success.  This energy was matched by our speakers who shared valuable insights, personal experiences, and potential resources—including how to best access the federal dollars available for projects like these.  It is clear that we’re at a transformative moment, and this inspiring cohort of local community representatives are on the front lines of creating vibrant, thriving futures for their residents. 

2. The importance of strengthening team infrastructure

While the Community Connectors Program was created to support specific projects to repair the damage of divisive infrastructure, strengthening each team’s internal infrastructure is the true north star of the program. The program itself, and the Atlanta convening in particular, was designed to support the teams to build the trust required to advance these projects, create a strong base, form coalitions, identify strategies, and crystalize goals to build a successful campaign with the tools needed to win. What did that look like? At the convening, we led activities that helped each project team build trust and strengthen their partnerships to effectively co-create plans and projects to reconnect their communities. We did this through a series of facilitated workshops to help the teams define their collaboration commitments, align on a team vision and shared values, identify community priorities, better understand the opportunities and challenges in each team’s approach, and build a project roadmap.

3. The power of bringing folks to the table

A group of people gather around a table to have a discussionWe didn’t want anyone going solo on these applications. Lead organizations were asked to include a broad coalition of partners who would be instrumental to the project’s success. This included partnerships across sectors and new partners who hadn’t worked together closely before, including representatives from nonprofit and community organizations and representatives from local agencies and government including planners, city managers, and even a mayor and state senator. This was one of the most important aspects of our selection process But such diverse teams meant that there were also going to be some difficult conversations. Every team has some baggage, some legacy of broken trust or past promises that they have to deal with.

The frank conversations within each project team were perhaps the most valuable product of the entire two-day convening. Folks strengthened relationships in some cases and began to build them in others. They broke down their pre-existing conceptions of each other, and were able to identify strategies and resources that built power. When we look back at the program as a whole, these relationships will be a key driver of the program’s success and should serve as an important example of the work that other communities will need to emulate to advance a successful reconnecting communities project.  

“The work of advancing equity is never about what you’re willing to give. It’s about what you’re willing to give up. What are you willing to give up for your community?” – Nathaniel Smith, Founder and Chief Equity Officer of the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity

4. There’s an incredible appetite for projects that truly repair and reconnect communities 

Low-income communities and communities of color continue to be disproportionately harmed by the United States’ car-centric approach to transportation planning. The damage caused by this approach can be seen across the country through the high-speed, dangerous roads that run through them, dividing and disconnecting them from economic opportunity and key community assets.  The federal government has for the first time acknowledged the harm done to these communities by creating the new Reconnecting Communities Program (RCP) to restore communities damaged by divisive infrastructure. To date, the program has selected 45 winners of the grant program, but well over 400 communities applied, and even more places would benefit from reconnecting communities.  Our program attempts to advance similar projects, but our goals are broader. We intend to expand the capacity of applicants, support them to create new and diverse partnerships, identify and pursue state/federal funding—certainly from the RCP, but also lots of other sources—and provide resources and training to help them build a campaign and craft the best possible projects to solve their mobility and other challenges.

People present their project and collaborative ideas using sticky notes and posters

5. Moving at the speed of trust

Atlanta Transportation Commissioner Solomon Caviness IV said at the opening plenary “we must dialogue and plan with our communities early and often. We have to get out of our offices. We have to get into the community.” The shared ideal of effectively engaging community members and building community consensus was one of the clearest outcomes of the Atlanta convening.  The divisive transportation infrastructure our Community Connectors are working to overcome was often intended to divide and destroy. And the harm went beyond the physical. These past projects destroyed not only homes, businesses, and wealth, but trust in the government and institutions that carried these plans out. Every team is focused on conducting more community-centered planning, fostering transparency, and building trust so that they can ensure that residents are well-informed about projects’ goals, benefits, and potential impacts. Every good intention can still bring unintended negative consequences, so teams are committed to soliciting community input early and often and incorporating local knowledge and preferences in the very conception and design of a project.

I’m energized by… “everyone’s awareness that the community voice needs to be first. Circling everything around the direct needs of the community.” – Community Connectors program participant.

6. This road forward will be long and hard, but these teams are poised for success

Despite the massive momentum created at the Atlanta convening, Smart Growth America and the Community Connectors cohort remain clear-eyed about the hard work ahead. These projects will take years to complete and cannot by themselves overcome more than 50 years of inequitable transportation planning decisions and disinvestment.   But this program isn’t just about this moment in time, it’s about building partnerships and capacity so communities are better equipped to tackle other similarly restorative projects in the future. For SGA and the rest of the project team, the most important goal of this program is to leave these communities stronger and more capable of undoing the damage of the past—and to build a better future.  

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