Kwanza Hall Speaks About Creating an Inclusive Black Mecca

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Atlanta Black Star’s editorial staff is conducting a series of interviews with Atlanta mayoral candidates for the upcoming November election. After interviewing each candidate, we will endorse one based on how their policy ideas will impact our readership.

Kwanza Hall’s parents were civil rights activists and rooted him in the Black community. Although he represents District 2, Atlanta’s most diverse district, income and race wise, he connected with ABS through a positive Black lens. Hoisting Atlanta up as a Black mecca with room for all. In a crowded field of insiders, Hall touts his accomplishments while still suggesting there is much work to be done in Atlanta to include more people and to stop the displacement of working poor and Black people.

In a race where at least five current or former Atlanta City Council members are running for mayor, Hall, who is plain spoken but well traveled, will have to find ways to stand out from the crowd. His task as a 12-year veteran of the council is to convince a diverging electorate that is becoming more class and race conscious that he can keep a pluralist city from dividing even farther. Hall suggests that the city even as it bleeds its Black population, can reverse that trend without disturbing the growth of the city. For voters in Atlanta, a decision will have to be made on Kwanza’s ability to move the city toward an equity model, a model that suggests that city politics is not a zero-sum game and that resources will be available to support multiple visions of a splintering city. Can Kwanza or anyone be, as Hall’s website suggest Everybody’s Mayor. To find out more about the candidate, visit his website at Kwanza Hall.

Below is an edited version of the interview with mayoral candidate Kwanza Hall held on May 16, 2017, at the offices of Atlanta Black Star. [The full transcript is attached]

Present from Atlanta Black Star: Jelani Nelson, co-founder and chairman; Tanasia Kenney, staff writer; Kamau Franklin, political and social editor.

Jelani Nelson: The first question I ask everyone, as a mayoral candidate, what do you see as the top five issues that Atlanta [residents] should be thinking about when they go to the poll this coming fall?

Kwanza Hall: First and foremost, one has to look at a person’s background, track record and what they’ve actually already gotten done, whenever you’re assessing a candidate. I think that really matters because people can just tell a story and sell a dream, but without concrete examples of how you get to certain places that people are suggesting we can get to as a city, you really don’t have enough confidence if I were a voter in that, so track record matters.

I would say also, ability to work with others. The ability for individuals to have a connection and connectivity across all types of lines. You really, as a leader, you have to be able to get things done, and sometimes, you’ve got to call people that otherwise you might not even have a good rapport with if you were not thinking about the fact that you might need to have a relationship with them in the worst days, in the worst times. That really is an important thing, so connectivity to others.

I would say ability to see through the bullshit, excuse my language, because there’s a lot of that noise out there about things that really don’t matter as far as … Age-old stories that we’ve heard of, historical arguments that may not get you to the place of success, okay? That clutter can derail progress in terms of making the appropriate decisions that will make things occur. That’s three.

Number four, I think is bend down to the bread-and-butter issues that citizens feel. That would be transportation’s a big one, and I put these all in one, public safety, accessibility to jobs and job training, workforce development, affordable housing. The fifth one would really be inclusivity and equity as a mantra and as a undergirding of the city. That’s my fourth item that I think people should assess someone on.

Then the fifth one would be, I guess, the resilience. Everyone makes mistakes, right? It’s how you deal in difficult times. Assessing a leader and having some kind of basis on, so when the going gets tough, how does this person behave? What do they do? What are their natural tendencies? Do they become angry and have an inability to see through discourse and dialogue because it’s difficult? Do they cower in the corner? Do they avoid the dialogue? Do they sit down instead of standing up, if you will? I think that part, that dimension of when in challenge, how a person behaves would be the fifth one.

Nelson: Let’s talk about equity a little bit. What kind of policies do you envision putting in place? I think equity spreads across all these things, right? Equity, housing, jobs, even transportation, public safety, as well because … there’s a perception, at least in some parts of the city, that public safety agents, the police and others, protect some folks and may be protecting some folks from other folks in the city. What kind of policies?

Hall: The ones I started with. Equity inclusion must be inherent to Atlanta’s DNA. Atlanta has the potential and it will be the capital of the African diaspora when I’m mayor, and I think that’s mission-critical. This city can demonstrate how people of color can and should be included in our society, how we can be supported, uplifted, and truly have an opportunity to share and contribute the valuable creative and innovative assets that we have inherently in our DNA. That’s not possible in so many cities in the world, in so many countries. But there’s a unique place making that has occurred in Atlanta, if you were to look at it from an urban design standpoint, and our energy coalesces here.

When we speak about equity and inclusion, I’ve already delivered pieces of legislation that speak specifically to that, along the criminal justice reform platform, for instance. I’ve passed Ban the Box for felon re-entry. [Currently,] we’re not allowing former felons to come back into our society. Three of my uncles were felons. Many of my friends I grew up with from high school, some of my best friends who were smarter than I was growing up. I went to MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but these young men and women were smarter than me when we were kids. They became felons and went on the wrong paths in life and society never allowed them back in. It hurts when I think about it because that should not be.

We know when people make white-collar mistakes, if you will, they have a pathway back into society. It should be possible for everyone, especially those who are coming from urban communities who happen to be of darker skin. We passed Ban the Box, we’re doing a pre-arrest diversion program, introduced legislation around transparency and officer-involved shootings. We’re also working on decriminalization, well, in this case in Atlanta, we have to call it a reclassification of marijuana possession of less than a ounce. Those are the crimes, those are the areas that for me as an African American man growing up in this city, being in America, I’ve had to touch the criminal justice system in more ways than one, and most of them have not been good.

First time I had a gun pulled on me by a police officer, I was probably 10, 11 years old, my brother and I. We just jumped a fence and went near a train yard on Dill Avenue in southwest Atlanta. The officer, it was a Sunday, we were at my dad’s house and the officer thought we were trying to break in or something, little kids he sweating. He could’ve killed us.

It starts there just feeling like you can live a society and not get gunned down. Not get choked out on live TV. That’s impossible for us to even fathom, but it’s happening right now. It’s always been happening in this society, we just didn’t have it on social media before now. So, the lynches never really stopped, okay?

Then, when you talk about affordability, I’m the only person in the race who’s actually delivered affordable housing as an elected official. On Boulevard, we have the area with the greatest concentration of poverty in the southeastern United States. Average income is $3,000 a year, average rent is $12 a month, 700 families, 3,000 people. A lot of folks say, “Well you need to change that neighborhood, you need to push the people out.” No, we got the owners to commit to keeping the families and children there because it’s a place of last resort. If you’re a young woman, 18 to 25 years old and you don’t have a place to go, this is one place that you can go.

We brought on 80 units, we’ve got another three projects coming and I’ve been focusing on tiny houses as part of the solution, micro-units, smaller units like you might see in New York. We don’t have to have these big sprawling units in this city. We’ve got to do more density around transit stations, that provides equity in transit and in housing. A transit-oriented affordability plan when we roll out the $2.5 billion to $4 billion with our MARTA referenda and the SPLOST expansion of the Beltline. Everywhere that those investments go, affordability has to be mandatory, not a afterthought. Not okay, maybe we will do that after we do the regular deal. No, it’s first, second, and third in our equation.

We need to do a wholesale neighborhood renaissance. I grew up on the west side of town. All the neighborhoods west of Northside Drive, south down to Thomasville, we’ve got vacant housing projects, hundreds of acres that need to be used as catalytic regenerators of affordable housing in a massive, wholesale manner. When I say, “Affordable,” I mean every strata of affordability, because it’s different for everyone.

Kamau Franklin: You’ve been in City Council now over a decade, close to 12 years, and there’s been a lot of shifts in Atlanta, all of which have happened with Black mayors at the helm. Can you speak about what you think has gone on successfully over the past decade or so and what do you think has been, let’s say, the short-sightedness of some of these mayors.

Hall: There’s no model more dynamic than the Atlanta Inc. model, which is African-Americans in Leadership model, of a hugely successful economic engine, meaning the city of Atlanta and all of its assets, which includes the airport, includes all of the great attractive things that Atlanta’s been able to bring, from the Olympics to what we have today, the industries that thrive here, that choose to reinvest here from technology to film and music and everything in between.

I think this is one of the few cities where we can say Black people have done this and successfully. However, we still have places where we are laggers, where we are weak and like I said, we’ve been great at building buildings and companies in some cases, and opportunities, and generally at the big level. Even small people have succeeded. But in a wholesale manner, I think we still miss the mark on delivering for those who are most in the margins.

Even more so than delivering, empowering them to be in the market mindset. How to participate in the economy in a legal, safe and sound, and ultimately exponential growth manner. Now how’s that, what am I saying?

If you grew up in an African country, in South America, in the Caribbean, in Asia and you’re poor, the first thing you experience is how the market works and the market defines your family. If your family is in a rice field, they learn how to do something around rice. Whether it’s with the rice or with the byproduct or something, they’re cooking it. In Jamaica, you’re doing something with bananas or mangoes or something or you’re using your talent.

If you’re an African-American, you don’t learn to market, so you don’t know how to trade. You don’t understand financial literacy, how money really works, how it grows, how it can compound, those simple concepts. If you do learn it, you learn it a lot of times through the school of hard knocks. You get what I’m saying?

Whereas if you’re a kid in South Africa, your mother has a little basic store where she buys something at one price and sells it at another price, you learn to market. Not everybody learns that. There’s only one candy lady in the ‘hood. There’s not a lot of people who are doing that stuff. Some are more resourceful than others, but in general, it’s not a way of life. That’s one of our missing pieces in this city.

I discovered it only when I’d go up to New York and Boston and I meet people who are Haitian and Jamaican and from Antigua and all these other places, and I’m like, “Man, these people got, like, three jobs and they’ve got three side hustles, and they’re selling mixed tapes.” How is it that we aren’t as resourceful? We got one job and go home. “I’m tired, man.” You understand? I’m not knocking them, I’m just saying I’m knocking my own family, my own community. I think that’s where we have not changed that part, the permanent underclass in our city has remained permanently there.

Tanasia Kenney: In 1990, the city of Atlanta was about 67 percent Black and now it’s about 50 percent. On the issue of gentrification, what policies do you plan to enact to incentivize the reversal of this trend of Black people leaving Atlanta or being pushed out of Atlanta.

Hall: So, we need a wholesale recruitment of people like the two of you and all of your friends. The numbers exist in metro Atlanta. Why do people not choose to live in Atlanta right now? Because the neighborhoods, the legacy neighborhoods as I’ve mentioned, have not been invested in. We’ve got to run very quickly because you all will need to invest or people who live in the east side, Stone Mountain, all over that way, Douglasville, Clayton County, all have come to Atlanta. I live in Atlanta, but we’re not really a part of the Atlanta dream because we’re really technically outside the lines. We’ve got to get that investment here.

Don’t matter where, we’re going to do it street by street or house by house, street by street, block by block. It means we find some blocks where you all can live, west side Atlanta by Lowery. Hey, you all want to live there? We’re building a brand new park, it’s going to look just like Fourth Ward, come get it now. “Oh man, but that neighborhood’s bad.” I’m telling you, my neighborhood looked just like that in 1999, in old Fourth Ward, now the rents are $1,800 a month. Not that you want to be paying rent, you want to be owning. There are houses available, they’re $25,000. You can afford a $25,000 house if you want it. It’s going to require work, it’s going to require sweat. That’s one way.

The other way is non-displacement of existing people there. I think young, dynamic, new, fresh people are more mobile and have more resource and more understanding of what’s going on than those who have been locked into a neighborhood for 40, 50 years, a senior who’s aging in place. We’ve got to protect the seniors, we’ve got to protect the seniors who are raising their grandkids or great-grandkids, and then we’ve got to look at the families that are there that are struggling in the margins. All three groups, and there is a large group of homeless men.

The men and women, especially men who are homeless, could be used and deployed with day-labor rates to work in supportive services and supportive housing, to work to clean up every one of these streets, every one of these neighborhoods on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. “Hey, who wants to go clean up?” Have organized strategy. We’re going to clean up every lot, every house, we’re going to board it up if it’s not boarded, we don’t care who owns it, we’re going to call them out and embarrass them. We’re going to say, “Look, we cleaned up your lot. You’re going to own this for 10 years, you haven’t cleaned it up once.” Take the pictures, but we’re going to do it because it’s going to re-instill pride. Then, these men will be able to get a source of income.

Then, maybe you have a dedicated savings program. You take 80 percent of the money, the other 20 percent goes into what’s an individual development account. After you work for 20 days, you’ve got $400 in the bank. I mean, you know, we’ve just got to be real about the reality. Have you ever supported a nephew, a brother, a friend who needs some help? What did you do? I will put some of this up for you so that when you’re ready to get it, you can get it. That’s how we’re going to have to help people, in a real way, in a real honest and true way where they are. There’s thousands of men and women who are at that place.

Nelson: I want to talk about public safety a little bit. You sponsored legislation to reclassify marijuana, which has recently gotten kind of bogged down in the City Council. Can you speak to why you think some of your fellow members seem at least wary to support your proposal moving forward?

Hall: I think there’s a combination of things. I think, No. 1, it’s a little revolutionary for Atlanta still. Atlanta’s far more conservative than it seems. I mean, you know, when it comes down to these kind of decisions. We’re in a state that’s a conservative red state, as well. We’ve got a state pressure that we can’t do anything that puts us in conflict with state law, right?

Initially, the conversation was legalizing it decriminalizes, so even if you have the semantics that go counter, I think the mayor and the legal department don’t want to have that kind of testy position with the state. Then it could cause some unintended consequences for young people in particular, people of color, thinking that now if we do pass this law, it’s not legal to smoke weed. It just means that you would get a ticket.

If you’re smoking weed, they still can come up and give you a ticket, just like they can give you a ticket for other things. If you’re driving a car, then you’re still creating a situation that could add to a probable cause for other things. It would be less likely, but that also requires a whole retraining, whole public information campaign, retraining of police, retraining of citizens, everyone has to learn how to engage in this. That’s Atlanta police, who may be cool with this, like how back in the day if you had some beer or something and you were under age a little bit, they’d pour it out, say, “Go home.” Kind of like that.

A lot of Black boys would not be in jail.  The thing that’s missing is the state, because a lot of the charges that we got in the city that go to Rice Street are charges for state troopers stopping someone here, Georgia Building Police, Georgia State Police, Georgia Tech Police, MARTA Police. All of those groups can use the highest penalty.

The officer decides, “Oh no, this is going to be a $1,000 situation.” Still, we can’t control that. You would walk around thinking you can carry some weed and you smoke it and you’re near MARTA, and they arrest you and then you end up still dealing with the punishment that we were not intending you to get. There is some confusion that has to be worked out and that’s the public information campaign.

That’s why I was pushing that we try to, we pass the legislation but we not let it become effective for six months so that it gives people time to learn and be re-engaged and have some sessions and dialogues and town halls about what it really means.

Nelson: We’ve been talking to all the other mayoral candidates and I’ve shared with you what was said before: We have 150,000 people in the city that read our publication and we intend on endorsing someone late summer or early fall. Can you tell us why it should be you?

Hall: First, I’m the only one with a proven track record for getting things done in a wholesale manner, big and small. A long, long list and I brought some of them so you all have them, across every touchpoint. Transportation, public safety, affordable housing, workforce development, economic development, global competitiveness, focus on the international. I think the future of Atlanta is going to be about a local to global connectivity, beyond what we’ve ever seen before. That’s kudos to the mayor, all the mayors before and especially Ambassador Young. But we can do way better, okay?

I think in terms of my ability to connect with rich, poor, Black, white, gay straight, that’s going to be absolutely necessary, just the ability to deal with everybody. I think you also have to think about, I mean for me, I have a history of family legacy of civil rights and social justice and helping people. Haven’t really done a lot to try to help myself, and my family never was that type of family where we’re trying to just get ourselves paid and get rich. That’s not what I want to do as mayor. I want to help our citizens. Right now, I believe our Atlanta, our city’s at a unique place and it needs a leader.

There’s no one else to do it the way it needs to be done. No one else understands that we are truly supposed to be the beacon for the African diaspora. We’ve done some other things, but there’s some basic lines of growth and development that we’re still not achieving. We actually have regressed and we’ve got to fix that. Atlanta is the model for the rest of the country. People look at us for leadership. I believe that that global outlook is something that I bring to the equation.

Then, in terms of what we talked about, about affordable housing and the development around the transit investments that we’ll make and the continued investment around the airport, there is really no one who’s willing to say they don’t know it all, okay? I don’t know it all. I’m a smart person now, I’m telling you, I’m smart. But I still don’t know it all and I can’t do it all. But I’m willing to offer to some of the candidates in the race, all the citizens, people like you all who want to be a part of making our city the great place it can be. We’ve got to change the culture, shift our philosophy, get back to what is our true DNA, a DNA that’s predicated based upon being humane. Put humanity first. We have that inside of this city, but it’s kind of gotten a little skewed and we’ve got to pull it back to that.

That’s what I think I offer. An ability to connect with human beings in a way that I think no one else can. With all citizens.

Nelson: Thank you.

Hall: Thank you.

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