Moving On is a series of Q&As with social impact leaders who are leaving their organizations for new opportunities. Here, they will share what they learned and where they’re headed.
Erica Atwood’s email signature includes a quote by social justice activist Bryan Stevenson: “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
It’s an appropriate send-off for Atwood, an eight-year veteran of the outgoing Nutter administration. Atwood served most recently as the director of Black Male Engagement, an initiative created during her time in the Mayor’s Office meant to specifically address the needs of black males in the city who are so often the victims of violence and inequity. She also served on the national planning team for Cities United, an organization of 56 mayors working toward violence reduction.
Atwood recently left city government to start her own consulting business focused on helping organizations increase racial equity. Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen spoke to her about the importance of supporting black males for all of society’s benefit, the city’s “daunting” administrative barrier and what citizens need to understand about those working for city government. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Generocity: Can you first describe what you did as the director of Black Male Engagement?
Erica Atwood: I helped focus policies and programs specific to disparity for black men and boys in the communities in which they live, looking at health, trauma, community engagement and violence reduction. I represented the mayor during my time there with Cities United — a national initiative focused on reducing violent deaths in black men and boys — and also at the Mayor’s Commission on African-American Males, which today was actually voted to be put on the ballot in April to become a permanent commission.
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G: And you had been working with the Mayor’s Office for a few years before that in a different position, right?
EA: Yeah, so I came into the city with the mayor. I was on his campaign as the deputy finance director and came in initially as deputy city representative, and then moved over after two years to his office to do community outreach and some external affairs.
G: The Black Male Engagement position was created during your time with the city. Why?
EA: I’d essentially been doing the work since 2011. If you look at who falls in the gaps to the highest degrees in health, income, employment, education throughout the city, you see that young black males are in that gap, and we really needed to — and there was a national movement [for this] — pay some attention to what we were doing in the city in reducing those disparities and reducing those gaps.
G: Why is that work important?
EA: I think what we don’t talk about is, what the effects of this one group not succeeding has upon the rest of us — in an economic way, in a fulfillment way, maybe in a longevity of all of us in life way. I often talk to folks who don’t understand the work, and I use the example of, “What if Dr. Charles Drew was the kid who got gunned down yesterday? Would we be able to do what we do around plasma and blood and transfusions if he didn’t exist?” So I think that we take for granted that these kids cannot be active contributors to society, they’re not ones that need handouts, they need for us to get out of their way so they can do more and do better.
G: Can you talk about some specific initiatives you were a part of with the city, like Cities United?
EA: Cities United is about allowing mayors a safe space to discuss the issues of black men and boys. It is about looking at best practices that exist across the country in those cities and allowing those best practices to shared among cities to reduce the violent death, as well as providing technical assistance. Experts are provided to cities for helping them achieve their goals in reducing those violent deaths.
G: What is your new position?
EA: I’ve launched my own consulting firm to begin to be able to do that work, First Degree Consulting, and it’s about helping organizations with youth development, strategic communications and strategic planning with a racial equity lens. So, the work that I’m doing is not totally specific to men and boys, but just communities that have gaps in equity.
G: Are you consulting with nonprofits?
EA: Nonprofit and for-profit. And I’m actually consulting with Cities United now.
G: So why did you decide to make that jump from working with the city to running your own business? I see the overlap of how they’re similar, but why this direction?
EA: I didn’t see anyone doing this work on a national level the way that I have been doing with the city. There was just a lot of opportunities to continue to move the work, not just locally but nationally, and I did not see where I could do it any other way, other than taking a leap of faith and stepping out on my own.
G: Is the Black Male Engagement initiative not guaranteed to continue with the next mayoral administration?
EA: It isn’t, although I do know that they’re going to have some focus on racial equity, though I don’t know what it’s going to pan out to. I actually made my decision [to leave] prior to even broaching on that conversation with the Kenney administration.
G: Can you talk about, broadly, what you learned during your time at the city, in terms of serving communities that are underserved and increasing equity, and even just navigating the city system and helping people from within the system on the community level?
EA: What I learned about the system doesn’t allow for unification and a cohesive process to assist citizens, the way departments collect data, the technology they use, the data points they use — and this is a national issue, not just in Philadelphia, though Philadelphia suffers from it within government — that we just don’t collect data the same way. So we have to kind of piece things together to better serve our citizens and our children.
And there are some workarounds, like the Department of Human Services and the court and the school district who all communicate with one another, and they have, quite literally, a memorandum of understanding around how they can better serve the children that cross over in their different agencies. So that’s the solution to what is a daunting barrier in terms of data collection. It seems a little wonky, and it seems a little nerdy, but it’s really important that you know the numbers so you can better serve the individuals.
G: Were you ever able to meet face-to-face with the people you were trying to serve through your work in the government?
EA: Oh, absolutely. So we had a in collaboration with [the people] who run PowerCorpsPHL and oftentimes spoke to the young people who are involved in that program and who are predominantly males of color. We also, through the Mayor’s Commision on African-American Males, had a program called Rebuilding the Village, and that was a monthly program that was happening in three different communities where we were holding community meetings to talk about some of the issues in Kingsessing, Strawberry Mansion and West Philadelphia.
Also, Philadelphia is a National Forum City through the U.S. Department of Justice, and it helps cities build and implement violence reduction strategies, and it’s not race-focused. So there was a series of community meetings held to inform the strategy around violence reduction, and I was chiefly responsible for holding those meetings within the 22nd Police District. So, I’ve been out and about in community pretty much all of my career, either in a volunteer capacity or in an official capacity.
G: What have you learned about working in city government that someone who doesn’t would be surprised to know?
EA: There are notions that people who work for the city are collecting paychecks and collecting pensions, but by and large, people take public service really seriously in the city. I’ve learned in my eight years is, when you work for the city, the majority of people love the city and they love the people, and they work hard to that end, whether they work with juvenile delinquents or they’re a teacher or they are a sanitation worker, or an administrative assistant. They all, by and large, have a great capacity for love for Philadelphia.-30-
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