Erica Atwood: Leaders should be bridge builders, not gatekeepers - Generocity Philly

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Aug. 17, 2016 12:56 pm

Erica Atwood: Leaders should be bridge builders, not gatekeepers

The city's former director of Black male engagement reflects on her path to public service in the first installment of our "leaders of color" guest post series.

Erica Atwood.

(Courtesy photo)

This essay is an installment of Generocity’s ongoing “leaders of color” guest post series, in which local leaders of color write about their experiences of leadership within Philly’s social impact community. Read more about our intentions here.


To understand my call to public service, you need to know a few things first.

I was raised in Camden, N.J. I am the daughter of a public school teacher and a union leader who were both active in the local Civil Rights movement in the late ’60s. My family migrated to Philadelphia and New Jersey from Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina looking for work and refuge from the Jim Crow laws of the South.

I grew up in a home where civic engagement and fighting for equity were woven into my core values. Yet, I had a front row seat to the effect extreme poverty can have on a community. During my youth, Camden became the poster child for systemic divestment and a petri dish of socioeconomic disparity all evident by the building of a waterfront federal prison, the loss of nearly 20 percent of the population and a burgeoning pandemic of unemployment and violence

For my mother, like many others, my survival and success were paramount. She made incredible sacrifices to ensure I was able to get a quality education that would be my “free papers out of poverty.

Through a winding path, I now have a successful career and have been able to make impact in ways I would have never imagined.  I served in the Nutter administration from Inauguration Day in 2009 until November 2015. During those nearly eight years I held three positions:

  1. Served as ceremonial liaison to the mayor as deputy city representative
  2. Fostered relationships and managed community outreach as specialist for external affairs and community engagement
  3. Directed activities locally and nationally related to reducing racial disparities and improving outcomes for some of our most at-risk citizens as Philadelphia’s first director of Black male engagement

One of my greatest skills is the ability to maneuver between worlds with ease and authenticity, while fostering genuine relationships. From day one, the doors of City Hall were open literally and figuratively which afforded me the opportunity to connect with promising young people from our most vulnerable neighborhoods. That experience solidified for me that — by and large — those most impacted by poverty and the criminal justice system often feel completely disconnected from the policy and process. The ability to grasp and change the systems that affect them most seem completely inaccessible. However, if given guidance and exposure, they will tenaciously pursue knowledge and become transformative leaders.

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Those most impacted by poverty and the criminal justice system often feel completely disconnected from the policy and process.

When I left city government, I absolutely knew my responsibility to public service didn’t end with term limits — I truly believe it becomes a part of who you are. I am now living out what I believe to be my authentic purpose by launching First Degree Consulting, LLC and serving as senior consultant to Cities United.

At First Degree, we are deeply dedicated to helping create opportunities for growth, fostering healing dialogues and delivering messages that resonate. As champions for systemic positive change, we help develop inclusive strategies and equitable spaces for all — regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

Cities United is a national movement focused on eliminating the violence in American cities related to African American men and boys. The approximately 90 mayors participating in Cities United have committed to reducing homicide by 50 percent in their cities by the year 2025. It is a goal that cannot be achieved without restoring hope and building pathways to justice, civic inclusion, economic freedom and quality education.

Given the constant barrage of violence and socioeconomic disparities here at home and in countless other cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas and Compton, the American dream seems to be beyond reach for those who grew up in environments that most mirror mine.

And now, more than ever, it is the responsibility of those of us in leadership not to be the gatekeepers of power and resources. Together, we must unite and be the bridge builders to liberation for all Americans, starting right here in Philadelphia.

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