Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation once earned the imprimatur of “good trouble” from the late Representative John Lewis. Founder and Executive Director Rohit Malhotra shares the story of the Center and their mission to improve equality and build trust between communities and government.
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Cohen: Josh Cohen
Malhotra: Rohit Malhotra
Cohen: The Center for Civic Innovation prides itself on doing things that make those in power uncomfortable, things like civics education, investing in community advocacy, and advocating for policy change all in an effort to address fundamental issues of inequality that define Atlanta even as Atlanta has grown into a global economic powerhouse. The center’s founder and executive director, Rohit Malhotra, is my guest on The Movement podcast right now. Let’s go.
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: My guest today is Rohit Malhotra, the founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta, Georgia. Rohit founded the center in 2014 to create an environment for conversation and action around Atlanta’s future. So welcome to The Movement.
Malhotra: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Cohen: I’d love for you to maybe just give us just the foundational level here, which is the work you’re doing and kind of the fundamental problem that you’re trying to solve with the Center for Civic Innovation. And maybe as a part of that, I think, you have a special connection to the late John Lewis. And I would love to maybe kind of have that and maybe share that a little bit and maybe kind of as a part of you telling that story, because I think that’s just such a great, great story.
Malhotra: Yeah. No, I appreciate that. You know, it’s been a tough couple weeks and honestly a tough year, I think, for a lot of folks. But in Atlanta we’ve lost a few giants in our city that are iconic to what we think about when we think about Atlanta. And John Lewis is certainly among those giants and for me was the closest proxy to why I got into this work and why I care about this work, is that there’s a certain beauty to being uncomfortable with the status quo, and John Lewis has lived his life fighting up against exactly that.
And, you know, I would not be doing the work that I’m doing today were it not for not only his message and his service but just kind of direct conversation that I was able to have with Congressman Lewis before I came back to Atlanta, which is my hometown, where he said, “You need to come on home.” And that was the sentiment, that there is so much work to be done in our hometowns that for the past few decades we’ve forgotten about it. And while we’ve forgotten about it cities have become increasingly more and more unequal. And usually this would lead to a 15-minute introduction for me on, like, why inequality is important and how inequality disproportionately affects Black and Brown people. And in a city like Atlanta, that is extremely important given the population and the history here; yet I no longer have to explain that because a global pandemic has shown a pretty bright light on this issue.
Now the question is, “What are we going to do about it?” And so the long and short of what the Center for Civic Innovation is and what we do is we attempt to be a city-focused department of failure where we can test and try new ways and new approaches to solving against issues of inequality in our city. And our focal points are around civics education, making sure that people know how systems work and what’s working and what’s not; investing in people on the ground who are actually doing the work, so creating not just a community of those people but also a support system for them; and the third is advocating for policy change to make sure that whatever we’re fighting for lives beyond us. And so that’s at the core of our work and is certainly inspired by the moniker of good trouble, and we try to get into that as much as we can every day.
Cohen: Yeah, that’s such an evocative bon mot, I guess—I don’t even know what you call that—that Representative Lewis coined there that I know you have embraced that good trouble in the work that you’re doing.
Cohen: And even have an aware named after that. Is that correct?
Malhotra: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, in 2015 John Lewis had called us publicly “good trouble,” and it was when we had won a national award. And he was the first to celebrate as publicly about that. And, you know, we’re doing something that it makes power uncomfortable, and I think he knew a thing or two about that and very publicly said, you know, “This group is some good trouble.” And we embraced it then, and every year we give out an award to other good troublemakers in our community that are doing the work.
Cohen: I love that. And I love just embracing that and kind of using that, because like you said, it’s so evocative. Now, you mentioned kind of a department of failure. Now, you’re private; you’re non-profit; you’re separate from the city.
Malhotra: That’s right.
Cohen: So you’re different than maybe some of these groups like the New Urban Mechanics up in Boston that are more of a city department.
Malhotra: Yeah. No, we’re very conscious to create that separation. And, honestly, when the city doesn’t like what we’re doing, they’re very conscious about that too. [LAUGHTER] And so for us, you know, when I was doing my thesis work right before founding the Center for Civic Innovation I actually worked closely with the Office of New Urban Mechanics and obviously named after the late Mayor Menino and as just kind of this embracing of trying and testing things. But, you know, not all cities had the lexicon that the City of Boston did or the academic backing or funding that they did to try things.
And ultimately at the end of the day when you’re under a government agency, you’re still under the administration that you are working under. Whatever their goals are, ultimately that dictates what you can and can’t do. And so for us, definitely gained inspiration not only from them and other models around the country. We wanted to build something that is driven for and by people, because we find that way too often things are built to communities not with communities, and communities are only brought into the process when a decision has already been made. And it really becomes glorified marketing at the end of the day, because we weren’t really interested in what they wanted in the first place.
And so what we’re trying to look at is what is community designed innovation really look like. And so a lot of our capital in the beginning came from robbing Peter to pay Paul. What we would do is teach a workshop on design thinking to a large corporation or the future impact work on the ground, and we’d charge them market rate on it, and then we would turn around and take that money and distribute it right into grassroots organizations as a seed investment that was forgiven. And so with that, that’s how we started our first small fund. And since then we’ve been able to convince some high-net-worth folks, some folks who can give 20 bucks, 30 bucks, you know, we take a stance of, “Everybody is an investor in this work.” And we use those dollars, which to the people who are providing them looks like a donation but to us it looks like a contribution to a fund, and we distribute that capital back to grassroots organizations in Atlanta. And we’ve distributed a little under $2 million in the past few years to folks who are working on a variety of different issues.
And so, yeah, our funding comes from—we charge a fee for service for that to the investor themself, and so that covers our overhead. And so, you know, I want to say that I inherently believe that philanthropy is broken. I do not think it is—we should not be dependent on high-net-worth folks or on corporations to get us out of the challenges that many of them are responsible for creating in the first place.
Malhotra: But also unrestricted dollars are necessary for movement building work right now. And so as long as there aren’t strings attached to it, which we take zero unrestricted dollars—we do not allow anyone to put restrictions on the dollar—we’re fine with redistributing that. We actually see it as something they should be doing anyway.
Cohen: No, that’s a great point. I want to touch on something. I want to dig into something that you talked about just a second ago where you said, “Driven by and for people.” Kind of you’re talking about the community engagement and the work that you’re doing. And it actually recalled—you did a TEDx talk a few years ago. And one of the lines that you gave in there, which I thought was so—that just kind of sat with me a little bit was you talked about your experience dating and how you’d take someone to this kind of make-your-own-soup-bowl kind of place.
Malhotra: Yeah. Yeah.
Cohen: And I love that example. Maybe you can kind of give that little piece there, because I think the punch line to that as it relates to community engagement, I though, was such an important one. Do you want to share that?
Malhotra: Yeah, sure, absolutely. So, yeah, I unveiled myself as a terrible dater and talked about the fact that I would go to this really cheap noodle joint where it was make-your-own stir fry, and I would take—I acted like I took a bunch of dates there as if I was in high demand, but I took the one date that I had and took her to this amazing noodle joint that I thought—and the reason I loved it was you have to make your own food, and no one would ever say that the food was bad there because no one wants to say that the food that they made doesn’t taste good.
Malhotra: And so everyone was always like, “Yeah, this is amazing. I love it.” And it just kind of speaks to my work everyday, which is when people are a part of the process of making something, even if the end result is not to even their expectation, they’re going to see the good in it first. They’re going to be like, “Well, at least it’s noodles, and at least it’s edible,” and we don’t do that today in government. Right? Like, the first thing we look at and look for is where is the corruption, where’s the ulterior motive. And sometimes we’re right about that, but I think that’s just become our go-to move. And that’s just not how trust is built.
When you bring people in at the tail end and you’re like, “Look; this is the food. Do you like it, don’t like it? At least you have food. Why are you complaining?” that’s when people start to say, “You know what? Like, this isn’t for me.” Or the relationship becomes purely transactional. So if it’s good food, people are down. If it’s bad food, they’re going to write you a terrible review, and now your relationship is broken. But, I think, you know, we all love the restaurants, the mom-and-pop shops in our neighborhoods where the owner is accessible. You see them; they come out, and they ask you how you’re doing and what the food is, and they remember you. That relationship building is relevant in government every single day. And so we know these things, we just don’t practice them.
Cohen: So are there some elements that you at the center in some of the work you do can kind of help make that a little bit more of a reality? Because I fundamentally agree with the premise—right—that we need more of that kind of community-led change, making your own noodle bowl, if you will.
Cohen: And we need more of that. And so I’m curious, like, what steps have you been able to help communities take or government take to kind of help repair a little bit of that trust and help build that patience with the process. Right? Because, again, the expectation shouldn’t be that government is perfect. Right? That’s never going to be the case.
Cohen: But if you say, “You know what? It’s not perfect, but dang; you know, they brought us in; they invited our opinion; they let us shape this; and even if it’s not exactly what we want, we had a hand in it.” So what are some tactical things that you guys are helping to do to make that a reality?
Malhotra: Yeah. So in our civics education work, at the center of what we’re saying is that everything centers around power. And what people don’t feel is that they have power. Even just in this conversation they’d say, “What are they going to do? What are they going to do for us?” It’s our government, so government is imperfect because we are imperfect. And so a lot of our reflection on government is really a reflection of who we’ve become and where we are and where are priorities sit. I always say that legislation is just a reflection of our morality codified into laws and policies. Right? And so I think we’re disappointed with government because, I think, inherently we’re disappointed in ourselves and where we are, and it’s easy to have a target on that.
And I think that government has played into that; they inherently learned the game. So you look at folks who are running for office; they know the game. They know that at the end of the day in cities like Atlanta and all around the country you’re not going to break about 30% for a local election turnout, and so you really got to focus on the 30% of people who vote, and that’s what they do. And then ultimately that’s who they become beholden to, and then we wonder why 70% of people’s voices are not heard in the process. Well, because we’re not participating in the process.
And that’s not solely on people. I think there’s also a massive barrier to actual—you know, especially in the State of Georgia we’re making national headlines around our voter suppression. It’s starting to become a part of who we are. But the irony in that is that we’re a city that is born and built out of the ashes of the voter rights movement work. And so, I think, that is a part of who we are; we just don’t—it’s become more of a marketing tactic that you’ll have folks talk about MLK or talk about John Lewis but not actually practice the work of who those individuals are.
So what we do in order to solve against that is, one, you have to humanize people. I think the biggest thing you hear from elected officials is they are so scared. They’re always scared. I’ve been backstage with so many elected officials before, and they’re nervousness is almost—it’s so humanizing. And when you hear about, like, why they had gone into public service, what their journey was, it’s important because it allows you to then connect deeper on a conversation later. And so at the core of our civic engagement work is actually bringing in elected officials and policymakers and decision makers to have an open, honest dialogue through, like, a very openly facilitated process where we ask the tough questions. And we’re not beholden to anybody, so I can’t not say that thing or not ask that question. We can go there with everything.
And so that’s been really important, is breaking down—like, I shouldn’t have to go to the 49th floor of a glass building to civically engage. And so we actually built a space out right in the heart of South Downtown Atlanta where literally every train station and every bus station connects to, where anybody can get to these conversations. And they’re free and open to the public, and they’re powerful. And they also make the elected official start to feel like, “Wait a second. Like, community engagement isn’t that hard.” A lot of the problem with civic engagement right now is that we’re assuming that the basic things that we want already exist or that they’re too hard to create. And the truth is that they don’t exist; we do need people to create basic 101 sheets on what does the mayor do, what does council do, what does the budget say. And also, like, it doesn’t have to be that hard. Like, people will be okay with your authenticity versus your perfection.
And we just did a recent 101 on the citywide budget—right—like so what the budget of the city actually does. And that was important in light of “defund the police” and a lot of conversations that were having around community and policing. But what we learned fundamentally is that most people when an elected official says, “Well, I’m going to move money from pot A to pot B,” you may not actually like pot B as much as you think you do. Like, the movement of capital may have been the goal, but where it’s going to may not exactly accomplish what it is that you may be fighting for in the first place. And you want more money to go to education, sure, but the education—the budget of the Atlanta Public School System is completely separate, and actually you cannot transfer money from the city to the education system. And so basic 101 stuff like that is really important to equip grassroots movement builders with, and also we have had elected officials sit in our civics 101 because there’s no training.
Cohen: Yeah, for sure.
Malhotra: Like, you’re just a hometown hero that, like, walked around. Like, you’ve never balanced a budget before. Like, somebody has got to give you the tools to do it, and so we try to play the honest broker role wherever we can.
Cohen: I think that’s so important, because anytime I watch a local city council meeting or anything like that or even especially, like, a planning meeting, it’s like—
Cohen: I’m fairly plugged in and I’m fairly well read and I still look at this like, “Half of this stuff is Greek to me.”
Malhotra: Yeah. For sure, yeah.
Cohen: You know, and, again, it’s—I mean, could it be learned? Of course, but some of it almost feels like it’s too hard by half. You know? If we looked at this from the standpoint of, like, truly great customer service, like, what truly great customer service looks like and really look at our government in that way, how that might impact that trust as well.
Cohen: You know, because we’ve all had those experiences that are, like, truly great customer service and how that makes us feel. And I don’t know; I just—I can’t help but feel like there’s something there that undermines that trust a little bit too.
Malhotra: Yeah. You know, riffing off of that, I would say that I think that one way to look at it is customer service. The other way to look at it is stakeholder responsibility. Like, what would it look like for people to actually be viewed as investors and stakeholders? Like we would never do this to—look how scared most startups are of their investors. Right? Like, they want to make sure, like, “Okay. I’ve got to make sure this is right, and I got to make sure it’s perfect.” And it’s the same concept of just good delivery, but I think it’s because the perception is like, “You know? You can’t make every customer happy, and that’s just what it is.” And that’s how government has gotten comfortable, is that it’s viewed itself as a market in and of itself that is outside of the people that it serves. But, in fact, it doesn’t exist without its key stakeholders, which are everybody who lives in the city.
Cohen: Yeah. You know, so part of your mission is to advance equality. And obviously you’ve had that mission longer than the recent racial justice conversation that our collective nation is having, but I’m curious kind of how you think the recent news and the recent kind of elevation of this issue—I’m curious how you feel like this is going to impact your work going forward.
Malhotra: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s from a conversation standpoint we actually—it’s making our conversation shorter in the sense of we no longer need to justify that this is a problem. I used to spend half to—I knew that every meeting had to be two meetings, social inequality is an issue and to explain that to the person, and then after that we can talk about where the opportunity is to actually do something about it. Now, I think, it has definitely raised to the public consciousness. And what we’re realizing is how unprepared the sector was for this particular conversation.
And I think that it is going to completely evolve and change the way that philanthropic institutions work. I think you’re going to see a huge shift in what it means to actually be a donor and what it means to fuel social impact work just because, I think, you’re seeing the inequality in the one tool that was supposed to fight up against inequality. Like, even in philanthropy, you know, a majority of capital is going to White-led, institutional organizations. And it is used in Atlanta—they use Black narrative to advance their work. And that would be all fine and well if measurement of impact was actually an indicator of capital, but it is not in this sector. There is no obligation to actually invest in things that work.
And so, I think, as you move toward the arc of equality, we’re going to have to start to establish measurements that we’re all willing to agree on or indicators of whether something is actually working or not. And that’s a tough conversation to have. There’s cultural issues in there; there’s actual capacity issues in there, but I think people have used charity as a scapegoat for addressing the fundamental issues that exist that charity is trying to put a Band-Aid on, but the bleeding is just too much right now, and so I think we’re going to have to do some surgery on some broken bones here. And I think there’s a silver lining in there, which is folks who have been working on this work who have felt like they’re beating their heads against the wall where they have to basically convince rich people to care about them in order to do the work that they want to, no longer feel that sense of pressure. The power dynamics are shifting a little bit.
And I hope in our politic as well, like, we are seeing an interest and a—like, it’s funny. There was a comedian that said over the past four years the general public has had the obligation to learn how government works at the same time the President of the United States is learning. And so you have had a raising of consciousness, I think, of just people actually feeling a sense of obligation to understand government. And I think that that’s going to hold both red and blue accountable, because, I mean, a lot of times it’s the same message and the same actions just being skirted under different language and context. And I think that finally, I think, we’re going to see some accountability in government across the board. And they’re going to realize that the majority of people don’t think in red and blue; they think, “Am I okay? Is my community okay?” But their closest interaction with government is going to be however their relationship is with their local government.
That’s how they’re going to view and perceive the national government, which is why places like Atlanta are like, “Look; you know, whether it’s this guy or the guy before it or the seven guys before that, my neighborhood has looked the same. Right? Like, and I’ve been told that this is going to happen and that’s going to happen, so I don’t really know how that guy in D.C. really affects my life. I mean, I can see it on the news. I can say I don’t like the words that are coming out of their mouths and all of this, but, like ultimately my local government is not showing up for me the way that I need it to.”
Part of that is local governments are not equipped always to do that, but another part of it is that we’ve depleted government’s power so much, and we don’t have the right people in leadership positions that we’re not seeing the results we want. And so I think you’re going to see a new wave of people running for office. I think you’re going to see a new formula for how we actually invest in impact-related work, and I think you’re going to see a level of accountability that we have not seen before from a generation that is not going to stay silent anymore.
Cohen: Yeah. That’s a great point about the accountability. You know, I’m reflecting a little bit on that surgery example, because I do think, you know, to do this right it requires not just kind of, like you said, a Band-Aid approach, but we actually have to do the hard, heavy lifting. And I asked this of somebody recently, which is, you know, how to balance that with the fact that, you know, that hard, heavy work does not get done in a perfectly calibrated mayor’s term or a city council term. Right?
Cohen: You know, it’s a much deeper and harder thing. And so maybe—you know, I’m going to maybe answer my own question, but maybe that kind of reinforces the role of organizations like the Center for Civic Innovation because you’re there no matter who is sitting in that mayor’s chair.
Malhotra: Yeah. I think the challenge is that especially with organizations like ours, our work gets to have its ebbs and flows depending on who is in power because of the power dynamics. Right? Like, if you think about grassroots mobilization work, we don’t ever—like, you don’t see funding or support or press conferences or ribbon cuttings for grassroots organizations until there’s a drastic thing that happened. And that’s the problem, is that we only care about grassroots mobilization when it’s either an emergency or an election.
And, I think, in order to build grassroots power, you need those things to be able to build in between elections; you need them to build in between emergencies or be ahead of emergencies, and they just can’t do that because that’s not how we think about fundamentally investing in this type of work. That’s not how capital flows. So you have under capacity or volunteer-run efforts that fizz out or come and go. And also the political entities that be have a lot of power. And so, you know, all they have sometimes is their bully pulpit, and they use it. I’ve seen grassroots organizations who may have political differences with somebody who has been elected. If that person doesn’t like them, that affects their funding stream; that affects their ability to operate; that affects which rooms they get invited to or who is willing to associate with them.
And so, you know, we take this D.C.-like approach to civic engagement, and that’s just not what civic engagement is set up to do, so we’re getting what we pay for, which is lukewarm, stale, like, status quo civic engagement work because that’s what people want to fund; it’s not risky. “Sure, let’s go ahead and fund some cute little event about how civic engagement is important and vote or die,” but, like, I think people are forgetting why people are so disengaged with the process, because it’s like you come and go only during times of emergency and elections, and that’s just not acceptable anymore.
So there needs to be a power shift. And I think that is affected by who comes and goes inside of political offices because they often are dictating where philanthropy puts its money, where public dollars are going, and who is allowed to be in the room and who is not. And that’s a power dynamic we don’t often talk about, but it’s real.
Cohen: Yeah. Well, I think that’s maybe a nice way to come back to John Lewis. You know, the fundamental aspect of the work that he and other civil rights pioneers did was around this issue of power and how to claim their power and how to reallocate that power. And obviously we’re still navigating that as a country, and I think we will be navigating that for a while unless we do that surgery. And even if we do the surgery, I think it’s going to require a lot of time to get there.
Malhotra: Yeah, we need some physical therapy after it, and all of that, and I think we’re all going to need some therapy of some sort after all of this, but it’s—you know, what was beautiful about John Lewis also is that it wasn’t just John Lewis. Right? And I think John Lewis became the icon, but what John Lewis has always been great about is talking about the folks who are a part of movement building whose names we may not know. And it’s important for people to know that you don’t have to be John Lewis. Like, there is—you might just need to be the person who makes sure that we remember the work through an icon like John Lewis.
Cohen: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I want to maybe—you can use that if you want, but I’ll give you a chance to maybe pick another one, but if there’s one thing that you would ask our audience to do leaving this conversation to help advance some of the type of things that you’re doing with the Center for Civic Innovation either in Atlanta or wherever their community is, what would be that one thing that you would recommend that they do?
Malhotra: Yeah. There are existing organizations that have existed before CCI even was an entity, before I was even born that have been doing real work inside of communities that are building fundamentally trust as their greatest asset. And they’re not valued because they may not play the rules of the game; they may not even know the rules of the game. They may not have had that introduction to the game. But I will tell you most grassroots movement building is under capacity.
And the solution isn’t always money, although if you’re not willing to actually be productive in the—if you’re like, “Look; I don’t have much time,” money is a great way to fuel grassroots movement building. But showing up as a shield for this type of work and a weapon is one of the most powerful things you can do, because, one, if you’re able to use the skills or the assets you have to fuel movement building that could be accounting, right? “What does it mean for a grassroots organization to take on some capital?” Or it could be helping them with some communications work. That will fuel them in so many ways that they—that is how you actually start building movements in that way.
But the other thing is to be a shield, which is it’s very easy to critique grassroots movement building because inherently it’s already imperfect. And so what they need are individuals who protect them and help them grow so that they don’t get kind of used as a scapegoat for, “See how messy that is?” or, “See. Like, look at those detractors that went out there and, like, smashed that building’s glass,” rather than focusing on the 99.9% of people who just didn’t have someone to help them hone in on the narrative, the 99.9% of people who have been peacefully asking for policy change. And so narrative matters in this, and narrative is only spread by the people who talk about it.
And so I think we need more non-Black people to show up to be a shield for the Black movement that’s happening right now. And that’s going to require a sacrifice of power. And so there are micro ways to do that; there are macro ways to do that; I think everyone just needs to decide how they’re going to do that, but some sacrifice needs to be made to create a better balance to the world that is certainly a little topsy-turvy right now.
Cohen: For sure. Where can folks learn more about the work you’re doing at the Center for Civic Innovation?
Malhotra: Yep, we have a new website coming up, but for now the information is still there. It’s CivicAtlanta.org. You can follow us on social media at @CivicAltanta on both Facebook, Twitter, and also on Instagram as well. So we are active and just constantly on the ground just trying to get this work done and invest in people who are doing amazing things, so.
Cohen: Well, thank you so much for joining me. This was great to get a little bit of an insight into the work you’re doing already and then the future work that you’re also thinking about and what’s needed in order to help bring this trust between citizens and the government and also help advance equality, which I think is obviously needed right now. So thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate you being here.
Malhotra: Yeah. I appreciate the time. Thank you.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.[END RECORDING]
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