On fire because of climate change.
No seriously, contemplating the future of the world’s great cities is an important task. Building the future is even more important. At Night of Ideas, an event hosted by the French consulate in 100 cities around the world, artists, innovators, civic leaders and entrepreneurs, are invited to think about the future of their cities. The first Atlanta Night of Ideas was hosted on Saturday, May 14 by the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the Woodruff Arts Center and several other corporate entities. I had never heard of it, so I was really surprised and inspired by how many creative people came out to the event. I was also dismayed at the classism apparent in the guest list of who was invited to the event.
But, for artists who were looking for networking and ideas, the event certainly served its purpose. I sat in on panels about the metaverse, watched virtual reality films, experienced sustainable art and heard business leaders talk about the importance of bridging the divide between whose ideas get funded and whose do not.
One of the centerpieces of the event is something called the Long Table. Cultural influencers and movers and shakers are invited to participate in a long table conversation, then the general public is passed the mic and able to switch out and participate in the conversation. It’s a neat fishbowl concept.
The theme this year was all about cultural identity and the central question was “Where are we going?” This is a question that I have heard many artists and entrepreneurs ask about the city for several years. As the “city in a forest” has become the “Hollywood of the South,” the place that those of us who are from Atlanta grew up in is much changed. I must admit that when I spend time in the city nowadays I am excited by the new energy and also dismayed at the loss of our cultural heritage.
The final question asked of the first round of Long Table panelists, of which I was apart, was “What do you want to see for Atlanta in 100 years?”
The question surprised me and I was completely unprepared. Part of my response is embedded in this post, but as I was driving home from the event at midnight, I recognized that there were a few things I didn’t touch on in my answer. So, below are the four things I want to see for Atlanta in 100 years:
1. Atlanta is becoming a lot like Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and D C., in that it’s a transient city. That is fine. New energy revitalizes a place, but without a firmly established cultural identity you can be caught in the wind. I would like to see Atlanta establish itself as a place for givers and not takers. Everyone is so concerned with getting to the bag, but no one is as concerned with giving back. In Atlanta, because of our social justice and civil rights history, as we get on we give back. Atlanta is not a city for takers; Atlanta is a city for givers and innovators and you must do both at the same time.
2. I want to see more investment in our youth. I can even recall as a teenager who was interested in arts and culture not knowing what to do or where to go to be able to learn. I want to see us stop creating a narrative that our youth are criminal and instead acknowledge the fact that our youth have marched for criminal justice reform, sustainability and climate change policy, reproductive rights and immigration reform– all within the last five years— and no policies have been passed to help assuage their fears and push the world that they want to see forward. As a result, that lack of movement– and the increase in gun sales– has led to an increase in gun violence. But our youth are not violent. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us that “riot is the language of the unheard.” I want Atlanta to listen to its youth and engage them in building the future that they want to see.
3. This city has also had a long history of not taking care of those who have mental health issues. Let’s be clear drug use and homelessness are mental health and public health issues. We have tent cities popping up all across the metro area. Look in front of City Hall or the State Capitol and you will see people living on the streets. For those who wish to live indoors, we need to find ways to get them the mental health support that they need so that they can live indoors. And for those who wish not to live indoors, we need to create spaces where they can safely live in nature without without losing their dignity.
4. Lastly, we must be leaders. I often hear people quote Andre 3000’s Source Awards speech where he said “the South got something to say.” The world is listening to the South now, especially to Atlanta. As a city whose population is reflective of the global majority that this nation is headed toward, eyes are on Atlanta. Someone said at Night of Ideas that Atlanta is no longer a teenager, it is a full grown adult. I could not agree more, and we must walk through life and take accountability and be responsible for the way that we move, live and be in the way that full grown adults do. We must understand that as consumers and as voters, we have the power to create the culture we want to see. We must wield that power and stop waiting for people who have no investment in our liberation to do for us what we must do for ourselves. Who is willing to temporarily forego the bag to build the people? Who are the people who will follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fanny Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Ella Baker, and Constance Baker Motley? Who are the people who will do like the Atlanta Washer Women did in 1881 and throw dirty laundry out into the streets and refuse to clean until change is made? If Atlanta is to last 100 more years, then the city will be built by the revolutionaries who dare to make it.
Header image is a piece called “Trashy Fashion” by Marina Skye, created for the Science Gallery at Emory University. The piece is a scale model of Atlanta’s waste footprint, which on an individual level consists mostly of cardboard boxes.