Georgia Tech's Future as an Anchor in Atlanta

May 23, 2022

Once a marker for the new, industrialized South, at one point home to Georgia’s National Championship winning football team, and more recently a research powerhouse, Georgia Tech has had many identities since its inception following the Civil War. It grew alongside the city of Atlanta — one becoming a pillar in American higher education and one becoming the cultural capital of the South. Recent efforts by a number of Georgia Tech departments, administrators, and community partners are looking to magnify each other’s strengths for mutual benefit by establishing the Georgia Institute of Technology as an Anchor Institution in the Atlanta region.

Anchor Institutions are defined as “place-based (unlikely to move) [institutions] that have a strong self interest in ensuring that the place where they are located thrive… grounded in long-term partnerships with their own local communities… that reduce disparities and advance the the public interest along with institutional interests,” according to “Georgia Tech as an Anchor Institution: Institute Strategic Plan Implementation Task Force Report.” Serve-Learn-Sustain director Dr. Jennifer Hirsch described this as an effort for the education, campus, and resources of Georgia Tech, in collaboration with the other exceptional Higher Education Institutes in the area, to be of use for the advancement of the region. These tools and programs will act as stewards for the realization of the goals neighboring communities have for themselves. The future of Georgia Tech under this initiative will leave the institution forever intertwined with the communities and economy of Atlanta.

The first step towards solidifying Georgia Tech’s place in the city is through its economic impact on surrounding communities, focusing on economically mobilizing communities that have faced historic discrimination. This objective can be achieved by hiring with intention a diverse staff in every department of operations and education, but, in order to generate economic mobility, this also means training and “upskilling” individuals to provide them the opportunity for in demand, skilled, and lucrative future employment. Upskilling can be achieved through access to Georgia Tech facilities, courses, and special programming. Additionally, in order to generate wealth, Georgia Tech is exploring how to source many of its goods, materials, and services from companies owned by minorities and women. Doing so will generate and maintain jobs of quality for community members and encourage aspiring entrepreneurs of similar backgrounds. Going even further, those leading the “diversity in procurement” initiative are working to make this program replicable by the other University of Georgia System institutions; this establishment would be the first of its kind in higher education.

Another aspect of Georgia Tech’s realization of Anchor Institution aspirations must be a commitment to STEM programs in Atlanta Public Schools, according to the Task Force Report. The commitment would ensure that the children who grow up around Georgia Tech will benefit from the world-class institution at their doorstep. Georgia Tech must enrich and assist engineering, computing, and mathematics preK-12 programs, ultimately materializing a pipeline to STEM involvement postsecondary. Much of this work is executed by the Institute’s Center for Education Integrating, Science, Mathematics, and Computing (CEISMC), which has already raised over a million dollars to support STEM education at Washington Cluster Schools and Centennial Academy. Institute funding would be implemented in order to continue this work and grow the program for greater impact. Like the program for resource procurement diversity, CEISMC is working to create a model for their involvement in local schools that can be replicated and scaled by other institutes of higher education.

The journey to becoming an Anchor Institution includes greater collaboration between Georgia Tech and community collaborators, particularly with historically underserved communities. The “Georgia Tech as an Anchor Institution: Institute Strategic Plan Implementation Task Force Report” focuses on “Westside communities of color and lower income communities surrounding campus.” These communities are suffering today as the result of discriminatory lending practices, redlining, and years of divestment stemming from white flight as admitted by the U.S. water Alliance’s report, “An Equitable Water Future Atlanta.” This involvement is marked by impact initiatives with the goal of easing systemic obstacles and addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals via a number of outreach projects by students and faculty researchers of varying scales. The involvement is also backed by continued and plentiful institution resources and founded on the principles of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), taught by Serve-Learn-Sustain.

The Needs Based approach, which ineffectively and inequitably approaches prerogatives, is rooted in treating merely the symptoms of an area’s problems in the form of its most apparent needs instead of addressing the root problem. Grounded in white saviorism and prolonging modern era imperialism by fostering a cycle of dependence on continuous external involvement, this approach characterizes the people of the communities as victims coming from communities of deprivation. Conversely, the ABCD approach recognizes the people of communities as the keys to their own success, maximizing the possibilities and recognizing the promise in every community. In line with such, the relationships between Georgia Tech representatives and community members are seen as partnerships, where both parties are seen as equals for their individual and unique depths of knowledge, as proposed in The Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain’s “Partnership Strategy Report.” Out of this approach towards community involvement, the Institute best positions itself to maximize the knowledge shared between these community partners and students and the effectiveness of projects.

Two examples of community partners with which Georgia Tech’s Serve-Learn-Sustain department has developed particularly meaningful relationships are the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI) and West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA). The Center for Civic Innovation, which was the first to earn the designation of Signature Partner by Serve-Learn-Sustain, aims to uplift and aid female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color in their pursuit to limit inequality via the creation of organizations that are community oriented. As a Signature Partner, CCI and Georgia Tech solidify their commitment to support one another and cooperate for further regional development and educational enrichment. Georgia Tech students have been interning at CCI and a number of nonprofit organizations that began at CCI like Carrie’s Closet and WUNDERgrubs through the Sustainable Communities Summer Internship Program. These organizations have also worked in collaboration with students in the MGT 4803: Social Impact course during which students aided in the submission of their work to the Ideas to Serve Competition (I2S). The winning team of I2S competes internationally against other universities’ UN Sustainable Development Goals based projects at Oxford University.

The other community partner, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, began in 1998 as an organization seeking environmental justice in West Atlanta neighborhoods burdened by the watershed. In Atlanta, watershed-based injustices take the form of sewage spillage, excessive flooding as a result of the fact that the sewer system works off of streams; thus, when sewage became overburdened from the growth of the city and the age of the system, the system began leaking into the yards, parks, and streams of West Atlanta. Today, WAWA has expanded dramatically, looking to improve the conditions of the land and all of the happenings on it, as put by co-founder Darryl Haddock. According to the blog post, “What is Social Innovation Anyway?” by Dr. Jennifer Hirsch, since SLS’s inception in 2016, WAWA has been a community partner and a number of students have interned and collaborated with it through the Sustainable Communities Summer Internship Program. Additionally, the Public Interest Technology Student Fellows Program is taught in association with WAWA., It instructs engineering students on mediums of effective community engagement in their careers in the tech world.

Currently, a team of students are working in partnership to enhance WAWA’s community engagement and education programs with a focus on using the Kendeda Building and Georgia Tech’s other assets as a tool. Also, WAWA and Georgia Tech recently began the discussion for WAWA to become Georgia Tech Serve-Learn-Sustain’s second Signature Partner.

The exchange between Georgia Tech and nonprofits is not one founded solely on giving back. This relationship is symbiotic; the community receives assistance in the form of the time and technical abilities of Georgia Tech faculty and students, while the students and faculty receive experiential education. “Systems Thinking; Anticipatory; Normative; Strategic; Collaboration; Critical Thinking; Self -awareness; and Integrated problem solving” skills as outlined by Serve-Learn-Sustain’s “Partnership Strategy Report” is offered to students.

Architecture student Kayley Beard has participated and continues to participate with a number of community partners. She revealed that this work has been “invaluable” to both her “education and perspective,” as well as enjoyable. In her work, she has been able to discern how her “technical skills” can be leveraged for community enrichment “through active listening and meaningful discussions” with community organizations and residents. An advocate for the ABCD approach, Kayley emphasized one of the most impactful lessons she has learned: Tech students “do not have all of the knowledge and capabilities to solve local problems;” rather, it is the community organizations and residents who enhance development projects the most with their “knowledge and lived experience.” In reflection of her experiences and Tech’s place in the region, Kayley expressed a need for enduring relationships “between the institute and the broader Atlanta network.”

One of Georgia Tech’s mottos is “Progress and Service.” Georgia Tech’s research and their role in educating the next generation of engineers and scientists is reflective of this statement in many different ways; however, the positive impacts of this work and Institute as a whole may be better felt by its neighboring community as an Anchor Institution. Another motto is “Creating the Next.” This motto has validity, but the public has a greater need for engineers and scientists with deep culturally relevant knowledge and perspective, which Georgia Tech can better fill through the community engagement conducted by an Anchor Institution. Not to mention, the “Next” referred to can be extended to include contributors to Georgia Tech, who, as an Anchor Institution, are best supported to grow as people and economically. Neither Georgia Tech nor Atlanta are perfect, yet they have the opportunity to redress their previous failures and improve the future for all.

This article was originally published in the Georgia Tech student run online magazine, 3484.