Leadership Breakfast: Atiba Mbiwan

On Tuesday, November 22, we hosted Atiba Mbiwan, Associate Director of the Zeist Foundation, for our monthly Leadership Breakfast. Atiba is a well-known figure in Atlanta’s community development circles, but many in Atlanta don’t know the many stories of Atiba’s childhood and earlier years that he shared with us.

Evident by a strong accent, Atiba grew up in Jamaica Queens. His parents had been part of the Great (Northern) Migration from the south to the northeast, having grown up in the south but choosing New York to raise their children. He describes his parents as leaders without opportunities, active in the community, but without formal titles or notoriety. (Atiba’s father, John Ward, was interviewed by Jelani Cobb for an article on the closing of their neighborhood school, Jamaica High School.) Like many young men, Atiba once dreamed of becoming a pro basketball player, but academics were very important in his household, and his parents sent him to an all-boys Catholic high school.

When Atiba was in middle and high school, the Catholic church set out to get more African American males more involved in leadership in the church. To this goal, they set up a leadership program for boys in their school system. Atiba was recruited for this program and ended up getting radicalized through it. Participants learned deeply about history, particularly through a social justice lens, and were left with a sense of obligation to make sacrifices for the good of the community, like their predecessors had.

Atiba credits this leadership program, his family, and his realization that he was not going to be a professional basketball player with his decision to attend Brown University. In school, he met another student from Lagos who sparked his interest in Nigeria and visiting Africa. Soon after, he was off to Nigeria. Several student and teacher strikes made him realize that traveling and meeting people was going to be a more valuable experience for him there than the formal classes he was signed up for.

This semester in Nigeria is what inspired him to change his name. Born Michael Ward, his time in Nigerian originally inspired him to name his first son something Nigerian. But worried that he may not necessarily have a son, he decided to change his name to Atiba Mbiwan and graduated from Brown as Atiba, not Michael. “Atiba” means “one who is understanding”, and Mbiwan was the name of one of his teachers.

After graduating from Brown, Atiba staying in Providence for a while, but eventually moved to Atlanta in the early 1990s. He describes his early years in our city as “hustling”, working several part time jobs as he learned about the city. His first (self-described) “real job” in Atlanta was with Hands on Atlanta.

He spent a few years working with the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. After a few years, he was ready to move on and submitted his resignation. He agreed to stay on one extra day to help with an important meeting. That very night, the apartment his family was living in in Lithionia burned to the ground. Overnight, he went from being a staff member of the Task Force (that now runs the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter) to a client.

With a little more hustling, he was able to rebuild his life, never losing sight of his dedication to community building. One of his major foci had been bike riding and getting youth on bikes. He was looking for sponsors for one of his longer bike rides when he learned of Arthur Blank. From his time at Hands On Atlanta, he knew Elise Eplan, a very community-minded Atlantan connected to the Blank Foundation. Elise suggested he reach out to Mr. Blank due to their shared interest in fitness and biking, and he did.

Before he knew it, he was interviewing for a job with the Blank Foundation, Mr. Blank’s tool for investing some of the profits he made as a co-founder of Home Depot back into the community. After an informal conversation, Atiba became the first man to work for the Blank Foundation. It was unique because it was one of the only Atlanta-based foundations at that time that also invested in other cities around the country.

Rarely having worked at any one place for more than five years, Atiba eventually ended up at the Zeist Foundation, where he now has worked for more than 10 years. The Zeist Foundation focuses heavily on Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood. They build on the work of Dr. George Brumley, a pediatrician and philanthropist known for his work promoting community healthcare programs in public schools.

Asked about how foundations and philanthropic institutions can embrace innovation, Atiba offered a few examples. He noted that, after 9/11, the whole country was shook up, leading to more young people have significant wealth and opportunity. He noticed this made a difference in the ways foundations worked and gave. 

For foundations to really change, there needs to be young disruptors to change the status quo.

Atiba maintains an optimism about political and social change, largely due to his anti-apartheid work. Many people never thought they would see the end of apartheid rule in places like South Africa, but they did. Examples like ending apartheid are precisely why, Atiba counsels, we all must stay engaged. 

Be courageous, not outrageous.

He also points to an unconventional example of how a mainstream, wealthy philanthropist revolutionized literacy. Legendary businessman Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the steel industry in the 19th century, but invested millions of his profits into opening public libraries across the country. On the surface, Carnegie’s story doesn’t sound like it would be innovative, but he took a unique approach and drastically improved access to books, no matter a family’s income level. Mr. Carnegie built the libraries, but made sure communities had the autonomy to run them.

Rohit ends every Leadership Breakfast with the same question: which song would play when the speaker walks into a room. Atiba’s answer? Song for My Father.