Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work throughout this city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security.
The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week. We hope their stories will inform and inspire.
This week we got a chance to visit re:imagine/ATL founder Susanna Spiccia, at her new HQ in the Reynoldstown Lang-Carson Community Center. Susanna has always been a woman with a vision- she built re:imagine/ATL from the ground up and hasn’t stopped fighting for change since.
Tell us a little more about yourself. What was the source of inspiration for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?
I attended Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville to study marketing and learn about business, because I always knew that I wanted to start a nonprofit. While I was there, I started an after school mentor program in Milledgeville, which I ended up staying with for 6 years. The program didn’t have its own space so we had to move around a lot, but we worked in mostly churches with about 40 local kids and were able to develop good relationships with the kids that we worked with.
Over the years, everyone was patting me on the back. Moms were thanking us and the kids were happy we were there--even the police told me that local crime had gone down. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this affirmation was blinding me from the fact that I had positioned myself as someone who came into a ‘bad situation’ and helped saved the day. I’d call it the ‘#givingback' mentality. It was still about me feeling good that I was the giver. Ultimately, we had a mentality of charity-- I loved those kids, but I also didn’t recognize that I wasn’t empowering them. I didn’t realize was that I was never putting myself in a place of equality where I could also learn and receive back from them.
So when I launched re:imagine/ATL, the idea behind it was how do we take kids who grew up with the mentality of privilege and break that down to put them on the same level with other kids who are the same age and have grown up in very different neighborhoods or environments. Creativity doesn’t discriminate based on where you are from. It’s an equalizer.
Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact?
The question for re:imagine/ATL is: how do we create equity and equality amongst teenagers? Whatever your background is, we all have one thing in common: a story. The power of the story is common ground.
As I dug deeper into this idea, I learned how skewed the media is, particularly behind the scenes. I had no idea that over 90% of the media is dominated by white male producers, writers, and editors. This leads to exclusivity and a lack of perspective.
At its heart, re:imagine/ATL is focused on connecting kids from different backgrounds, but we also have a goal of impacting the media as a whole. This means that our kids are equipped to become the CEO, to start their own production house, or to the be the next Donald Glover and write their own shows.
The two things that we want our kids to walk away with are professional training and a real world network. We can give them all the skills they need, but the reality is unless you know people, you’re not going anywhere. We work with MTV, Turner, YouTube, Facebook, SiriusXM--pretty much anyone we can reach out to and partner with. We are reaching out to all of these youth-serving media entities in order to form a coalition dedicating to empowering and mentoring the next generation of storytellers from all over Atlanta. We want Atlanta to be an epicenter of what media could look like nationally.
During the Ebola epidemic, we actually did a collaboration with a group of kids from Sierra Leone. Our kids were able to write a song and produce a music video with this group. Although we did end up raising a significant amount of money for medical supplies, our goal was not to stop ebola, but to find commonalities between the kids and allow them to see the kids in Sierra Leone as more than a statistic in the media.
We also have an in-school program where we partner our kids with a local nonprofit that is solving a challenge in Atlanta in need of video content. The students are able to engage the greater Atlanta community in a dialogue about an important issue, while also obtaining hands on professional experience in the field.
How has CCI supported you in your work?
With CCI, I don’t feel alone. The support of the CCI has been consistent throughout my time with them. Rohit directly makes connections to funders and partners. It’s also helpful to be a part of a group of other like-minded entrepreneurs. As the only white female in the Civic Women's Fellowship, I am able to hear about the unique challenges facing women of color and I have learned so much about race in this city.
Any unexpected challenges you’ve faced or advice for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs?
This has been the most challenging thing I have ever done, by far. I believe in it wholeheartedly and I’ve worked so many years to get to where I am. I’m invested and dedicated to this city. But this city has a lot of problems that need to be addressed. I think that if you’re willing to put yourself out there, you need to be willing to not get a paycheck, to put your staff ahead of yourself.
Also, collaboration in the nonprofit world can be really hard because of money. It can seem like money is scarce when everyone is competing for the same pools, so you have to be more creative with how you can get funding. We don’t want to be dependent on grants, so we are working on developing revenue streams.
And my advice for new entrepreneurs- you have to think of it like a business. Everyone goes into it thinking donations, donations, donations. But your model will crumble if it’s not sustainable.
My biggest takeaway from this experience is that the Atlanta entertainment community is kick-ass. The Grammys were our first sponsor. And it was all from just picking up the phone and having a conversation. If you tell a real story and make a real connection, most people get that. We have had so many artists and rappers from the area who are willing to help us- who haven’t asked for any recognition, but have taken kids on and mentored them to success.
The kids here are such a great example of community. These young people recognize they need to unite in order for this to work- they get together, get to know each other and talk about their own stories. They’re such a great example for us.
A big shout out to Susanna for letting us come check out her cool new space in Reynoldstown and learn more about the work her team has been up to! If you’re interested in learning more about her organization, re:imagine/ATL you can check them out here.
No Comment, a network produced by the kids in her program, is an opportunity for teens to highlight issues and shape stories through media. Visit the No Comment YouTube channel and check them out!
For more stories of inspiring entrepreneurs, be sure to check out our blog. We’ll be updating with a new profile every week!