Part Three in a four-part series about the Georgia Systemic Change Alliance. Read Parts One, Two, and Four.

For residents in Brunswick, Ga., the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by armed white men and their delayed investigation and arrests were stark reminders of the systemic racism that permeates every part of life, from criminal justice to housing.

But a collaborative of 21 Black churches, city and county government leaders, and the private sector – called the Community First Planning Commission (CFPC) – is working toward measurable change in the city and parts of Glynn County. Since its inception in 2013, the group has implemented a community listening campaign which resulted in more than 150 residents, many who are working families or living in poverty, voicing concerns for affordable housing.

The poverty rate in the city of Brunswick is more than double the rate in Glynn County, where Brunswick is located (35% and 15%, respectively). And while Brunswick is majority Black (55%), more than two-thirds (69%) of residents of Glynn County overall are white.

“It revealed to us a really compelling argument for minority working families to have a greater voice on how decisions are made in our community,” said Rev. Craig Campbell, a member of CFPC.

Other CFCP initiatives have included working with the county to recruit Black police officers and understand the community policing model.

Arbery’s murder galvanized the group to deepen their commitment to racial equity in their community. To strengthen their efforts, CFPC joined the Georgia Systemic Change Alliance, a new initiative made up of four place-based networks in the state. The Alliance aims to:

  • Recover, rebuild, and reimagine systems and policies post-COVID
  • Advance the Movement for Black lives and broader racial justice across systems and policies
  • Build internal muscle and infrastructure of networks for the short-term and long-term

Each network received philanthropic funding from Savannah-based Sapelo Foundation, which played an integral role in connecting the four groups and providing resources for a multi-year effort.

Giving Compass recently spoke with Campbell and fellow CFPC members: Glynn County Commissioner Allen Booker, Brunswick City Commissioner Rev. Felicia Harris, and journalist Lericia Harris. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell me about CFPC’s approach.

F. Harris: We're moving with economic development and social justice as we work with other community organizations to address policy changes.

With neighborhood planning assemblies, the citizens out of those communities guide us. They give voice to what the needs are. They learn the processes of government so we've been able to learn how to address problems. That initiative brought City Hall out of City Hall and in front of the community, and it’s one of the largest forums that that we have. In partnership with Community First, we had community forums (before the pandemic) where citizens would be able to have face-to-face communication with elected officials, the county manager, the city manager, the administration of these two governmental entities. It’s communication that has allowed the citizens to come out and take ownership of the governmental process.

Q. What have you learned from the other networks in the Alliance so far?

Campbell: The Alliance has helped us to listen to the other counterparts and be intentional about transforming systems and giving people the empowerment to have courageous engagement toward policy change and systemic change within our community. 

We all face discrimination in the Black community and statewide but how we deal with it is what we're learning from each other. Our economic justice committee has been able to get direction from the Albany network to outline a minority loan fund here.

Seeing that we have strong leadership in Savannah by the mayor and previous mayor to take on racial reconciliation encourages us to move forward with our process.

Booker: When Ahmaud was murdered, we had a rush of folks come here -- we appreciated that -- but some came because the cameras were here. This is where we live and some of our partnerships have been with folks who are still with us. The cameras are gone, but they're still with us. That's part of that encouragement - knowing that we're not by ourselves in this fight and they know that they're not by themselves in this fight.

F. Harris: It has allowed me to see the different forms in which racism is present and how to effectively address each aspect of racism within a certain environment. Albany is different from Brunswick and Brunswick is different from Savannah -- it has been compartmentalized.

As an Alliance, we're able to effectively analyze the different ways racism comes at us. With the Ahmaud situation, eyes were on Brunswick and Glynn County. How we handled the protests and marches made a difference in how other areas moved to handle the protest that would follow in other places.

Q: The Sapelo Foundation acted as a connector and network builder to help launch the Alliance. What would you tell individual donors and foundations who might be interested in giving more than money?

Booker: Understand that this is a peer relationship and the group has not come hat-in-hand begging for anything. We certainly feel that if we get $10, then that's our budget and we'll let God multiply that. We are thankful for the relationship to foundations and individuals, but we're committed - we give our own money, our own time, and our resources. Donors should respect that when you are building the relationship.

Campbell: The Sapelo Foundation heard our mission and the work we did prior to Ahmaud's death. They were very integral in the initial phase: Step by step, it was hands-on and with synergy. It’s a relationship that continues to build.

F. Harris: Listen to the actual needs of a community, even after you’ve made the decision to provide funding. It's important to not come in as a dictator because you've given your money. Come in as a partner.

Q. How can cross-sector partnerships drive systems change?

L. Harris: It’s a way for everyone to open their eyes to the diverse world that we live in. For those who might not be exposed to certain communities, especially communities of color or African American communities, this is an opportunity for them to really learn more and see what people go through.

Booker: Racism is complex and it comes at you in different ways. Solutions will come from different folks based on their life experiences. For instance, Pastor Harris and I are part of the government so we can advise the group on how to make change happen based on the processes we are familiar with or which entities to work with. The next big thing can come from anywhere.

What would you tell donors who are interested in supporting racial equity work?

Booker: Fund more economic development projects. It’s easier to work on social justice issues if you have enough food to eat, a decent house, and some wealth behind you. If we're able to create more wealth for low-wealth communities, then we don't have to work as hard to remind them to get out the vote.

F. Harris: When assessing how you give and where you give, look to see if that organization is addressing the whole person. The holistic approach is the best approach because if you're paid, then you can pay your bills. If you have a living wage, then you can you can get your food, you can meet your necessities, and this covers the whole person. That's an approach that Community First is taking.

Campbell: This is a real mission for us and our allies can be great supporters because they share the same values. We’re taking a courageous stance, we're demonstrating real faith, and we're honoring our ancestors as they sit next to us in this work. We're here to shake up some institutions to bring about those changes. We're here to transform systems and people. There has to be trust and authentic relationship building.


Funders and individual donors are invited to connect with The Sapelo Foundation and the networks within the Georgia Systemic Change Alliance:

Albany Network: Shaunae Motley, (229) 886-1285,
Brunswick Network: Pastor Craig Campbell,
Savannah Network: Dr. Otis Johnson, (912) 596-4171,
Statewide Network: Rev. James “Major” Woodall,
The Sapelo Foundation: Christine Reeves Strigaro, (912) 298-0222,

Original contribution by Jen Jope, Editor-in-Chief at Giving Compass.