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

By August, city and community leaders in Savannah, Ga. are expected to have an action plan to address deep-seated racial inequities in the city. The Racial Equity and Leadership (REAL) Task Force will rely on data to inform strategies to reduce or eliminate disparities across systems like healthcare and education. The task force -- which is led by former Savannah mayor Dr. Otis Johnson -- launched last summer in response to the disparities exposed by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.

Recognizing this work can’t be done in a silo, the task force recently teamed up with 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 Johnson and Lizann Roberts, executive director of the Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition, about the REAL Task Force, their participation in the Alliance, and the role of philanthropy in systems change. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell me about the role of cross-sector partnerships to address root causes of social issues and to create equitable solutions.

Johnson: Savannah has a collaborative culture. I’m looking to model the REAL Task Force after our poverty reduction initiative, Step Up Savannah. The board is made up of representatives from the public sector, the private sector, and from the neighborhoods. The public sector has a responsibility based on what that system is designed to do. The private sector has a way of bringing business and philanthropy together, and the community is where we all live and work. It’s important to have people who are bringing their experiences, their resources, and their perspectives to the table.

Q: Poverty and disparities in healthcare are two areas you’re focused on in Savannah. How can your participation in the Georgia Systemic Change Alliance help you find solutions to these issues?

Johnson: Each member of the Alliance faces the same problem -- systemic racism. By being a member of the Alliance, we get to talk about our common goals, look at how we are trying to approach systems change, and share what we are learning within our own communities. While the problems may be similar, we will probably try to address them in our own way, based on our place and the uniqueness of each community.

Roberts: Over the last 15 years, we have seen how collaborative practices allow us to be nimble and have meaningful and sometimes difficult conversations. An example is the formation of the Front Porch [a systems change effort between the juvenile court system, education system, law enforcement, and other agencies to help historically underserved youth and their families]. Systems change takes longer than we think, so there's a need to have partnerships, not just locally, but around the state so we can learn from each other. It’s important for us to have a rich learning environment.

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?

Johnson: They can enter genuine partnerships with their grantees. If you're really not committed, the work reflects that. I like to see a mutuality between the goals of the [donor or foundation] and the grantee because then everybody is working toward success.

Roberts: It's important for funders to talk with each other because there are opportunities to inform each other on different issues. For example, one foundation might have a race and equity lens on their work and they can inform another funder who might be working on the prevention of adverse childhood experiences and trauma. Those things are interrelated.

Philanthropy needs to understand what's going on on the ground. There are opportunities for funders to get to the root cause of issues, especially with communities that have true collaboration going on within them. That's a place where you can get traction very quickly.

Johnson: Donors are allies in the work and without their support, much of this work would not be able to take place. We need a long-term commitment -- not one or two years -- to reduce these disparities that have persisted over time and do tremendous damage to major sectors of our community at the local level, state level, and nationally.

Q: If the Alliance produces results in Georgia, can this model be replicated elsewhere?

Johnson: There are communities all over the country wrestling with systemic racism and a lot of them are way ahead of us in terms of developing a conceptual model on how to deal with it and implementing ways to reduce it. I think there are learning opportunities, especially at a statewide level. I know there are lessons at the local level that we can learn from.

First, we have to look at what is already underway -- successes and challenges -- and use that learning to craft a model. This is going to be bumpy and the benefit of the learning community is to possibly avoid some of those potholes in the road.

Q: What does success look like to you?

Johnson: Short-term success will be the production of a very objective and thoughtful report to the Mayor, City Council, and the Sapelo Foundation about how we move forward to target certain disparities that have multiple impacts in Savannah and in Chatham County.

Then, build a [government and community] infrastructure and stay focused on the recommendations of that report. In five years, success will be coming back to the community and reporting on our success in either substantially reducing major disparities, or in a dream world, eliminating some of those disparities. It’s going to take a long time, but we can make a measurable impact along the way.

Roberts: It’s vitally important to look at the root cause and to take the long view. We have this short window on deliverables and then we have to put in place the bigger picture of what would turn the tide. One of the success factors would be that we have a smaller subset of people that are responsible for continuing to move that forward through different sectors, because this is going to take us time to address the root cause -- that's the hardest ship to turn.


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.