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

While New York City and Seattle were making headlines as COVID hot spots last year, the Southwest corner of Georgia was experiencing the fourth highest concentration of COVID in the world. In the rural city of Albany, Ga., 90% of those who died from the virus were Black.

“To understand why COVID-19 hit Southwest Georgia so hard is to understand the circumstances that shape life here,” said Shaunae Motley, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Georgia.

Even before the pandemic, residents of Albany, which is predominantly Black, were experiencing poor health outcomes, lack of quality healthcare, substandard housing, little access to healthy food, limited public transportation and economic inequality, Motley said.

With closures of factories and manufacturing companies, economic opportunity has been hampered in Albany, where nearly 31% of its residents live in poverty, well above the state average of 13%. In addition, Southwest Georgia has been affected by several environmental disasters, from massive floods in the 1990s to destructive hurricanes and tornadoes in the last few years. Some municipalities received recovery funding only recently.

When COVID exposed the racial disparities plaguing the region’s systems, United Way of Southwest Georgia stepped in to “Reimagine Albany." The campaign aims to strengthen the education and health systems and build wealth in the community.

To bolster their efforts, Motley and a partner organization that has been a trailblazing leader in civil rights for 51 years, Southwest Georgia Project, 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 Motley and Darrell Sabbs, co-chair of Reimagine Albany, about their community’s resilience, 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 “Reimagine Albany” campaign which was created in response to COVID-19?

Motley: Since the onset of the pandemic, United Way of Southwest Georgia has invested nearly $1 million in COVID-19 relief helping more than 30 partner agencies.  These collective efforts served over 84,000 southwest Georgians with food access, rent and utility assistance, childcare for essential workers, mental health access, virtual learning tools, and medical PPE for small businesses and local school districts.

However, these Herculean efforts have barely scratched the surface. We can’t focus only on 2021, when this is a decade/generation-long crisis. We are in a public health crisis, a housing crisis, a utilities crisis, a social justice crisis and so many more - and until we confront these collectively, we will not be able to reduce these problems through charity alone.

As a result, we called together a broad range of partners in an effort to identify what works. This allows us to strategically align our time, talent, and resources behind strategies that improve outcomes long-term. Returning to pre-COVID inequities is not good enough. We want to be equipped should another pandemic or natural disaster come our way.

Q: What specific policies are you hoping to address in Albany that will lead to systems change?

Sabbs: We're really at the very beginning of repairing ourselves as a community. We've seen a lot of lives broken, a lot of family loss, and exposed inequities and disparities. We've also seen resilience. We've seen the local leaders from all sectors turning to each other and asking “what can we do?”

COVID really united us in that way and timing is everything. Capturing people who want to make change is a very unique opportunity in community engagement. Shaunae has called to the table advocates across sectors and has gotten us to focus on the attitudes of racism in our community and the overall need for those of us who are activists to get involved.

Q: What have you learned from the other networks in the Alliance?

Motley: It's been really amazing to network and learn from other thought leaders across the state to advance a shared and affirmative action plan for community change. I've been particularly impressed with the Community First collaborative in Brunswick. They have been convening for over a decade and deepened their efforts over the summer in the wake of the murder of Mr. Ahmaud Arbery. It’s been very helpful to see how community and faith-based leaders have come together with municipalities to look at long-term goals and strategies. To see how far they've progressed, hearing lessons learned, and best practices is very insightful.

Q: Each Alliance member is facing the same issue -- systemic racism. How are you addressing it in Albany?

Motley: Racism is at the core of many issues we work on today, from making sure children receive a quality education to ensuring that every community has a grocery store stocked with healthy foods to guaranteeing everyone has access to health services to tackling environmental justice. We have to reimagine a world that is more inclusive while learning from our past. Once you hear everyone's stories, you appeal to those shared values. You explain the roots, offer solutions, and advance a shared and affirmative vision for the future.

Sabbs: I have never seen equity and systemic racism talked about so freely. Being able to have this conversation openly is new and different for us. How do we sit across the table with all of our cultural differences and historical comparisons, identify something that has really torn us apart, and make that conversation an opportunity for unity? The Sapelo Foundation’s facilitation is helping that happen - it’s almost like therapy and it’s breaking down barriers so that everything starts with a conversation. At least there is a conversation going on and it’s at the right time.

The resilience in Albany is very inspirational and motivational. We just saw one of the most tremendous get-out-the vote campaigns of any election in our country. We see what we can do. We have a playbook.

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?

Motley: Longer-term investments will help these various communities stay afloat beyond one year. The virus exposed all of the ways in which our communities are already vulnerable. Invest and empower nonprofit agencies to be policy advocates and fight for policies that will put them in a stronger position to beat back COVID and other pandemics and other systemic disparities.

Remember that it’s not always about money. It's about the strength of the network too. Georgia Grantmakers Alliance introduced us to Pittulloch Foundation and Resilient Georgia, which focuses on mental health, resiliency, and trauma-informed care. All of this work is interconnected so donors can leverage their affluence and influence and not be afraid to have the conversation.

The Sapelo Foundation is not afraid to talk openly about injustice and partnering with agencies like United Way. It allows us to convene other agencies around this topic.

Sabbs: This support allows us to network and coalesce in bringing the strength of our individual work together in an achievable way. You can't change the hearts and belief patterns of everybody, but what you can do is create a coalition and a method that shows that we're stronger together than we are apart.

Q. What does success look like?

Motley: The Reimagine Albany initiative is the beginning of a new and necessary movement in southwest Georgia. The time is now to move from talk to action. Success is if we can -- and we will -- mobilize this group for equitable change. It's my goal that we build trust and cohesion, prevent siloed work, and produce outcomes. We must create a game plan and be able to look back on the things that we've done as a network, where we brought folks together from multiple sectors and backgrounds to address structural legacies of racism.

Q: Do you have any final guidance for donors?

Motley: United Way has really been able to leverage our strength, our partnerships, and our infrastructure to convene the community. If donors looked at investing in convening and collective impact, it can be more transformative and not a Band-Aid approach. It can help to strengthen infrastructures and promote policy where you can have long-term change.

These investments can close data gaps, especially when you're looking at systems change and disaggregating data -- which might not be readily available -- when you look at the disparities in Black and Brown communities. It also helps improve coordination, which has been key for us, especially with our cross-sector work.

Sabbs: The mission of this work calls for changing hearts and changing beliefs, and that process will not happen overnight. It won't happen around one particular issue or one particular victory. You can't expect a six-month time period of a funding cycle to give you the kind of behavioral changes that's going to be necessary for this work.

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.