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Advocate empowers youth in Atlanta neighborhood where SPLC plans new office

KaCey Venning spent four years in school classrooms before she realized that the best way to serve her students was by resigning.

The former public school teacher is the co-founder and executive director of Helping Empower Youth (HEY!), a youth development program based in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood – an area with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city.

Venning said that when she realized the issues her students faced at home made it difficult for some to succeed in the classroom, she couldn’t continue her career without first ensuring that their most critical needs were being met.

“I realized that the things I was most passionate about were all the challenges that my students were facing outside of school that showed up in the classroom,” Venning said. “How do we help children read at grade level, how do we get them to embrace all the things that education is meant to do if, at 14 years old, they’re fighting with whatever social ills they’re experiencing? The idea that they’re going to check all of that at the door to have a reading lesson or a math lesson – it was very hard to get past that.”

This type of community-building work, led by grassroots advocates like Venning, is a major focus of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new strategic initiative to support Black and Brown people who are working to improve the health and economic well-being of their communities.

That’s why the SPLC has announced plans to locate its new Georgia office in the English Avenue neighborhood of Atlanta’s Westside.

“We’re trying to be more intentional about centering our work in community, and that means actually being physically based in the communities that we serve,” said SPLC Chief Strategy Officer Seth Levi.

“People on the Westside represent that community. And the unique nature of the area also makes having our office here very exciting. The Westside is where the King family lived; it’s where Julian Bond – the SPLC’s first president – lived. A lot of organizing during the Civil Rights Movement took place here. There are also six historically Black colleges and universities based on the Westside, only about a mile and a half from our office. This gives us an opportunity to work in partnership with students at those colleges.”

Creating space and opportunity

The SPLC spent a little more than a year meeting with community stakeholders and neighborhood advocates like “Mother Moore” and Drewnell Thomas who have long been working to improve their community when, as Venning put it, “no one else was listening to them.”

The SPLC aims to support these kinds of grassroots advocates and the communities they serve by providing physical space and opportunity for them to meet, organize and build.

“Part of the challenge is that there are very few spaces in English Avenue where people can gather and have meetings and think tanks to find solutions together, and break some of those silos,” Venning said.

Venning has lived in Atlanta for 25 years, including a decade on the Westside. She and co-founder Marc Boyd launched HEY! in 2011. When the program began, it served students in the city’s Old Fourth Ward – formerly home to the most impoverished street in Atlanta, now subsumed by the city’s multimillion-dollar, mixed-use BeltLine trail, which also traverses a portion of Westside. As the program became more structured, Venning and Boyd began running it as a traditional after-school program hosted at public schools throughout Atlanta.

In 2018, the two began focusing their efforts exclusively on Westside and English Avenue, and in 2022 the organization planted itself in the neighborhood when it established its headquarters there. For Venning, being in English Avenue allows HEY! to reach students and families where they are and allows her to directly serve the needs of her community.

“I’ve learned a lot in this program,” said high school junior Santonio Parker. He joined HEY! in 2021. Parker said that after his younger siblings saw the impact the program had on him, his 12-year-old sister and 13-year-old brother decided to join too. “I’m good at a lot of things that I probably wouldn’t have known I was good at without HEY!, like team-building skills, aiming sports like archery, communication.”

Addressing gentrification

In some ways, HEY! still operates much like an after-school program. Students typically arrive at the nonprofit’s office after school and participate in activities meant to strengthen critical-thinking and decision-making skills. The nonprofit’s educational approach focuses on science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics, with subjects ranging from cooking and sewing to gardening and engineering.

Students are also encouraged to think more deeply and become more expressive about their mental health by learning Youth Mental Health First Aid, a plan that teaches people to assess and respond to mental health problems or crises. HEY! also runs a program called the Empowered Leadership Academy to help young people identify their own talents and interests and help them grow in those areas. The group runs a summer business program in which they work with 20 young people from start to finish on a business idea, pairing them with mentors who work in the field and training them on topics such as licensure and profit-building.

In 2020, when a group of teenagers made local news due to complaints about their efforts to earn extra income by selling bottled water to drivers in passing cars, Venning invited them to HEY! and brought them off the street and out of traffic. She coached them on how to make the venture into an official business. The teenagers – dubbed the “water boys” – have since been able to make their water into an official product, HEY! Hydrate! Their bottled water has been distributed at the city’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium during Atlanta United soccer tailgates.

Despite the poverty that afflicts areas of Westside, the district is also home to a portion of one of the city’s greatest investments, the 22-mile Atlanta BeltLine. The trail loops through five city districts and offers visitors access to plush shopping, dining and outdoor spaces. A spur trail connected to the BeltLine, called the Westside BeltLine Connector, runs through English Avenue (the SPLC’s new office will face the connector trail).

The BeltLine has cut through a number of low-income communities of color, fueling gentrification, a fact that the SPLC considered in its decision to move into English Avenue. To mitigate the possibility that the investment could further accelerate gentrification to the detriment of longtime residents, the SPLC plans to provide not only community meeting space but affordable commercial space for local entrepreneurs and business owners who have been priced out by new development or have struggled to launch a business because of rising rents. It’s also exploring the possibility of creating a small supermarket to help make groceries more available and affordable in the neighborhood.

“The amenities that have been created by the Atlanta BeltLine are definitely intended for people from outside the neighborhood to entice them to move in,” the SPLC’s Levi said. “The spaces that we’re creating – like the classroom spaces we intend to build and the free meeting space that community groups can use however they like – are intended to strengthen the people who live in the neighborhood and have been longtime residents. We want this portion of the BeltLine to be for the current residents of English Avenue.”

As a community advocate, Venning also sees the opportunity ahead for the English Avenue neighborhood by having such a space.

“Positioning the SPLC as a convener and as a space where those convenings can happen, and then finding ways to support the solutions that come from those folks that are going to be impacted the most, will be the biggest gift that the SPLC could give to the English Avenue community,” she said.

Photo at top: KaCey Venning is co-founder and executive director of HEY!, a youth development program based in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood. (Credit: Lamont Baldwin)