Twelve years ago just after arriving in Atlanta to begin her tenure as president of Agnes Scott College, Dr. Elizabeth Kiss read a New York Times article about the Fugees’ search for a soccer field and the wrong turn that Luma Mufieh made while driving through Clarkston.
Ms. Mufleh, originally from Amman, Jordan, came to the U.S. to attend college in Massachusetts, but eventually moved South where by 2004 she had gravitated to Atlanta. After making that providential turn in the tiny community of Clarkston she noticed a soccer game taking place in the street and learned later that these children were refugees from war-torn countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Burma, Somalia and Sudan.
This episode prompted her to found Fugees Family Inc., a nonprofit that uses soccer, education and community to empower refugee children and successfully integrate them into the U.S., an adventure which has been carefully documented in the best selling book, “Outcasts United” by Warren St. John.
What Dr. Kiss noticed was that the Fugees were looking for a soccer field, prompting her to unfold a city map and discover that Clarkson was only five miles away from the Agnes Scott campus. She then turned on her computer to begin laying the groundwork to invite the team to play on the college’s field when she noticed that she already had received five messages from the Agnes Scott community recommending this initiative.
She recalled this incident toward the end of a World Affairs Council of Atlanta event on May 22 titled “Reimagining Atlanta as a Global Leader,” in which she was introduced by Robert McCallum, a former U.S. ambassador to Australia who received a degree in jurisprudence from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
A former Rhodes Scholar herself, Dr. Kiss is to take over as the new warden (a managerial title) and CEO of the Rhodes Trust, which oversees the international scholarship program established at Oxford University in 1903. She is to begin her new assignment in August and oversee the selection and administration of the scholars as the first female to ever been accorded the honor. Currently 96 scholars are selected from 64 countries each year.
Mr. McCallum was a fellow Oxfordian of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and others who were encouraged “to change the world for the better,” a theme upon which Dr. Kiss immediately launched her remarks. “I think that we have an obligation to make a difference to something that is bigger than ourselves,” she said, listing a number of areas that all need attention today such as climate change, health care as well as educational and income inequalities.
In keeping with the theme of “Reimagining Atlanta as a Global Leader” she quickly listed its attributes calling Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport “a big idea” and the Savannah port, an essential “node of global commerce.”
There is no arguing that Atlanta is “a global city in respect to shipping,” she added, but then pointed to the city’s well-known problems such as traffic congestion and the lack of extensive public transit.
Reinforcing her concerns about these deficiencies, she cited reports that Atlanta ranks fourth in the U.S. for traffic congestion and cited the public transportation system of Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado.; Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon. and Seattle, Washington., which all began to be developed at about the same time as Atlanta’s MARTA system but have far exceeded the reach and service to their residents.
She balanced her criticisms with glowing reports of the city’s universities and gave Agnes Scott’s SUMMIT program which requires international study and exposure of all its students a well-deserved pat on the back. Before her arrival, Agnes Scott’s future was dimming as with many other small, private colleges. This year, however, there will be 350 students in the incoming freshman class, the largest the all-women’s college has ever recruited.
Ambassador Charles Shapiro, the president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, who led the discussion, asked her about race relations in the city, which she called “profound and complex.” She praised the city’s leadership which was able to “come together and talk about race” in the 1960s and 70s enabling Atlanta, she said, to become the commercial capital of the Southeast. She also praised the development of the Atlanta Civil and Human Rights Museum as significant for the city’s future and praised Centennial Park as a magnet for attracting visitors downtown.
At the same time, however, she said, persistent poverty continues to be a concern under a lack of “unitary government” and the absence of regional planning. “This will be one of the most important challenges for Atlanta,” she added.
When Mr. Shapiro asked her about the divides separating Atlanta and rural Georgia, she didn’t mince words, saying that the rest of the state doesn’t realize how dependent it is on the city of Atlanta.
She called the support for “religious liberty”-type bills in the General Assembly a setback for the future prospects of the state and sharply criticized legislators trying to limit H1B visas, which are granted to immigrants who can fill the necessary high-tech jobs upon which the state’s growth increasingly depends.
The daughter of Hungarian immigrants escaping communism, she defended the accomplishments of immigrants around the country and cited statistics showing that city with the greatest number of immigrants benefit the most from entrepreneurial initiatives and economic growth.
Mr. Shapiro also asked her to point to specific advances the city has made during her 12-year tenure at the college. She pointed to the city’s strides as a financial technology hub and the Beltline, the 22 miles of unused trail road tracks circling the core of the city’s in-town neighborhoods.
The Beltline came up again, when Mr. Shapiro asked perhaps the most creative of his questions, where can Atlanta’s “poetry” be found. Dr. Kiss immediately responded with the Beltline again but then added that she had particularly enjoyed the lantern parade held on the pathway.
“The Chattahoochee is not the Thames,” she added, saying that the city’s “creative class” is developing the city’s film industry and laying the foundation for a more diverse workforce.
Mr. Shapiro also asked for her opinions about Atlanta’s prospects for attracting Amazon‘s second headquarters.
“I think that Amazon is concerned about some of the things that we talked about such as transportation and how employees can move around the city, how welcoming the city is to newcomers and how it deals with issues such as liberty bills and immigration. These may be of concern,” she said.
On the other hand, she underscored the scope of the impact that the headquarters could make on the city by connecting more closely with the dynamic growth in the Southeast, by helping raise the educational standards of primary and secondary education, and by making a difference in establishing social equality.
“Amazon could be transformative for the city,” she said. It was then that she recalled rushing to her map to see how far away Clarkston was from the Agnes Scott campus and eventually inviting the Fuggies to play on her campus’ soccer field.
To learn about more World Affairs Council of Atlanta programs, click here.