On the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the founding of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, Global Atlanta invited me to offer some personal reflections about the founding of the Council and its role in Atlanta. So, here they are.
The core concept, first articulated to me by Georgia State University’s Robinson College Dean Fenwick Huss, was to have a World Affairs Council grounded in an academic institution. However, the Dean gave me a clear mandate to engage with a wide set of institutions, companies, NGOs, and government leaders that together constitute Atlanta’s global power base. So, with my colleague and friend Dr. Cedric Suzman, I met with Clyde Tuggle of The Coca-Cola Company, David Abney of UPS, and Eric and Barbara Joiner who enthusiastically supported the Dean’s concept and became the Council’s principal early supporters.
Together, this small group and I defined the purpose of the Council: to bring together Atlanta’s unique set of internationally active companies and institutions; provide a professionally-led, membership-based forum discussing the global issues that impact Atlanta; and create a venue for Atlantans to speak out on issues in which Atlanta has a direct interest and impact.
To accomplish this, we structured the Council to provide excellent public programs ranging from small discussion groups to large forums featuring major international leaders. While programmatic content may be global, the strategic focus of the Council has always been local and that is the Council’s strength.
From the outset, the Council’s board of directors insisted that the Council utilize and spotlight Atlanta’s own global leaders and experts in all its programming. This has been the case even when the “headliner” has been an ambassador, a head of state, an international thought-leader in business or financial practice, or a renowned global health executive. As examples, a number of our programs have been led or keynoted by Senator Johnny Isakson, Muhtar Kent, Neville Isdell, and Helene Gayle.
Creating a forum for dialogue and connection is as old as the Agora, but in the modern age opportunities for serious conversation about essential issues – face to face with others – is more difficult than in the past.
While expert and innovative use of social media is essential, there is something uniquely powerful about being the in same room with a global leader, seeing how that leader talks and thinks, and responding in your own way and in your own words to the issue at hand, with encouragement to be both brazen and disruptive with your ideas and comments. Atlantans have both a right and a duty to speak out on global issues and their voices should be heard. The Council provides a place to do that.
From its inception, the Council was inspired and led by some of Atlanta’s most creative and experienced international leaders. We put together a powerful and diverse independent board of directors who represent many business and professional sectors: global companies, NGOs, government leaders, the Atlanta Consular Corps, educators, attorneys, bankers, and internationally engaged individuals.
With initial support of the Woodruff Foundation, we also established the Young Leaders organization as a part of the Council. This group of young professionals has organized its own series of provocative, interactive programs on global issues that are of specific interest to this group.
A key to success was to have a highly respected leader as board chair. Founding Chairman, Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart and his successor, current CEO of UPS David Abney, have provided the strategic leadership so crucial to building credibility.
To accomplish its mission, we assembled a small, professional permanent staff which possessed the expertise, energy, and connections to deliver more than 35 substantive programs per year and to do the administrative and membership services tasks. While the investment in the Council by GSU has been substantial, the funding for the staff members and the programs has come from memberships, contributions, and grants from leading Atlanta corporations, individuals, and philanthropic organizations.
To provide background research for Council programs, we formed a research team of professional and student scholars, led by Dr. Chris Brown. From the Council’s first year, this team has conducted a major research project that evaluates country risk in the global arena. This research is based on the idea that any understanding of international affairs and commerce must be based on an integrated, holistic model which grapples not only with politics, also but with economics, societal, and operational dynamics.
Beyond these details, I believe the World Affairs Council has worked so well because it must. There is not one city of any size or consequence in the U.S. that does not have a World Affairs Council. In fact, the Atlanta Council is part of a network of more than 90 Councils around the country in an organization that dates back to 1918.
Looking to the future it seems clear that as strong as Atlanta’s assets may be, this city will only make the global “A” list when it grabs hold even more firmly of its great legacy of advocacy for human rights and justice, speaks out more urgently on matters of international impact, and truly integrates its uniquely rich and diverse Diaspora communities. The pieces are all there; someone should mobilize them.
Today, after just four years, the 1000-member Council now stands as a premier convener of international programs and, as such, is an essential institution for Atlanta. The Council’s success has and will continue to support Atlanta’s ambition to become a truly great international city and to raise the city’s profile among world business, diplomatic, NGO, and academic leaders and prompt them to make Atlanta a central part of any organization’s strategic positioning.
I extend my personal best wishes to my successor as Council President, Ambassador Charles Shapiro, as he leads this vital organization to new heights and generates an even greater impact on Atlanta and the world.
Dr. Wayne Lord was the founding President of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and Clinical Professor of International Business at the Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University. He retired in June 2014, and is living in Winchester, Virginia, near Washington, D.C.