Joseph Bankoff

The clashes between Turkish police and protestors in Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul made Joseph Bankoff, chair of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, think of home.

“I was in Turkey when Taksim Square blew up,” he told attendees at a Kiwanis Club of Atlanta luncheon July 9 recounting how his visit to Turkey made him reflect on the common challenges of cities around the world.

“What we are seeing abroad has roots in what we are seeing here,” he added referring also to the more serious outbreak of violence in Egypt.

Mr. Bankoff’s luncheon address was titled “Global Issues and Leadership,” and his message was that the city’s leadership has been “coasting” since the 1996 Summer Olympics, neglecting to deal with its most serious problems.

He wasn’t entirely downbeat listing the accomplishments of the administration of Shirley Franklin and praising the current mayor, Kasim Reed, for being able to work closely on common goals with Gov. Nathan Deal.

But his essential message was that Atlanta needs civic leaders “to get off the couch” and address the city’s problems, or the turbulence in cities such as Istanbul will come to roost here as well.

“The global issues that live out over there are here,” he added, citing unemployment figures for Atlanta youth, especially those of color, under age 25.

Atlanta’s greatest challenge, he said, is its K-12 educational system, and the lack of core training for its students to enter a 21st century workforce.

He added that Atlanta’s problems could be traced to the weaknesses in its social fabric even with the outstanding university and college institutions located in the city.

Citing the speed of technological change, he referred to the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s best seller, “The World Is Flat,” saying that since its 2004 edition, Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, 4G, the Cloud and Skype had all emerged.

The rapid adoption of new technologies has affected all institutions from kindergarten through university levels, he added, including the Sam Nunn School, which he oversees and is part of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Its mission, he said, is to prepare graduates with the technical and cross-cultural skills for the global economy, a general goal that needs to be met by schools at all levels.

Students today must be prepared for jobs that in 10 years “are not even invented as of yet,” he said, adding that to be prepared for this eventuality required a different set of skills than those offered by traditional educational models.

He particularly criticized standardized testing, saying that such tests tried to create an educational mold that no longer applies given the diversified talents required by a modern workforce.

While this prospect may seem daunting to older Kiwanis members, he said that Sam Nunn students and those elsewhere were “comfortable” with such a rate of change.

Given Georgia Tech’s academic reputation and resources, its students could count on participating in all of the opportunities that the future will provide.

At the same time, however, he said, even the neighborhood around the university included many of the world’s problems such as obesity, childhood morbidity, urban redevelopment, and the issues encompassing the quality of the air, water, and the city’s transportation and educational systems.

“Atlanta is the canary in the mineshaft of the present,” he said, further questioning if the city has a plan for its future.

He recalled the contributions of former “long-ball” city leaders such a the banker Mills B. Lane, who raised money for a baseball stadium before the city had a baseball team, and former Mayor William Hartsfield, who prepared an airport before the city had a major airline based here, implying that such planning was required once again for the city to thrive.

For Global Atlanta’s reporting of a recent visit to Istanbul, Turkey, click here.