TO UNDERSTAND THE STORY OF ROHIT MALHOTRA MPP 2013, consider two crucial moments. The first takes place in college at a national dance competition, where Malhotra is the base of a seven-person tower for a bhangra number—the high-energy Indian folk dance known for its acrobatic moves. As he lifts the people stacked on top of him, his knees lock, his ankles roll, and he breaks both legs.
In the second, Malhotra’s parents are visiting from Atlanta for his graduation from the Kennedy School. “For the first time, I saw them use the railing to climb some stairs,” he says. “I remember going back to my apartment that day and I cried. I realized my parents weren’t getting any younger, and that I wanted to be near them.”
Disconnected as these events may seem, both played a key role in the creation of Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation (CCI)—a nonprofit and social innovation and civic engagement hub Malhotra founded in 2014 to counter what he calls “the tale of two cities.”
“There’s the Atlanta with a thriving business center and companies known all over the world,” he says. “But it also has one of the highest income inequality gaps of any large city in the United States.”
Since its opening, CCI has created a community of thousands of Atlanta residents, in addition to raising and investing nearly $2 million in almost 100 community leaders with solutions to improve the city’s outlook. It has launched a citywide voter engagement initiative to connect citizens with candidates for elected office in the Atlanta region. And it is leading an effort to reassess a decades-old system of neighborhood planning in the city. The organization has come to embody Malhotra’s spirit of iteration, outreach, and risk taking.
“I joke that we’re the city of Atlanta’s Department of Failure,” Malhotra says. “I’ve always wanted it to be a place where there was no red tape—where you can innovate for the public sector.”
Now about that bhangra accident, which happened in Malhotra’s second year at Emory University. Confined to a wheelchair for weeks, he happened to pick up The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs and Building Social Business by Muhammad Yunus. “I came back from that injury charged up about poverty issues around the world,” he says.
As an undergrad, Malhotra started a nonprofit that engaged other young people around the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, among them the elimination of malaria. He raised money by selling T-shirts with the message “Mosquitos Suck” and traveled to Mali, where his understanding of poverty was informed by the complexity and resilience he saw in the country’s villages and cities. “It's not that I didn't know about poverty. I grew up in it, and my parents lived it in India,” Malhotra says. “But that trip gave me context for it. It made me understand it. Poverty isn’t what you read about in textbooks. People are not data points—they are wrapped up in culture and experiences that dictate the way they see the world and the way the world sees them.” Malhotra believes that coming into a community from the outside and directing how it should be wasn’t as powerful as enabling citizens to create that change themselves.
Out of college, Malhotra worked in marketing and digital outreach for Malaria No More and Bono’s One Campaign before landing a job developing a digital communications strategy for the Democratic National Committee, including content for @BarackObama, the president’s Twitter account. “I learned that I loved the communication side, but I was always a little sad when the door closed and others worked on policy,” he says. That realization led Malhotra to the Kennedy School, where he served as Kennedy School Student Government president. “The Kennedy School gave me a lexicon I would have never otherwise had,” he says. “I learned the work happening on the ground in my hometown of Atlanta was known to the rest of the world as social innovation. If you don’t put a name to something, it’s hard to value it, and that’s exactly what was happening in our city.”
As an Ash Center Government Innovations Fellow, Malhotra worked in the White House Office of Management and Budget in the summer of 2012, focusing on social impact bonds as a financing mechanism for struggling cities. His instinct was to reach out directly to city leaders with the information and ideas being generated, but he soon realized that it wasn’t that easy. “We were talking about nerdy stuff I loved, but it was hard to move that conversation beyond our bubble in Washington,” he says. “I knew the federal government was complex, but I think I didn't realize how much red tape was involved before dollars and opportunity could flow from the federal government to a city.”
When Malhotra moved back to Atlanta after graduating from the Kennedy School, he began organizing discussion groups for residents to better understand some of his hometown’s most pressing issues—among them, food insecurity, transportation, income disparity, safety, and education. An opportunity to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow came his way; he turned it down to continue working with local leaders on what would become CCI.
On September 12, 2014, a diverse collection of more than 300 “stubborn, thoughtful, and driven” residents of Atlanta came together in the pouring rain for CCI’s launch in its renovated space just steps away from city hall and the Georgia state capitol. That public show of support and interest was a powerful sign for Malhotra that people in Atlanta were ready to address widening inequality and low public participation in local government.
“I’ve always wanted it to be a place where there was no red tape—where you can innovate for the public sector.”
At the heart of CCI’s mission is its collaboration with civic innovators—a term Malhotra defines as people on the ground who are challenging the status quo and building entrepreneurial solutions to address inequality. Malhotra and his teams have raised about $2 million from philanthropic and impact investors to directly invest in those grassroots leaders’ solutions. That has meant supporting Tiffany LaTrice Williams, who launched TILA Studios, which is focused on increasing representation of black female art in galleries and museums around the country, and John Kennebrew’s Showcase Group, which provides mental health services to teens in juvenile detention to substantially decrease recidivism rates.
Charnette Trimble’s organization, Grandmama’s House, was another investment. Trimble started it when she noticed something in her Oakland City (Atlanta) neighborhood: People she’d known for years were disappearing, driven to sell their homes to developers because of unpaid taxes or costly repairs.
“I saw my neighborhood changing,” Trimble says of the city’s rising real estate market. “God ain’t making no more dirt, and in certain parts of Atlanta it’s very valuable. It’s important for our community to understand what we have—to treasure it, and pass it on to the next generation.”
So Trimble created Grandmama’s House to provide workshops and individual sessions to guide eligible seniors through the process of applying for government funds for home repair.
Trimble learned about CCI when she served as a volunteer for its #VoteATL Initiative, where it focused on educating residents about the local elections and hosted Q&A sessions with all 12 mayoral candidates. Selected as a CCI Civic Innovation Fellow, Trimble received an initial investment of $5,000 to test her idea over a six-month period during which she had access to CCI’s resources, including office space, networking events and talks, and one-on-one strategic planning sessions. Because of that, Trimble was one of eight women to receive a follow-on investment of $25,000 through CCI’s partnership with Sara Blakely, the founder and CEO of Spanx. In 2016, Malhotra and Blakely teamed up to start an initiative to invest in women-led businesses creating social impact in Atlanta.
Trimble laughs and uses the word “fierce” when describing Malhotra’s guidance: “He takes your plan and tears it down, rips it up, and gives it back to you,” she says. “He says, ‘My job isn’t to make you good, my job is to make you excellent.’” CCI creates a strong community among the leaders it works with, but also challenges them to create models for their work that eventually “put them out of business” because they actually solve the problem.
Beyond its work with individual leaders, CCI focuses on strengthening engagement between people and local government. In addition to #VoteATL, CCI launched its NPU Initiative, an effort to educate residents on Atlanta’s official system of community engagement: Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs). Introduced in 1974 by Mayor Maynard Jackson, the first African American mayor of a major Southern city, NPUs were created to give Atlanta’s residents a voice on the issues that concern them most and became a model of civic engagement for other American cities. In the following decades, owing to declining support from city government, many residents saw that the system no longer worked as originally intended. Malhotra commends the leaders of Atlanta’s NPUs who, in spite of these challenges, still find ways to represent their neighborhoods’ unique voices. CCI is working with these leaders to evaluate and revitalize what has become an outdated process of reaching out to residents—who, not surprisingly, did not feel heard. That process, Malhotra says, requires him to turn back to his organizer roots to attend neighborhood meetings and listen to people share their frustrations and aspirations.
“Those meetings are never what I would describe as fun, but they are fundamental to how cities function,” he says. “The hypothesis is that a greater number of active voices will result in increased innovation in the public sector and increase public participation so they are not only seven or eight people in a room making decisions on behalf of tens of thousands—that’s scary.”
CCI’s team, working out of a 10,000-square-foot space located in a renovated department store building in the city’s downtown, has now grown to 10. But in a sense, it is working to include the entire community.
“We need places where communities can test ideas that can have massive implications for the system,” Malhotra says. That outlook will continue to drive Malhotra and CCI’s work in the years ahead—because, as his own story shows, big change can evolve from seemingly random events.
Photos by Steve Strother and courtesy of Center for Civic Innovation