Southern Network for Economic Mobility

Athens-Clarke County is one of four Southern communities accepted into the first group of communities in the Network for Southern Economic Mobility. Together, the communities in the Network will take on the challenge of improving the economic mobility of their young people. The other three communities that have made a two-year commitment to the network are Chattanooga, TN; Greenville, SC; and Jacksonville, FL. The Network for Southern Economic Mobility was created by MDC, a nonprofit based in Durham, NC that has been working with communities and institutions in the South for 50 years to create equitable policies and programs.

"The Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County has made a priority of examining ways in which the local government can reduce economic barriers for our young people," says Mayor Nancy Denson, "but we can't do it alone. It is essential that we work with community partners and share experiences with other communities in order to envision better ways of empowering our young citizens' future economic prospects."

The two-year program calls for an eight-member team of community leaders in business, government, education, nonprofits, and philanthropy to examine how well their existing systems are reaching those young people facing the most difficult barriers to advancement.

The following team was recruited to participate for Athens-Clarke County:
  • Lawrence Harris – Clarke County School District Career Academy Director
  • James Barlament – Clarke County School District Charter School Director
  • Emily Michelbach – Carrier Transicold Human Resources Director
  • Ryan Moore – ACC Economic Development Department Director
  • Lemuel LaRoche – Chess and Community Executive Director
  • Suzanne Barbour – UGA Graduate School Dean
  • Robin Shearer – Juvenile Court Judge
  • Richie Knight – HW Creative Marketing Owner
"The power and engagement of community is what makes Athens-Clarke County so unique," says Clarke County School District Superintendent Dr. Philip D. Lanoue, "and harnessing that power is what will continue to help move us forward. There is no one solution to break generation cycles of poverty, but several partners and organizations coming together and creating multiple pathways to success is a key element in helping to empower our fellow Athenians."

As part of the Network for Southern Economic Mobility, each community will receive customized coaching and technical assistance, hear from experts in institutional and governmental systems change, and have the opportunity to work together and share their insights into what works – and what doesn’t – as they strive to eliminate the barriers that keep a high percentage of low-income young people from rising into the middle class.

“We can’t have a society where only exceptions succeed or where so much is left to the luck of the draw – especially when the deck is so often stacked against those who need the uplift of mobility the most,” said David Dodson, president of MDC. “We must be about changing the odds, not expecting people to beat the odds.” 

The cities were chosen for the network, Dodson said, because they have shown a commitment to helping marginalized young people, a foundation of promising programs on which to build, the presence of industries with career potential for young people, and top leaders who see the connection between economic mobility and the long-term health of their economy. 

The economic mobility challenges are different in each network city but familiar to many other communities, and they each have begun taking steps to align resources to address them: 

  • In Athens-Clarke County, the poverty rate is 38 percent, more than double the state average. To address that, local schools and Athens Technical College have created a partnership with a community career academy to develop dual-enrollment courses and encourage more low-income students to go to college.
  • In Chattanooga, only 7 percent of students who graduate from two high schools with large, low-income populations go on to complete any college program within six years. The Benwood Foundation is working with the school system and the Public Education Foundation to improve graduation rates by improving teaching and offering intensive literacy support in those and other predominantly low-income high schools.
  • In Greenville, a significant problem is its limited bus system, making it hard for low-income residents to get to school and work. On the plus side, Greenville Technical College works closely with major employers to provide services through industry meetings, sales meetings with business and industry, and partnerships within the community.
  • In Jacksonville, only 38 percent of working-age adults have a two- or four-year degree. The city has responded with programs to focus on identifying and responding to the needs of potential high school drop-outs, and has raised the graduation rate from 60 percent to 77 percent in the last eight years.
Core support for the Network is provided by the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation (MRBF) and other philanthropic investors. Communities are contributing a participation fee to support a portion of on-site technical assistance, coaching visits, and annual conferences. The Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County and the Clarke County School District are each contributing $12,500 to the effort.

MDC, based in Durham, N.C., brings together foundations, nonprofits, and leaders from government, business and the grassroots to illuminate data that highlight deeply rooted Southern challenges and help them find systemic, community solutions.

For more information on Athens-Clarke County's participation in the Network for Southern Economic Mobility, contact ACC Economic Development Department Director Ryan Moore at 706-613-3233 or