Nathaniel Smith, MS Urban Policy and Analysis ’00, A Leader for Social Equity and Environmental Justice in the New South
As a child, Nathaniel Smith, MS Urban Policy and Analysis ’00, knew that he would grow up to be a fighter for civil rights and social equity. Raised in Atlanta, he admired the work of his parents, who engaged in civil rights activism under the tutelage of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I saw the importance of everyday people working to create a better society,” the Milano School alumnus said.
Since 2008, as founder, chief equity officer, and CEO of the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE), Smith has led efforts to promote growth and opportunity in the metropolitan Atlanta region and the American South as a whole. The organization takes on problems resulting from racial, economic, and class disparities, fighting for energy equity, economic inclusion, and equitable development. It has succeeded in influencing transportation and environmental policy.
“One of our basic goals is to ensure that the color of your skin or your zip code doesn’t dictate the opportunity you have to reach your full potential,” Smith said.
During Atlanta’s contentious 2017 mayoral election, the PSE was influential in shifting the agenda to focus on issues such as equity and environmental justice. Smith emerged as a leader during the campaign, arguing for reserving five percent of transit money to fund subsidized housing near transit hubs.
A turning point for the organization came in 2014, when the PSE led a coalition of organizations to support the initiation and passage of a $13 million transit referendum to extend Atlanta’s metropolitan transit system (MARTA) into Clayton County, the first time that the system had expanded into a new county in 45 years.
“Under Nathaniel’s leadership, the Partnership for Southern Equity has been instrumental in calling out the importance of equity in Atlanta and the American South since its inception in 2008,” said Dwayne Patterson, PSE’s vice president of strategy and engagement. “That’s ten years of speaking truth to power, leading the equity movement and conversation and bringing communities together to address problems like expanding mass transit to low-income communities, standing up against gentrification, and building power so all communities can thrive.”
More recently, Smith and the PSE have raised the profile of the organization and its mission through a story in the Huffington Post. Smith was also chosen by Grist, an online magazine that focuses on climate, sustainability, and social justice, as one of its Grist 50, a list of “leaders who will actually make you feel good about the future.”
Smith’s Grist 50 profile was written by the actor Mark Ruffalo, who has collaborated with him on several projects.
“I know Nathaniel through our work at the Solutions Project,” Ruffalo wrote. “We made an investment in Nathaniel’s work at the Partnership for Southern Equity, which is advancing a new agenda for shared prosperity, justice, and inclusion in the South.”
“I was shocked that he did that,” Smith said, reflecting on Ruffalo’s essay. “He’s been a great supporter of our organization, and I was very appreciative. I will say the attention has been humbling for me. This last year has been a good one; the Huffington Post and Grist have elevated the work we do.”
Currently Smith is juggling a variety of projects and responsibilities. The PSE recently started the Just Energy Academy (JSA), a seven-month leadership training program “created to educate the next generation of equity leaders on energy equity and climate and justice issues.” The program is aimed at “youth and adults who aspire to be energy equity leaders in their communities.” Smith says the academy was created to nurture “first-class” leaders to confront climate change issues facing Georgia.
“Energy equity translates into the fair distribution of benefits and burdens from energy production and consumption,” according to the PSE website. Policies affect everything from household utility bills to air and water quality.
Smith is also part of the US Water Alliance task force team in Atlanta, which advocates for equitable water policies and practices. Smith says he wants to ensure that the $40 million green stormwater infrastructure project planned for southeastern Atlanta, designed to reduce neighborhood flooding, benefits low-income communities.
As he prepares for the future, he recalls how his time as a student at Milano helped him become the leader he is today. He is particularly grateful to Susan Morris, then Milano’s associate dean of student affairs, whom he said had “a deep commitment to students of color.” At The New School, Smith was a founder of the conference “Raising Consciousness: How Public Policy Affects Communities of Color.”
“I can’t imagine going to another school,” he said. “They didn’t want to challenge the way I look at the world; they wanted to strengthen it. They challenged me to be bold and courageous around issues of injustice. If it weren’t for Milano, I don’t know if I would have had the opportunity to lead in that unique way.”