February 18, 2023

Story originally published in Capital B Atlanta.

In the pews of Atlanta First United Methodist Church in Downtown, John Legend is listening to a story from the Rev. Jasmine Smothers. The lead pastor is talking about her journey from seminary school to where she is now, standing in front of city leaders, housing organizations, and a couple of city photographers talking about Atlanta’s housing crisis. 

Smothers is the first woman and person of color to lead the congregation, as well as the  youngest lead pastor in the congregation’s 175-year history. She explains how in the future, by working with Mayor Andre Dickens and others, the church will expand and build a structure offering 320 apartments, 85% of which would be designated as affordable.  “This expansion will help us continue to take the church’s mission beyond these walls,” she said.

Despite his upbringing in the church, Legend wasn’t there to marvel at the old organ and the elevator system that allows it to be stored underground when it’s not being used. The Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award winner had hit the last stop in what was dubbed a “Walk the Block” for Legend to discuss housing with city officials, local organizations, and residents.

In 2020, Legend launched his organization HUMANLEVEL to address issues tied to racial inequity in cities across the country. An important part of its programming involved a partnership with FUSE Corps, an organization working with local governments and communities to do the same. Legend was also in town to meet with the Atlanta fellows, residents, and leaders working with both organizations to address housing, social justice, education, and workforce issues in the city.

The visit to Atlanta preceded an announcement from the city that Tyler Perry was donating $750,000 to help low-income seniors living near his studio in southeast Atlanta with property taxes. Over the next four years, additional funds will bring Perry’s total donation to $2.75 million. 

Celebrities providing financial resources to find solutions to everyday Atlanta problems is nothing new to residents. From Gunna’s pop-up grocery store addressing food equity to Perry’s latest offering, big names with local ties giving back to predominantly Black communities is a common occurrence.

So why is Legend, an Ohio-born celebrity currently living in Los Angeles, worried about what’s happening here? In a conversation with Capital B Atlanta, he spoke about where his activist spirit came from, why HUMANLEVEL chose Atlanta, and getting emotional while listening to stories from residents. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Capital B: You have your hands on a lot of initiatives. Is activism something that’s been ingrained in you from a young age? 

John Legend: Yeah, I would say that I was always inspired by activists, attracted to the stories of activists, particularly people who fought for Black liberation in America, people who fought for justice and equality for Black people in America. Those were the people I wanted to read about when I was young. I was home-schooled for much of my grade school years, and we would go to the library once every week or two, the county’s public library. My parents would just let us explore the library and pick out what we wanted to read about. 

And for me, often I wanted to read about those kinds of leaders that stood up for justice and equality, who risked their lives so that we could vote, so we could have equal rights in America. I always believed that if I were going to be a successful artist, that I would try to use my platform, my influence, my resources to try to improve the lives of people in my community and communities like mine all around the country.

This initiative between HUMANLEVEL and FUSE Corps is an effort to address housing in Atlanta, and other cities. Why is housing an important issue?

What we wanted to do with HUMANLEVEL was work on systemic issues that affected how Black and Brown people experience life in America every day. And one aspect of how we experience life in America is how we’re treated by the police and by the criminal justice system. And we spent a lot of time thinking about that. We also wanted to look at other ways that we’re affected by inequities, by disparities, and the way we’re treated.

And so much of it happens on a local level, whether it is our schools, our criminal justice system — which is mostly activated on a local level — or housing and zoning, and small-business investment and all these other things, that so much of those things are affected by local government and how resources are distributed and whose voices are listened to and who’s prioritized in those communities. 

When we think about housing, housing is very much locally managed when it comes to zoning, when it comes to all kinds of interventions that either make it easier to have more affordable housing or harder to have more affordable housing. So many of those decisions are made on a local level. And during the pandemic, we saw some crimes go up, property crimes, inflation, saw all these reasons why people were feeling less secure. So much of that has to do with whether or not they have a stable place to live. 

Why invest in Atlanta?

First of all, we need local partners who want to work with us. We don’t just force our way in, we need the mayors’ buy-in, we need their teams’ buy-in, and we want them to engage us on issues that they care about and need our help with. 

They wanted us to come in, they asked us to work on particular issues. One of the issues we worked on was figuring out how to deal with gentrification and how to make sure there’s still affordable options for housing in Atlanta because gentrification is a major issue. We focused on health care as well, dealing with AIDS and HIV and other issues. And so we really wanted to make decisions about what we worked on in conjunction with the mayor’s offices in these cities.

We’re also learning from each other around the country, so we’re able to have our fellows placed in all these different cities, and we can see what works in Atlanta and talk about doing it in Los Angeles. We can see what’s working in LA and talk about doing it in other cities around the country. It’s a great network of like-minded people who are working together to try to make our country better by making our cities better.

Doing this work, I imagine you hear a lot of pitches and everybody’s really excited, and they’re eager to share their ideas with you. What stood out to you about your conversations in Atlanta?

I love how much there’s a strong sense of community and a shared identity among Atlanta. I love that Black people have been in power for quite a long time, and it’s such a thriving metropolis. 

I was there campaigning to get people out to vote, and just seeing how much people just have civic pride and care about making their city as great as it can possibly be; it’s really encouraging and exciting. As we talked about some of the projects they were doing to expand housing opportunities, expand affordable housing opportunities to do more with the downtown area, which has been in some ways neglected when it comes to new development — particularly when it comes to housing. It was just inspiring to see the sense of pride and the sense of working together and community that I felt when I was there. 

That pastor [Smothers] who was doing that great work was downtown, I was truly inspired and almost brought to tears, hearing her talk about the work they were doing and the impact that they could have. I grew up in the church, and sometimes you don’t see church leaders taking as much interest in the Christian mission of helping the poor and opening the church’s doors to everybody in the community, no matter who they are and how much resources they have. Seeing a pastor that really saw that mission as central to what the church is supposed to be doing and really making an impact, it was very inspiring.

You’ve been to a few cities for this initiative, speaking to fellows across the country. Learning from the fellows here in Atlanta, what do you think is the biggest issue HUMANLEVEL can help address?

You have all these newcomers relocating and bringing a certain amount of resources and wealth and adding to the GDP of Atlanta. It also makes it harder for people who live there for a long time because it makes everything more expensive for them and there’s a displacement issue, a gentrification issue. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge that the folks there are seeing when it comes to housing. You’ve seen all these huge companies bring professional workers there, people with degrees and six-figure salaries, and that’s all great, but it’s making it difficult for a lot of people who don’t have those current resources to continue to live there. That’s the problem that Atlanta’s trying to solve, and that’s what we’re trying to help them with.