Ursula looked me in my eyes and said “When you go back to Atlanta, the first thing that needs to come out of your mouth when you talk to them [policymakers] is that they need to increase the minimum wage.” She was just one of many students the GBPI team heard from at Family Literacy Connection last week on our listening tour in Albany, Ga. Other participants in the circle affirmed her comment, nodding adamantly to underscore that their well-being and ability to provide for their families depends on earning a decent wage and securing a good job.

And, jobs, more specifically, good-paying jobs are the missing ingredient in this mid-sized city that is a mecca to many families fleeing more desperate and resource-deprived surrounding rural communities. We also heard life-long residents of Albany lament that the community is in decline because industry is leaving, students don’t stay, and they are isolated without reliable transportation and other systems to keep them connected and growing.

Ursula’s words weighed heavily on me since I’ve returned to Atlanta from our two-day tour. I am processing their stories and experiences and analyzing what the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute can do to promote policy solutions that can help them realize their potential, dreams and vision for their community.

We heard a host of challenges during last week’s trip. We heard from elementary school principals and teachers; citizens at a community forum at Mount Zion Baptist Church; sessions with elected and business leaders, nonprofit service providers and faculty and students at Albany State University. We just scratched the surface and can’t begin to understand fully the story of southwest Georgia based on a brief visit. But, an underlying recurring theme common across all our meetings was that most people who live in Albany love their community. They want a better quality of life. And a clear pathway to improving and strengthening economic opportunity is to bring back jobs and maintain good health care services.

The community wants to maximize the resources at hand, including post-secondary institutions like Albany State. Across these focus groups and conversations it was also clear that citizens want real unity and leadership with a shared vision that moves Albany from a very fragmented and racist past, to one that is inclusive and prosperous for all families who have made Albany their home. It was striking that many people we heard sounded almost wistful that a deadly tornado created some new unity as the community rallied to help each other.

GBPI is committed to continue to listen and learn from our fellow Georgians around the state, especially in its struggling rural communities. We want to ensure we’re promoting the best policy solutions for Georgia families. Making sure we listen and keep listening is a priority for our work in 2018 and beyond.

Thank you Albany for sharing your time, your voice and your dreams with us. We are better for it.

We look forward to staying connected and engaged with our new friends in Albany in the years ahead, so that we can build together an inclusive economy where every family—no matter where they live—can participate and thrive.

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