October 20, 1997
Volume 50, No. 9
Frank Alexander's office faces North Decatur Road in the law school's Gambrell Hall. Were it a dozen or so flights higher, he might be able to see over the trees three-and-a-quarter miles south as the crow flies to East Lake Meadows, an Atlanta public housing development.
As it stands, Alexander can only get firsthand looks at the Meadows. A professor in the law school, for the last few years he's been taking his students there to help him address legal issues concerning the neighborhood's redevelopment. In fact, Alexander said, the help the residents receive pales in comparison to what he and his students gain from them.
"I've learned more from that experience than certainly from any other single project I've worked on because it involves the fullness, the breadth and depth and richness of humanity," Alexander said. "There are days of real exhileration, when we're making progress. But I'm also learning very quickly that those are followed by days of frustration and despair."
While Alexander stresses the project's reciprocal value-"My students and I gain far more from our work in the Meadows than we will ever be of benefit for them"-others think it turns out pretty well for the Meadows residents too. Otherwise Alexander wouldn't have received the Citizen's Award for Outstanding Service from the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority in 1995 or a 1995 Georgia Affordable Housing Award from the state's housing and finance authority. And Gov. Zell Miller wouldn't have named him a commissioner of the State Housing Trust Fund for the Homeless three years ago.
But it's understandable that Alexander would downplay his own contributions. A real estate lawyer by trade, he struggled mightily to choose between law and divinity school after finishing undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the end he chose both, though his career lay in law; Alexander earned his law degree from Harvard University the same year he received his master's in theological studies from its divinity school.
"Depending on your perspective of church ministry and your perspective of law, to me they were very much subtle variations on the same theme, which is that they're both forms of public service," Alexander said of the curious mix. "The question is the context; the reason for studying law for me was the opportunity to gain training, techniques and tools, and understanding of public policy for the opportunity to work with and serve others. Ministry was the same thing, different context."
After school, while working in a private law firm in Atlanta, Alexander got the chance to teach at Emory as an adjunct professor. It was also an opportunity to rejoin former Emory President James Laney, who at the time was dean of the theology school and who'd been a visiting professor at Harvard while Alexander was there. Emory was interested in creating a joint law/religion program, and Alexander soon left his private practice to come to Emory full time and become that program's founding director. Now in its 15th year, the Law and Religion program offers three joint degrees.
Some years later, he again came on board to help Laney and former President Jimmy Carter with The Atlanta Project (TAP). Alexander was named a fellow of the Carter Center and worked half-time on housing issues in support of TAP, among other projects. That was his introduction to East Lake Meadows. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter had personally lobbied for a $33 million federal grant to revitalize the development, and Alexander began to work with the residents' association in dealing with the Atlanta Housing Authority and the Cousins Foundation.
"East Lake Meadows encapsulates the challenge of trying to work in the urban environment," Alexander said. "We, the city of Atlanta, are one of the poorest cities in the country in terms of per capita income, but we also have neighborhoods that are among the wealthiest.
"We have very little middle class, and so as we work to revitalize downtown and bridge the gaps of these cultures, it's an incredible learning experience for me, for my students, for the residents and for the other partners-the Cousins Foundation and the Housing Authority. We learn from each other each week."
Indeed, Alexander said the current movement toward increased community involvement for Emory should stress relationships that benefit both partners and set clear goals on both sides. "We need to learn from The Atlanta Project, which created incredibly high expectations and, because those were not met, a great deal of frustration," he said.
As far as whether Emory should become more involved, Alexander feels the question is moot. "We are in this community, like it or not. The simple question is: Do we fulfill our responsibilities?" And the answer? "No. There is a great deal of exciting work being done by a number of individuals, but we have not yet begun to scratch the surface of the opportunities for us to benefit from the community and for the community to benefit from us.
"There are incredible opportunities for this university-as part of its teaching, as part of its education, as part of its research-to go back into the community and be a full member, not simply an isolated institution in a relatively wealthy neighborhood."
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