South side neighborhood support in Chicago, homelessness in Dallas, and diversity in media in L.A. — Americans know our cities need help, but do we know who’s helping? Community organizations, churches, state agencies, social entrepreneurs all spring to mind. What about a global telecommunications, media and entertainment company? In cities across the U.S., AT&T employees are taking initiative to make change in their own communities, and they are bringing their teams along. Could a major corporation find its place in the already-rich ecosystem of changemaking? Is it an organic new form of employee-led citizenship, beyond the familiar tricks and traps of CSR? Ashoka caught up with Hardmon Williams, VP of AT&T BelievesSM, and Michael Peterson, VP of AT&T External Affairs, to find out how one of the country’s most powerful corporations learned to lead from behind.
Ashoka: What’s the core idea of AT&T Believes and how did it come about?
Hardmon Williams and Michael Peterson: Believes is a unique approach AT&T has taken as a company. Instead of making CSR policy at the top, we are letting employees identify the issues that matter most in the places where they live and work. It started in Chicago in 2018. Employees came together and asked what they could do for south side communities suffering from inner-city violence. It was happening in their neighborhoods, places of worship, schools. Their concerns were real, and their interest was credible. But we are a tech and media company, and our people have expertise in those areas. So, we had to find the right collaborators who had experience with addressing the local issues.
Throughout 2019, we rolled out that basic model — following our employees’ lead then connecting them with great collaborators — in 38 markets around the country. Each was organically stood up by employees, not pushed down from headquarters. Across those franchises, we see creativity and innovation. Our employees say, “We live in these communities, we work in these communities, and as such, we believe in these communities.”
We’re really proud and honored that we just launched internationally this month. So, there is now a Believes franchise in Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Ashoka: Supporting Chicago’s south side neighborhoods is one example of a pressing issue, what is another?
Williams and Peterson: We launched Believes DallasSM in December 2018, out of our headquarters, which in normal times is the workplace for about 5,500 employees. It happens that our offices sit within walking distance of about nine homeless service providers. So every day, we were greeting individuals experiencing homelessness as they traverse our campus. Homelessness had spiked almost threefold in recent years in Dallas. It’s not hard to understand why our employees took up the issue.
We collaborate with a local service provider called Our Calling, a faith organization that’s a real leader addressing homelessness in Dallas. We found a way to put AT&T’s core skill set to work. They had an antiquated GPS aggregator app that would find local service providers in any area. We assembled a team to go in and tear down that app and rebuild it.
We created different pillars — a technology pillar, a volunteerism pillar, an economic empowerment pillar. Within the company teams came together in these areas and then reached out to learn from people who know the problems deeply — to listen to their stories. Now we have contributed nearly $1.5 million to twenty local homeless service partner organizations to help prevent and mitigate homelessness in Dallas.
Ashoka: Tell us about some of your partners.
Williams and Peterson: In Chicago, we received guidance from an iconic social activist, Father Pfleger, who oversees a largely African-American congregation on the south side. We are fortunate to learn from his knowledge and credibility within the community. In Dallas, we work with homelessness organizations that provide not just housing but also education and workforce development. One is called City Square and specializes in workforce training for the homeless. Within AT&T, we have what we call AT&T Learn, a digital learning platform we use to re-skill and upskill our own employees, which we adapted to provide key career readiness content for external users. We collaborated with City Square to develop a training curriculum and now they are scaling that nationally. This helps us move toward preventing and eradicating homelessness altogether.
Ashoka: How do the calls for racial justice in America resonate with your work?
Williams and Peterson: When we saw the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others highlight the continued injustices experienced by Black Americans, we felt compelled to step forward. On July 30th we announced $10 million in contributions for underserved Black and brown communities, $5.5 million through AT&T Believes. Among other things we’re emphasizing financial literacy, career readiness and access to capital for small businesses.
While the African American population is about 25% of the Dallas community, it’s overrepresented among the homeless — almost 70%.. We convened representatives of the homeless service community, along with a historian and city council member, to talk about the history of racism in Dallas. The historian brought in rich information about systemic challenges, which are the ones we want ultimately to solve.
Ashoka and AT&T have collaborated on social change initiatives in the U.S.