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