Sandy Springs starts virtual conversations on race

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul sits during a county meeting at the Fulton County Government Center, Monday, in 2015. The city recently started virtual conversations on race. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul sits during a county meeting at the Fulton County Government Center, Monday, in 2015. The city recently started virtual conversations on race. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Sandy Springs is holding a series of small virtual gatherings for conversations on race that it hopes will make residents of all races feel included and an integral part of the city.

Days after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said he would launch the conversations to address race, fear of the police and feelings of disparity by local residents.

The talks are referred to as “civic dinners.” Nearly 20 were scheduled from last Friday through Aug. 20 and each talk is open to about eight participants.

Open invitations to host or attend the events themed around "inclusion and belonging" are on the Sandy Springs civic dinners website. The website includes invites to conversations being held in Spanish.

Mercedes-Benz USA, based in Sandy Springs, will host the final talk. In addition to a representative who will lead the discussion, some employees will participate in the conversation with residents, said Erica Bolden, head of Diversity, Inclusion and Corporate Social Responsibility for Mercedes.

Bolden said after recent tragic events, the corporation wants its employees to feel safe expressing grief or confusion in the workplace and the Sandy Springs conversations present an opportunity to both talk and listen.

“These conversations about race are difficult,” Bolden said. “I always tell employees, the first step to understanding is listening to others. We are all on a journey together.”

Following the conversations, each host will present a report to the mayor about concerns raised that will be shared publicly at a future City Council meeting, Sandy Springs spokesperson Sharon Kraun said.

Paul said the reports will inform the city on how it can be more inclusive to all residents and address any concerns related to Sandy Springs police.

Upcoming host Melanie Couchman said core questions include asking attendees about their sense of feeling welcome as a Sandy Springs resident, their comfort level in getting to know someone of another race; and what they can do to help foster more inclusion in the city.

Couchman and her husband David, founders of Sandy Springs Together, will separately host a conversation on Wednesday and July 28, respectively. Sandy Springs Together supports racial and social equity as well as education about affordable housing.

Melanie Couchman said she wants all of the city’s civic talks to truly represent the city’s diverse population. Minority residents in Sandy Springs represented nearly 47% of the population in 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Couchman sees diversity represented in residents’ different age groups and socioeconomic lifestyles as important factors, in addition to race.

“That’s a strength because when a community has that kind of diversity, it can pull from all of those different groups to grow and to meet its needs,” she said. “There are a lot of people in the community that want to preserve diversity.”

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