12 Oct 2017
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Fighting Poverty One Neighborhood at a Time

A life dedicated to service is helping rebuild communities by addressing problems in housing, education, and health
by Deborah Blagg

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Photography by Craig Hall

Like many people who work for change in struggling urban neighborhoods, John Majors (MBA 2000) believes that high-quality education for all children is a vital link to future success. He’s also convinced that education alone can’t transform the lives of families caught in multigenerational cycles of poverty.

“You can’t expect schools to consistently outperform the health of their neighborhoods,” says Majors, a vice president at Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based, nonprofit consulting group. “The reality is that some employers and educators automatically lower their expectations when job applicants or students come from low-income neighborhoods. It’s a stigma that’s hard to overcome.”

Purpose Built Communities has been addressing that challenge since 2009, when the organization was established to share with other cities its three-pronged, neighborhood-development strategy of mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education pipeline, and community wellness programs that have helped to revitalize Atlanta’s troubled East Lake neighborhood. Funded by philanthropists, Purpose Built’s consultants work with clients on a pro bono basis to assist them in developing a holistic approach to building strong, economically diverse neighborhoods, often from the ground up.

When he joined the organization in 2012, Majors brought experience in business development, community relations, and financial analysis, from his previous role as EVP at the Dawson Company, a commercial real estate firm where he worked on transformative urban real estate projects. One of those ventures was a 350-unit, mixed-income apartment development, near Atlanta’s MARTA train station, that included 70 units of below-market-rate housing. “I’m proud to have been part of that effort,” Majors reflects, “but I felt like there was so much more that could be done. At Purpose Built, my skills and education have broader impact.”

Community Quarterbacks

Majors and his colleagues at Purpose Built currently work with 16 nonprofit “community quarterbacks”—organizations comprising local business, civic, community, and nonprofit leaders—in different cities across the country. The group is also in contact with representatives from 30 additional communities that are in the earlier stages of thinking about revitalization efforts that will typically take a decade or more.

“Clients usually hear about us by word of mouth or from press coverage of East Lake’s success,” Majors explains.

Now a thriving community with desirable mixed-income housing, a successful charter school, and multiple educational enrichment and community support programs, the East Lake Meadows section of Atlanta in the mid-1990s had one of the highest crime rates in the country, a significant drug problem, and a failing school. Local real estate developer and philanthropist Tom Cousins, who became the founder of Purpose Built Communities, led the effort to revitalize East Lake in partnership with residents, the Atlanta Housing Authority, and business leaders.

“People see that model and want to know how it works,” explains Majors, who consults with groups in Omaha, Rochester, Orlando, and Philadelphia, to help them assemble the multiple components that are necessary for comprehensive community revitalization. Given his background, Majors is able to demonstrate how real estate acquisition, development, and financing can fit into the overall revitalization of neighborhoods. “I’ve had a lot of experience in figuring out how to make the numbers work to create a market-rate residential experience for all residents,” he notes.

Majors emphasizes that he and his colleagues are careful to “listen first and talk later.” “Each neighborhood’s context and assets are unique. There is no cookie-cutter solution. Many clients have been battling poverty and crime in their cities for decades. Our job is to take what they know and offer advice based on our expertise that will help them get the results they want to see.”

A Calling to Serve

Along with utilizing his experience and HBS education, Majors says his work at Purpose Built Communities has helped him to better understand “a calling I’ve always had to somehow be of service to others.” A graduate of Morehouse College with a degree in computer science, he recalls that, at the time he applied to HBS, deciding between an advanced degree in business or in religion was “almost a toss-up.”

At HBS, Majors was named a Junior Achievement Fellow, served as the School’s first Goldman Sachs Fellow, and was elected copresident of the African American Student Union (AASU).

“I had never taken an accounting or finance class before I went to HBS,” he notes. “The AASU study groups and community activities were really important to me, and serving as copresident gave me a chance to help others in the spirit of those who had led the organization before me. It was really an honor.” Majors says helping corporate recruiters think through how they could more effectively engage with students of color was one of his most meaningful tasks.

In 2011 Majors made the decision to deepen his commitment to serving others by enrolling in a seminary program at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “I’d been thinking about it for a long time,” he reflects. “I had been feeling led on this path for most of my life, but confronting my calling to go to seminary was still a bit of a shock to me.”

As it turned out, though, it wasn’t much of a shock to others. “One of my buddies from HBS just laughed and more or less summed it up by saying, ‘John, the only person surprised by this is you. We’re all just wondering what took you so long!’”

Majors expects to complete his master’s degree in Religion in Public Life later in 2017 and is looking forward to activities “that merge my passions for community development work, business, and ministry.” A comprehensive thesis on overcoming childhood trauma will be one of his final requirements for the degree and, he expects, a key focus for his career going forward.

“Whether you call yourself a business, faith, or government leader, the trauma suffered by children who grow up in violent neighborhoods should keep you up at night,” he states. “We are not a nation of surplus human potential. For too many kids, in too many neighborhoods, the messages they receive are overwhelmingly that society has low expectations for their lives. And, if not countered, those messages can become self-fulfilling. We all have a responsibility to help give every child the best possible chance for success.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2000, Section B

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