Since his days at Benjamin Mays High School, newly elected Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens knew he wanted to be an elected official. And though his initial academic and career pursuits as a chemical engineer and retail furniture owner took him to other states, he never lost sight of wanting to make a difference in his native home.
But it wasn’t until 2002 that he began to explore public service in earnest. When Dickens’ mother fell ill and needed his care, he relocated back home to Atlanta. He then became involved in his community, serving as an officer for his neighborhood association and as a representative to the city’s Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU-D), which serves the Underwood Hills neighborhood.
“I see things through utopia lens and wake up every morning thinking about the community, jobs, equity and about people who need an opportunity,” says Dickens, a December MPA graduate of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. “I want to look at providing solutions citywide.”
Dickens received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Georgia Tech.
“I came to Georgia State to pursue my MPA because I knew if I was going to pursue my dream as an elected official, I would need to know what I’m doing by understanding how cities are designed and how they are ran. I needed to understand terminology that was foreign to me,” says Dickens, who concentrated on planning and economic development.
Yet, running a campaign while getting a degree and working full-time as assistant director of OMED Educational Services at Georgia Tech was not a part of Dickens’ plan as a path to public office.
“The Andrew Young School gave me the flexibility to work full time, campaign full-time and still take two classes each semester,” says Dickens. “The different classes I took have been useful and the caliber of the professors was great. They are not just professors, but practitioners who are tied into the fabric of the city.”
Dickens’ campaign platform included better opportunities for public participation, good paying jobs, greater economic development, educational equality and ethical leadership. Campaigning for an at-large position enabled Dickens to present his platform at community meetings all over the city: oftentimes seeing some of his professors in the audience.
“Talk about planning and economic development in action,” says Dickens. “In engineering, you just learn the material and try it in the lab. In public management and policy classes, it was awesome to discuss various topics in class and to see how people view things from their own experiences. The sharing was great.”
In his new role as a city councilman, Dickens chairs the Community Development Human Resources (CDHR) Committee, which includes areas that are near and dear to him: public participation, jobs and educational equality. Other (units or departments) that report to CDHR are the Atlanta Beltline, Invest Atlanta, Parks and Recreation, the Atlanta Housing Authority, Workforce Development and Bikeshare.
“When Andre was a student of mine, he was taken with Albert O. Hirschman’s book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which explores the whys of consumer and political participation,” says Joseph Hacker, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Public Management and Policy. “The book speaks to the forces which silence participation. The class conversation led by Andre explored how to restore meaningful public participation.”
A year after that class, Dickens made a campaign stop at the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization in which Hacker is a member. “During Andre’s short speech, likely funning with me a bit, he ended by saying, ‘I hope you will show your loyalty and express your voice in this election, and not exit the process,’” says Hacker.
“The Andrew Young School prepared me for the Atlanta City Council,” says Dickens. “Its connection to Atlanta gives access to best practices. It is academic research and real life experiences. It is the active going on in the reality.”