By Emily King
AS OCTOBER rolls in, the City Council elections grow nearer. In District 5, current Alderwoman Estella Shabazz and Robert "RG" Bryant are hard at work campaigning.
In continuation of bringing coverage to the community regarding critical local happenings, The Savannahian sat down with the candidates to discuss this year's race. Discussions covered each district's political platforms, resident concerns, and other hot topics to provide first-hand accounts of each candidate's intent. First on the docket for District 5 was Bryant.
First, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Born and raised in Savannah–actually still live in the home I grew up in that my mom and dad built in the 60s. My dad is a third-generation Savannahian. So, I've seen it when it was dirt roads and ditches, when it was developed, to where we are now.
I went to school here in Savannah and then to Georgia Southern, where I stayed for six years. I loved it. I did my bachelor’s and master's in adult education there. Then, I went to the University of Georgia, where I got my doctorate. That was my first job out of school; I work in higher education. I've been a higher education professional for about 21 years. My professional work has been about diversity, equity, and inclusion. I did multicultural programs for many years and now work remotely for Clemson. I also do some fundraising, working with corporations and foundations to solicit funding for the diversity program. That's where I am now.
So, how did I get here? Many don't remember, but I ran for Public Service Commission in 2020 alongside Daniel Blackman. I came very close to winning and just really enjoyed that. I enjoy meeting people and hearing folks' stories. I like to be a conduit for change in a positive way, and that's what got me here.
I came back to Savannah a few years ago to be a caretaker for my mom, and in that time, I've noticed that we have yet to see much progression in the 5th District. We've seen a lot of the same but little growth. Then there are some other issues that I've heard people complain about, and it's just time for a different, fresh look. So, I decided to put my name in the hat. I'm ensuring I listen to the residents, and that's been my main thing. That's how we got here.
Was there more that went into that decision to run?
You know, part of it is the way I operate. I like to sit down and gather information. I'm a qualitative researcher by trade. I've been sitting down with many seniors and people living in the district and realizing they're hurting.
We know that the 5th District has a very disproportionate poverty rate. That is a severe issue. We know we know that there are some safety issues that residents have, whether it be violent or not violent crimes. Citizens felt like they needed to be heard. I can be a different voice in that conversation.
I'm all about making sure that any contributions that comes to my campaign are from individuals because I want to be accountable to the citizens. We look at other [campaign] financial disclosure forms, and that's only sometimes the case. I've got to be in concert with the neighborhood association leaders who are–what I call– the boots on the ground. They're talking to the residents daily. They're in association meetings and listening to what they're saying. I want to ensure that when you go behind closed doors, you're advocating just as much as when you're in front of them having that same conversation. Right? It's not a different conversation when we're going behind closed doors.
Overdevelopment is a big issue in the 5th District and the city. Do you have a plan to address those concerns?
There's so much tied into that conversation. I'm not against development, but I am against overdevelopment. I agree with the understanding that we want to maintain our neighborhoods' character and structure. There are single-family homes, individuals who saved money and built their homes that now, suddenly, have developers not being kind and leveraging funds to get their way. That's not how we need to be developing.
There are areas of town we can develop and can consider negotiations with land, but not at the expense of residents. That's wrong. I'm not saying no to development. I'm saying, "Can we do it in a way that's responsible and accommodating to everyone, so everyone wins?"
The fairgrounds piece is a significant issue because residents are ignored, and they feel like it's being pushed down their throats. The residents have talked and said, "We don't want any housing on that land." Every one of them said no housing. But we have a plan with the current encompasses where we could get past that.
And at the same time, why are we not looking at local vendors and contractors when we develop? We have unions here. Why can't we respect our unions and local workers and give them those jobs? That's the other piece of this. Where is the economic benefit to our locals? Local workers can do the job just as much as people in Atlanta.
A great example. A gazebo was built in Leedsgate that cost close to $125,000 to build, which I think is interesting. They brought a contractor out of Atlanta to make that. To me, that's wrong.
If you can, talk more about your platform.
The first thing is protecting our community. It goes back to what I said before about not wanting overgrowth or overdevelopment, our irresponsible development of this place, and protecting our residents regarding property taxes. We need to get more transparency and ensure that the residents, especially the seniors, understand what's going on. So, transparency and ensuring we don't just irresponsibly give our land away.
The 5th District is one of the more engaged communities in the city. We have a high voter turnout. I've been here a long time, and it's what I call the heart of the city. When you come into Savannah, you come in between the 1st and the 5th Districts, making sure that the city understands the value of that community and doesn't just glaze over it and then replace it with a bunch of new housing and warehouses. We have value in this city and need to understand that.
The third piece ensures residents understand and feel their voice is being carried to City Hall. I'm huge on that. What I hear in community meetings and from my neighborhood presidents becomes the priority I advocate for downtown. It's not about Robert Bryant, and it's not about my family. It's about the residents.
They need to have a voice about the fairgrounds, traffic calming devices, and safety. I want to have an intentional conversation with my peers and the city manager to ensure those things are done and that we access resources for community growth. We see a lot of crime and a lot of outsourcing. Why can't we leverage the experts who do this work every day? We need to have a round table discussion on these issues.
One of those issues is homelessness. We have a lot of ideas that we don't leverage for whatever reason. With nonprofits, a lot of red tape and bureaucracy raises issues with getting the resources they need.
Since being in campaign mode, I've invited a small group of people into my home, and we talk about the issues. We talked about working collaboratively to alleviate these problems. I want to continue those conversations to see progress rather than just a bunch of task forces that don't have an actual outcome.
Like you said, it's the heart of the city, it's historically a Black community. How does that affect how the city addresses issues within it compared to other districts?
Well, poverty is the one thing that is the root of all of this. Poverty impacts everyone in the city. Poverty tells us that we have issues with income with – what I would call – liberal income power tools. We have cases where people can't afford rent, so when poverty becomes a problem, crime becomes an issue. Safety becomes an issue. All these things start to pop up that we can address.
If we look at livable wages, if we look at affordable housing, if we look at how we have resourced every neighborhood – now, I do think that disproportionately impacts the 5th district – but still, we have other issues that are affecting the city. If I have a person in the 5th district who is struggling, who knows where they may go to find a way to relieve that pressure. They might go to another district. I'm saying we've got to have a comprehensive conversation. Sit around the table, bringing our nonprofits, organizations, churches, and all of that to figure out how we deal with this issue. If we don't deal with poverty, we will have a very serious problem.
Going back to something you mentioned earlier, you said that you felt those standards weren't met by current representation. Can you say more on issues that you think are being dismissed?
Things aren't being done correctly, is what I'm hearing from the citizens. I've been at every committee meeting, and people are just dissatisfied. I'll use this example: several neighborhoods feel they can't even get traffic-calming devices, and that they're not being heard, particularly about that fairground. We have a lot of people who are upset because what was said to the residents and what was done at City Hall aren't lining up. There was a total disconnect.
If you go back to the City Council meeting where the Councilwoman made the motion to move to push the project [the fairgrounds] forward, that very same morning, the Councilwoman made a promise to the Fifth District Coalition that she would give them two more weeks to bring their concerns together and have a conversation with them about it. So, that was just dishonest.
That's the number one thing that is happening with the current representation. The alderwoman is dishonest, and that's not fair. The same family, the same individual, is being funded by individuals who I'm not sure we need to be taking money from, like developers and certain college presidents. I believe that when you start taking funding from individuals or corporations, they want another investment in return. The return on the investment belongs to the people of the district, not those who have big dollars.
Do you have any advice for constituents that have concerns?
Definitely reach out. If they can't contact their district rep directly, try the alderperson at-large. I'm consistently hearing that the at-large representatives are being more transparent, listening, and advocating on the residents' behalf. I've seen it with my own eyes. They're very clear about making sure they can support as much as possible. The one disturbing thing is that they have been blocked from putting things on the agenda. So, I’d tell residents to make as much noise as they can.
Please speak more on why you feel like voters will be making a smart decision in voting for you.
I'll give you three great points. In my current role in higher education, I've worked with young adults for many years, and I believe in honesty. When you're working with students from different backgrounds, you need to listen for them to develop trust. I've demonstrated that for over 21 years. Seventy percent of my students stay in contact with me because I hold them accountable. I want people to understand that I'm not just shooting words. What I say is what I believe and what I will do.
The other part is being transparent. Transparency is the key to ensuring people stay tuned in and honest. I'm not here to tell you one thing and then go behind closed doors in an executive session and do nothing. That's just not how we do things. What you see in front of you is what I will advocate for behind you.
The third thing is advocacy. I have been an advocate in different spaces for many years. People have probably seen it on the campaign trail, and I've talked about having these small conversations at home. I've been out here and listening to residents. I have a resident who calls me every day—so I make sure that they feel heard and understood and keep in mind that I will always be their advocate, not just in election time, but 365 days.
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