Owning My Blue and Green—My First Year as PAACT’s Director

By Shawnell Johnson  

It was early September and the PAACT Donor Appreciation Reception at the Buckhead Club was milling with 50 guests chatting and laughing over cocktails. I knew every last happy person in the room, including Atlanta Mayor, Andre Dickens, because I had spent my previous nine months as Director of PAACT: Promise All Atlanta Children Thrive very intentionally getting to know them.  

I was wearing one of my favorite PAACT-green dresses. (My wardrobe, which usually skews pink, has grown by several blue and green items in the past year and I always wear our colors to PAACT events. Green is also a color of my Fisk University sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., AKA, which means this shade carries double-meaning, and twice the strength, for me.)  

And my super-supportive husband, who rarely has the opportunity to see me in my professional world, was here to cheer me on.  

And yet, I was nervous. This reception was momentous and, even though PAACT is a city-wide alliance, as director I felt like its success hinged upon me.  

But here’s the thing—the success? It had already happened! And in a big way.  

The event was a celebration and appreciation of all the donors who had participated in the Mayor’s PAACT Commitment, an historic, $20 million investment in early education. Mayor Dickens, fueled by advocacy, research, and planning by my predecessor, Brittany Collins, committed the first $5 million. It was swiftly followed by $5 million from Atlanta Public Schools and $10 million raised from private, philanthropic, and corporate donors. All those funds were raised by and from these dedicated people in only one year.  

And wouldn’t you know that fateful year had just begun when I stepped into Brittany’s shoes as PAACT Director on December 1st, 2022. It was all a little intimidating! But I repeated to myself, like a mantra, some advice I’d received from another non-profit leader. She said, “The core of this work is relationship-building. You’re an extrovert. You know how to talk to people and explain the challenges the community is facing.”  

She was right. One of the most important ways to serve PAACT’s community of child care providers is by earning their trust. Counterintuitively, it’s not enough to inform Atlantans about PAACT opportunities like our Repair & Renovation grants, child care scholarships for APS employees, and teacher training/retention incentives. We have to show them that they’ll have our support, our expertise, and our cheerleading—not just our money—as they commit to the daunting process of writing a grant, renovating a facility, or adopting a new program for their staff.   

I realized what’s possible when you build such trust when I asked a longtime PAACT partner, Gail White, director of Northwest Youth Power @ Magnolia to participate in Literacy and Justice for All. A promising early literacy professional development program, LJFA is also a big effort and commitment for time-strapped teachers. While some child care providers we approached required more convincing, Ms. White jumped at the opportunity.  

That’s when I realized that Ms. White was, in fact, already a PAACT superstar. She’s applied for and received one of our facility improvement grants. She’s also been a Preschool to Third Grade (P-3) Leaders Fellow and an Atlanta Early Education Ambassador. She even has students who are recipients of the PAACT Scholarship, powered by Quality Care for Children’s Boost. 

It was her enduring relationship with PAACT that made Ms. White trust us enough to commit to everything we have to offer—and spread the word about PAACT opportunities. This “a-ha” moment showed me that I’ve been right to trust my instinct to prioritize such relationship-building. 

My first year at PAACT, you could say I’ve been building the plane while flying it—cultivating these relationships with the PAACT funders, advisers, child care providers, and more, even as I’ve launched into implementation—along with our invaluable implementation partners—of the three major programs that comprise the Mayor’s PAACT Commitment.

So, maybe that’s why I got those jitters at the PAACT Donor Appreciation event. This was my first chance to pause, take a breath, and truly absorb the importance of this moment and the power of PAACT. It was the first moment I felt truly comfortable in my director’s shoes. My predecessor, Brittany, who is now herself a PAACT donor through her new role as Executive Director at the Betty and Davis Fitzgerald Foundation, seemed to agree that I should. Wearing a PAACT-blue blouse, she gave me a big hug and a firm nod that said, you’ve got this.  

I do. My career has taken me from teaching in preschool classrooms to directing program administration for Childcare and Parent Services at the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning to PAACT, where I now get to join my GEEARS colleagues in advocating, lifting community voices, and truly making an impact. I feel like this is where I’m meant to be, continuing to expand PAACT’s reach for families, fundraising (always fundraising) and building the partnerships that make our alliance an invaluable asset to the Atlanta community.  

Shawnell Johnson is Director of PAACT: Promise All Atlanta Children Thrive