Two-thirds of the employees at Atlanta, BeltLine, Inc. are women, many of whom hold executive and senior leadership roles. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting some of the powerhouse women behind the scenes of the Atlanta BeltLine project.
Nonet Sykes comes from a long line of powerful women. Her great-grandmother instilled in her a deep sense of faith and community over the summers spent at the family home in North Carolina. Her independent grandmother, at 97, continues to ground her during their weekly calls. Sykes attributes her unwavering sense of determination to her mother, a cancer survivor now battling Alzheimer’s. Like all change agents, Sykes is driven by a passion and purpose that surpasses her—to see increased access and opportunity for marginalized communities to achieve their highest success—and since 2018, she has focused that quiet fire on her work at the Atlanta BeltLine.
As Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI)’s first Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer, Sykes is tasked with operationalizing equity and inclusion policies and strategies into all facets of the BeltLine project. This includes employment and economic opportunity, housing affordability, community engagement, and cultural preservation. Applying a data-driven approach and an organizational change methodology that evaluates both internal and external practices, she has already laid a solid foundation to help better inform ABI’s equity and inclusion strategy.
“I love that my work is so comprehensive because I’m trying to help ABI be the best it can be,” shared the Baltimore native. “I want to see the BeltLine grow in a way that is thoughtful, strategic and intentional—that is designed to meet the needs of the community without displacing them.”
Straight-talking and self-reflective, firm but fair as her children might say, Sykes is always thinking strategically about how to build up, improve, and empower. If a vocation in equity and inclusion was not intended by design, it was certainly a natural progression in her 20+ year career that has spanned the sectors of systems reform, housing and community development, strategic philanthropy and grantmaking, nonprofit effectiveness, and organizational culture and change leadership.
“I didn’t recognize that I had a passion for it, but I always found myself in these spaces where I was continually challenging the status quo, improving access and opportunity for historically marginalized communities, and working to create sustainable change.”
Prior to joining ABI, she served as Director of Race, Equity, and Inclusion at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Her work was instrumental in helping to move the field of philanthropy to focus on racial equity and inclusion within their own institutions and created a mechanism to measure the wellbeing of children of color in the United States.
“My focus has been racial equity, because, unfortunately, race is the leading barrier to success in this country, and if we could solve the racial inequity, then we can solve all the other inequities that exist in this country.”
Fully aware of the opportunities and challenges of fulfilling the vision and promises of the Atlanta BeltLine in the next ten years, Sykes is committed to lending her strengths to realize a BeltLine that is truly built for all.
“I will keep pushing, moving things behind the scenes. In addition to targeting strategies and investments to the most vulnerable, success looks like communities being able to take full advantage and ownership of the Atlanta BeltLine as something that is theirs to enjoy. It looks like a BeltLine that is designed to meet the needs of the community, attract new investment and people, without displacing anyone who wants to be there.”