When James Bailey walks into his office on the 7th floor of the historic Grant Building in downtown Atlanta, he doesn’t focus on the spread of artwork and photographs decorating his walls.
He walks past the vibrant paintings, created by some of Atlanta’s most renowned artists. He acknowledges, but doesn’t dwell on the dozens of photos of young men he’s impacted over the years. His eyes don’t stop on the photo of him sitting around a small table in the White House, having a conversation with President Barack Obama, or the snapshot of him standing side by side with President Bill Clinton. And his gaze won’t linger on the framed news articles and award plaques hung carefully around the office. That’s not his focus.
Bailey’s focus is on what’s ahead. Behind his desk is a wall of windows. And beyond those windows – is a perfect view down Auburn Avenue. For Bailey, it’s a picture of the future. A reminder of what was, and a promise of what can be again.
“This used to be a proud area – the heart of black economics in the south,” he says. “Business owners found their home here, the community found their pride. We owned this street.”
Most mornings, Bailey likes to walk to work, and his path often takes him along his beloved Auburn Avenue. But on the ground – the clear view from his window becomes much less pristine. Every day he walks the street, with each step, Bailey sees a picture of what he’s fighting.
Abandoned buildings, homelessness, loitering and crime, a far cry from the proud area of 50 years ago. “In a city with such a rich history, with so many resources, we must do more.”
For years, service has been the focus of Bailey’s life. But it wasn’t always that way. An early and successful career of sales, banking and real estate earned Bailey his first fortune at just 26 years old. But by the time he hit age 28 – he was broke. In one year, he had gone from a sparkling home in the suburbs, to sleeping on friends’ couches.
“If I wasn’t from Atlanta, I would have literally been homeless,” Bailey recalls.
But it was at one of his lowest points that Bailey received his most profound revelation. Sitting in his rented 9x9 storage unit (the space that doubled as his home on many nights), Bailey found himself flipping through old photo albums. As he went through, he noticed faces of kids sitting around his family dinner table and sharing holiday meals.
The photos awakened a memory within him that, for years, he had subconsciously tucked away: a memory of his mother. Millie Bailey passed away when James was a 19-year-old sophomore at UGA. But during her 48 years on earth, she opened her heart and gave her time to anyone she could – especially children.
A longtime employee for the Juvenile Justice system, Millie Bailey often took the children under her wing – inviting them into her home. Sharing in family holidays. Eating Sunday dinner. Giving them a chance to feel loved.
As he flipped through the album, Bailey realized the faces in those photos were the children his mother had helped – as a young boy, it was something he had witnessed everyday.
Inside that small storage unit, something clicked inside of Bailey. Serving others and impacting lives was literally in his DNA. He was ready to walk in his purpose, he no longer solely wanted to be successful; he wanted to be significant.
Fast forward to 2015. When Bailey left his position as Southeast CEO of Operation HOPE, he left a much different organization than he found. When he started in 2007, Bailey was the organization’s sole employee in the Southeast, working out of a sub-basement with a broken laptop. Eight years later, under his leadership, HOPE’s southeastern region had grown to 19 offices in six states.
But it was time to go deeper. Four months later, Phoenix Leadership Foundation was born.
The role of Phoenix Leadership Foundation is to develop and fund programs that provide positive role models for young people and create leaders.
In a world where murders, gangs and prison sentences dot the evening news, it may seem like an insurmountable task. But Bailey believes, it doesn’t take an act of Congress to make a difference; just a group of regular people willing to make a change.
“I call it a radical movement of common sense by common people,” he says. “Just people who are ready to get things done.”
The Foundation itself has become an example of just how powerful that network can be.
Within 48 hours of launching his website, Bailey raised more than $50,000 in donations, a number that would only continue to rise. By the end of December, Phoenix had reached more than 900 young men. And the resources were growing.
But in Bailey’s newest chapter, it’s not just about changing the narrative. It’s about owning it.
To the west of the Northside Drive, in the shadow of the soon-to-be Mercedes-Benz stadium lies a broken shell of a once vibrant community. Bailey knows the area well; he spends a significant amount of time in his Jeep, slowly driving through the streets of the westside, past the now-dilapidated buildings of Morris Brown College. He comes to rest on the top of a hill, in front of a once stately home – it’s clear that this was – is – something special.
“Alonzo Herndon is one of my greatest heroes,” Bailey says, standing in front of the home once owned by the famed entrepreneur and founder of Atlanta Life Insurance Company. “Look at this view – to imagine that a former slave was able to build a home like this, overlooking the city, in 1902!”
It’s only a small glimpse into Bailey’s passion to rebuild and reclaim an economic power base. Enter Greenwood Archer.
Greenwood represents Bailey’s return to real estate and business through private equity. Through his private equity firm, Bailey will focus on emerging domestic markets. In short: investing in underserved communities to rebuild, grow wealth and create jobs.
“If you come in, bulldoze all the dilapidated houses and build new, expensive homes, you don’t help that community, you destroy its soul. People have to become stakeholders – feel that they are part of rebuilding, create jobs in that area, give them a sense of pride and ownership. It’s all about dignity. That’s how you create stakeholders – that’s how you stabilize a community.”
Back in Bailey’s downtown office, between rows of pictures, black letters spell out the phrase “BUILD AS WE CLIMB.” For Bailey, it’s more than a personal statement. It’s the mantra by which he lives his life.
“Life is about relationships.”
For years, Bailey has built those relationships, tapping into his unique gift to draw people to him and truly learn their story.
He has leveraged those relationships to change lives. The photos, notes and words on Bailey’s office walls tell a story. They are a timeline, a track record of the communities he’s touched and the lives he’s changed.
But for Bailey, it’s not enough. He’s just warming up.
It looks like he will soon need a lot more space on his wall.