Shannon Heath-Longino lives a life of community activism at East Lake
10 Min Read
Shannon Heath-Longino lives a life of community activism
Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour
Someday when she has time, Shannon Heath-Longino just might write that book.
She can tell about the time her grandmother rode in the back of a pickup truck, shouting into a bullhorn, ‘‘Y'all didn't kill me. I'm still here,” after her apartment was firebombed. About attending rallies in Washington, D.C., and watching her grandmother get arrested as she watched in a stroller. Or, the President and Congressmen her grandmother befriended during her quest to bring change to Atlanta.
Someday, Heath-Longino may find the time. When she is not advocating for affordable housing for low income families and women’s issues. Or speaking at national conventions. Or attending meetings for one of the three volunteer boards on which she serves. Someday, when she’s not being a wife, mother of three and bank vice president.
Maybe then Heath-Longino will have time to put pen to paper and tell the life story of her grandmother, Eva Davis, the dynamic Black woman living in one of Atlanta’s most distressed housing projects who came to partner with the city’s most powerful businessman, Tom Cousins, to transform East Lake Meadows into a mixed-income residential development that is a model for innovative urban planning nationwide.
Heath-Longino lived that life with Davis, the woman she calls Mama, the woman who raised her from the time she was two weeks old until she was a senior in high school. And with everything she does today, Heath-Longino honors the legacy of her grandmother, who died of ovarian cancer in 2012.
“She was a mom, not just to me and her family, but she was a mom to a community,” Heath-Longino said. “She was a mom to a movement of betterment.”
Each year, when the TOUR Championship is played at East Lake Golf Club, as it is this week, the story of that movement, the revitalization of what was once a neighborhood with sub-standard housing and plagued by drugs and crime, is showcased.
On Wednesday, prior to the start of the FedExCup Playoffs finale, PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan announced a $100 million commitment by the PGA TOUR to support racial equality and inclusion. Those efforts will be led by Marsha Oliver, the TOUR’s Vice President for Community & Inclusion.
“We are committed to using the TOUR’s platform to focus on the systemic issues that are affecting the communities in which we play,” Monahan said. “Not all communities have the same needs or the same issues that lead to racial inequities – that’s one reason change is so complicated – so we’re being intentional in each market to identify the root cause of the issue and partner with those who we believe can most authentically and effectively bring about change.
“One of the biggest ways you’ll see us working is to re-target our charitable giving to nonprofit organizations whose services directly address the inequities and disparities that affect African-American citizens as well as underrepresented and underserved populations in the communities where we play.”
East Lake serves as a shining example of how golf can enact change in a community.
Cousins, the Chair Emeritus of the East Lake Foundation, is proud of the work Davis started and Heath-Longino continues to do in her hometown.
“While we have continued to work together to recognize and celebrate her grandmother’s amazing legacy in East Lake,” he says, “Shannon has become a force for change in her own right as a staunch advocate for affordable housing for low income families and equitable opportunities for students in East Lake and across the city of Atlanta.”
Community activism was something Heath-Longino learned early in life.
As a toddler, she remembers boarding busses with Davis and various Atlanta civil rights leaders and going to Washington, D.C., to rally for women’s welfare rights. “And there were a couple times I got arrested in the stroller with her,” Heath-Longino says with a laugh.
As an 8-year-old, she was operating a tape recorder and writing the minutes as her grandmother presided over the East Lake Meadows Residents Association. She helped with the rent strikes Davis organized that persuaded the Atlanta Housing Authority to fund a day care center, sidewalks and better streetlights there. She went door-to-door and campaigned for the candidates Davis supported.
“She put me to work very early,” recalls Heath-Longino, whose family was the second of 650 to move into the housing project when it opened in 1971.
That number swelled to thousands when you consider how many people made up the families that lived in each apartment, and Davis made it a point to meet everyone. She organized building captains, who in those days before social media helped get the word out on tenant association meetings, food banks and other community activities.
“So, her networking system became crazy where she didn't have to leave the house to know what was going on, whether it was drugs being sold, prostitution, somebody getting killed, or the police,” Heath-Longino says. “The residents trusted her, where her phone rang nonstop because she made it, gave everyone her phone number, even on the flyers.”
Davis’ sphere of influence was wide and included President Jimmy Carter and the late Congressman John Lewis, among other politicians. Atlanta mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young and civil rights pioneer Hosea Williams – who used to let Heath-Longino distribute turkeys to the families of East Lake from the back of a U-Haul truck – were frequent guests in Davis’ home.
Community involvement became second nature to Heath-Longino after watching her grandmother.
“She taught me leadership, … taught me individuality because what she did and what we do in life isn't always popular. It's not always accepted. It's not always the cool thing,” Heath-Longino said. “As a child, she wanted to make sure I had the confidence to know that the more you try to do what's right sometimes that'll mean the lonelier you will be.”
When the time came for the dramatic reimagining and redevelopment of East Lake, not everyone in the project was happy, though. Davis’ apartment was firebombed by drug dealers twice in advance of tenants’ association meetings, and Heath-Longino found herself standing outside, scared and shivering in the cold night air, with her grandmother.
“I thought that would shut her up, but that ignited her, that put more firepower,” Heath-Longino says. “We, her kids, were like, ‘Mama, can't you just let it go?’
“But she called someone with a pickup truck and got a bullhorn from somewhere. She rode around the neighborhood and got on the bullhorn and she told them, ‘Y'all didn't kill me. I'm still here.’”
Heath-Longino, then in her early 20s and serving on the East Lake planning committee, saw similar resolve from her grandmother when communication broke down with Cousins’ team on the East Lake project. Davis didn’t think the tenants were being included in the decision-making process about floor plans and carpet or whether to have gas or less expensive electric utilities. So she filed an injunction that halted construction for about a month.
Finally, Cousins stepped in to resolve the impasse. One Sunday afternoon, he came to Davis’ house, bringing a bottle of wine and “prawns that looked like drumsticks,” Heath-Longino remembers. Davis asked her granddaughter to get Cousins a wine glass but said she’d make her own drink. She told Cousins he wouldn’t be able to handle it.
“He said, ‘Try me, Eva,’” Heath-Longino recalls. “And she said, ‘It's moonshine.’ And he said, ‘Well, I want the good stuff. I don't want this. I want the good stuff. That's the good stuff you got.’ And that's actually how the ice was broken, where they both laughed and got the drinks.
“They started talking about business, talked about life. He must have stayed with her about four hours that day. It was just the two of them and me running back and forth to make sure if they had everything.
“But I tell you that started a good friendship. And he kept up with her on a regular basis and that kind of mended things. He went back to his team and that moved everything forward, but that started a friendship, a lifelong friendship that the both of them kept until she passed.”
Heath-Longino, who served in the Army before graduating from Alameda College with a degree in sociology, calls Davis a visionary, a person before her time. But her granddaughter has taken Davis’ mission into the present at East Lake and beyond.
While Heath-Longino was bussed to schools in Buckhead from kindergarten until her senior year of high school, making a 30-mile trip that took two hours each way, her children, twin boys Caleb and Corbin and their sister Ckyla, are all alumni of the Drew Charter School not far from where she grew up. It’s one of the highest performing schools in the Atlanta area and Heath-Longino serves as Vice Chairman on the Board of Directors.
Three years ago, Heath-Longino partnered with the East Lake Foundation to start the Eva Davis Scholarship. To date, 27 Drew graduates have benefitted. Another source of pride was a six-year bureaucratic struggle to get the name of East Lake Boulevard SE changed to Eva Davis Way.
“If I didn’t do it – and she's buried not too far from East Lake -- she said every time I come down Candler Road, she’d jump out and scare ... me,” Davis’ granddaughter says, laughing.
A first vice president at Truist Bank, Heath-Longino works in the Affordable Housing Finance/Asset Management Division. She has worked in the industry for more than 25 years and continues to be a voice for those her grandmother served who didn’t have a place at the table.
“Every neighborhood has a story,” Heath-Longino explains. “And I want them to know our neighborhoods have stories. East Lake is my story. And East Lake is a big story, but there are other stories. And I just like people to take time to get to know the people in the story.
“I just want it to really touch people who read it for years to come, because it motivates people who are the underdog. It motivates people who are born in circumstances beyond their control. It motivates people to not allow people to put them in a box. It motivates people to be their own circumstances and to challenge their inner selves, to be beyond what society tells you that you can be.”
Heath-Longino has regularly been among the fans at the TOUR Championship and sometimes plays the golf course along with other members of the East Lake Women’s Alliance that she helped organize. It’s a far cry from peering at what once seemed like “forbidden fruit” through holes in the green mesh fence that used to circle the course and picking up errant golf balls that felt like gold.
There is more to the mission than golf, though.
“It’s a group of professional women who are decision-makers,” Heath-Longino says. “They can be at Coca-Cola. They can be at the Falcons. They come from diverse backgrounds, but to basically let people know that the impact of the PGA [TOUR] and the impact of volunteerism, the impact of us as human beings.
“No matter how well we do in life, there's someone who's always behind us who are in need. There's someone coming behind us that doesn't have the resources. And I was always taught you have to reach back and help those that are coming behind you because someone had reached back and helped me.”
Sounds like a good idea for a book.