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Courageous Acts of Unity: Atlanta Community Food Bank Founder, Bill Bolling

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

Courageous Acts of Unity (CAU) is a series of interviews exploring how resiliency, wellness, and spirituality foster trust and peace across different groups. Prompted to be introspective and reflect on their lives, our guests pull from their lived experiences to offer anecdotes and lessons learned to help us answer questions surrounding organizational leadership, authentic living, and ideal norms and standards that can guide us into a unified future. To launch this series of inspirational stories, we feature Bill Bolling, Founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB). He built one of the largest Food Banks in North America through his calling to include others from different religions, beliefs, incomes, sexual orientations, races, classes, and geography.

Bolling and his team opened the first food bank in 1979, one of the first in the country. Within the ACFB, they created a volunteer program that engaged, educated, and empowered those who chose to donate their time. They facilitated win-win partnerships with farmers, producers, wholesalers, retailers, and the hospitality community. Bolling served as ACFB’sExecutive Director from its inception until 2015 and was instrumental in helping start other food banks across Georgia, the US, and globally. Bolling offers us valuable insights on staying faithful to our calling for the long haul.

Connecting faith, service, and diversity

Diversity was a great asset in every aspect of his work. When he and his wife created an interfaith community in downtown Atlanta, they wanted to serve others and celebrate religious ideals from each tradition. They invited Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and spiritual seekers to their community, where everyone lived, ate, worked, and worshiped together.

From that experience, he found the best way to bring about change was to create programs and environments that built trust and focused on what people have in common vs. what divides us. He quickly learned that food was an excellent tool for community building. One of the first initiatives ACFB created was the Atlanta Hunger Walk. It was a perfect vehicle to invite people from all ages, races, and religions to put aside their differences and come together around a common call – to feed the hungry.

Bill also came to understand that needs and issues were inevitably connected. Access to healthy food is essential in creating better health, educational, and environmental outcomes. This is why ACFB also addressed affordable housing, urban agriculture, job readiness, food as health, support of educational efforts, and the distribution of many different commodities beyond food.

The value of criticism

People often asked Bolling why they added inclusive programs inside a food bank. Wasn’t he concerned about straying from their mission? This is where a mission statement is of utmost importance. ACFB’s mission – “to engage, educate, and empower the community to fight hunger” - was intentionally broad, inclusive, and inviting.

The call was to unify and work together around a common cause, so it was necessary to build a big tent where everyone felt safe and welcome and where it takes everyone working together to succeed.

Skeptics and critics are essential because they cause us to continue to reflect, learn from our experiences, and work from our strengths.

Lessons for leaders

The most significant way for communities to unite around a cause today is to:

  • Focus on what we all have in common.

  • Create win-win partnerships.

  • Listen to potential partners to understand their needs.

  • Identify the constituency of people and organizations that want you to succeed and invite them to the table to participate.

  • Celebrate success.

  • Create ways to work together physically.

  • And to always give others credit. The biggest lesson Bolling has for emerging leaders is to be a good listener. Listen to those you want to serve and those who want to help. From there, you can:

  • Learn the language and needs of businesses, government, non-profits, civic organizations, and individuals.

  • Focus on what creates unity vs. division.

  • Create and nurture a supportive and diverse community around your efforts.

  • Measure yourself by how faithful you are to your calling vs. the output of your efforts.

  • Create an environment that is safe and respects and celebrates differences.

  • Create a unifying theme that connects all aspects of your life and work.

  • And learn to sustain and stay strong through challenging times. This requires one to do interior work to know what inspires and sustains their efforts.

If Bolling could talk to his younger self, he would say that to sustain your ideals over a lifetime, you need to stay strong in your body, heart, and soul. For one’s calling to serve can only be sustained by the community one surrounds themselves with. And to be in it for the long haul, one must stay faithful to their deepest calling.

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