A Private Club Reopens to Address a Public Crisis
At the Gathering Spot, Ryan Wilson is brokering some of Atlanta’s most important conversations between activists, politicians, business leaders, and celebrities. Here’s what he thinks needs to happen next.
As nationwide protests against the killing of black Americans by police continue, Inc. has asked black business leaders in or near hot zones to tell us what they are experiencing.
In 2016, Ryan Wilson and T.K. Petersen founded the Gathering Spot, a private membership club created to build community between Atlanta’s black small-business owners, corporate executives, and celebrities. Wilson, the CEO, closed the club on March 16 because of Covid-19. After George Floyd’s death in late May, he decided to reopen, and his club quickly became one of Atlanta’s hot spots for activists, politicians, business leaders, and cultural icons to connect. Below, Wilson describes his rationale for reopening–and where he thinks those conversations need to go next. –As told to Cameron Albert-Deitch
The idea for the Gathering Spot actually came to me in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
I was working for a law firm here in Atlanta, and some friends I’d done some organizing work within D.C. sent me an email. It said: “What are we going to do next?” I responded with the outline of the Gathering Spot. We’ve always said–and this is really important to me–that the business is centered on the community here.
When Covid-19 struck, we made the decision to close the club. Overnight, our event business went to nothing. Our restaurant business went to nothing. It was really down to the membership, and we poured ourselves into trying to produce content that would keep the community together, informed, and encouraged to make it through to the other side of that crisis.
It’s difficult to be the Gathering Spot and not be able to gather in person.
By law down here, we could have reopened on April 27, per the governor’s orders. We made the decision not to do that, because we didn’t believe it was safe to do so. Black folks in particular are disproportionally affected by the virus–at the time, 80 percent of hospitalizations in Atlanta were black folks.
We reopened on May 27, two days after George Floyd’s murder. We brought in technology to make sure that nobody’s displaying any symptoms, that we have the right sanitation procedures and capabilities. We removed furniture from the club to make sure everything’s spaced. There’s something to being able to gather, even in a limited basis, especially in crisis.
This is what we were built for.
We made the announcement on Wednesday that any organizer in the city who needs space to organize–club member or not–can utilize the club to do so. This week, activists on the frontlines met here with T.I., Usher, Chaka Zulu, who manages Ludacris, politicians, leaders in the tech space like Jewel Burks Solomon and Barry Givens, and influencers like Isaac Hayes. We’re being really intentional about making sure this space is being used for leaders to meet, connect with one another, and ultimately strategize about what’s next: community, advocacy, and bringing people together.
It’s the same thing we’ve been doing for years. It feels different now. There’s a sadness that exists in Atlanta in a real way–it’s the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and has always been called to lead when there are issues of civil rights abuses. It sounds dramatic, but truly, I think that we’re in a defining moment in our city and our country’s history. Talking to one another, figuring out where there’s common ground, figuring out where there can be reconciliation, is necessary.
From a long-term perspective, shifts in economic power are necessary. If you build economic power, you can then build political power. You build political power, you can build power to influence media and education.
We’ve got to invest specifically in black-owned businesses. Specifically. Ninety-six percent of black-owned businesses don’t have a single employee, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, in a crisis where 40 million people are unemployed. Many black businesses are not coming back at all. To avoid that kind of apocalypse, direct capital has to be injected–government or otherwise–into those communities.
Black folks have to have a seat in the political process and the economic conversation that we currently do not have.
We will be okay. We’ve got to stay optimistic. At the end of the day, we will figure this out together. We just have to continue to put one foot in front of the other.