“If you dig deep enough, you’re going find something, and I’m one who likes to get into the trenches and see what the possibilities are.”
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Shelena Hawkins was born in the big city of Miami and grew up in small-town Georgia—Woodbine in Camden County. Woodbine, in the southeastern part of the state, has a population of about 1,400 people. “I always tell people Woodbine is an indication of what you will see when you go that route on the southeast coast—plenty of woods,“ says Hawkins.
From the time she was a little girl, she’s had a love of words and writing, especially poetry. And then there’s music. She sings with the praise team at Cathedral of Faith Church of God in Dalton and is known to break into song at home, sometimes with her family. “It’s ministry; it’s healing,” she explains. “And just to be able to connect with my kids in that aspect. It’s kept me young, I hope.”
Hawkins graduated from Camden County High School and went to college in Talladega, Alabama. Being a small town girl, though, she became homesick and wanted to go back to Woodbine. Her mother, who instilled in her “a spirit of excellence,” gave her three in-state options for college. Hawkins, still craving independence, chose the school farthest from home: Albany State University. She graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor’s degree in Science and Biology but wasn’t clear about her career path. “I sort of had a love for science, but not certain as to what I really wanted to do. I didn’t want to work in a lab; I didn’t want to become a doctor.”
She married—her husband has been a police officer for 20-plus years—became a homemaker, and raised four kids. “As my kids started getting older I was like, ‘Okay, time is ticking. What am I going to do with my life?’” Hawkins went back to school at Albany State in 2003 and earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration. She still hadn’t quite figured out a career path but did know she wanted to help people. A series of internships led her to job opportunities, which led her to become director of the Department of Community and Economic Development for the City of Albany. Her job mostly involves administering and providing oversight for the city’s nearly 34,000 housing properties.
Albany’s housing stock is aging. Most of the occupants are of low or moderate income, and some are disabled. “Their ability to be able to make improvements to their homes can become a challenge.” Federal funds help; the city can use the money to replace roofs and HVAC systems and remove lead-based paint. As part of the federal funding, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) wants to know the state of Albany’s housing. Was it rehabilitated using federal or state resources? Are there sidewalks near the house? Traffic lights? What is the sewage capacity? The need for this type of information sparked an idea in Hawkins: a database which shows the condition of Albany’s housing inventory. She and other city and county officials, along with Omar Asensio, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, are developing a data analytic and visualization tool to assist the city to more effectively manage its housing inventory. The project is part of the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge, a first-of-its-kind opportunity for communities of any size in Georgia to receive funding and support that enables them to envision, explore, and plan for their “smart” future.
Hawkins is hopeful about Albany’s future; downtown is thriving, and the city’s schools are improving. “What’s great about Albany is the opportunity, what I call hidden treasures and jewels. If you dig deep enough, you’re going find something, and I’m one who likes to get into the trenches and see what the possibilities are.”
Georgia Tech Connection
Omar Isaac Asensio is an Assistant Professor and Class of 1969 Teaching Fellow in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech. His research focuses on big data and behavior in policy studies. He conducts field experiments and uses statistical and computational tools to analyze the effects of policy interventions at regional and global scales. His research has been published in general interest journals such as Nature Energy and PNAS.