Eye to Eye

It’s 2015. Charlotte is booming. Our economy is more robust than it’s been in years, with new business and job growth reported every month. Talented people from diverse backgrounds and education want to locate here, and new businesses aligned with technology, research and new manufacturing practices are drawn to the city. Our prosperity is due, in part, to Charlotte’s budding reputation as an open, tolerant and trusting community. We are now widely recognized as a place where diversity is welcomed and everyone has access to opportunity. Much of this newly earned reputation stems from the vastly shifting status of people of color over the last decade.

This monumental shift in status began in 2006 when African American, Latino and other leaders of color banded together in response to their continued frustration with failed attempts to address inequities and discrimination in the selection of minority-owned businesses for public and private sector contracts in Charlotte. These leaders realized that if they joined forces, they could assume more overall economic and political power and have much greater success in effecting changes in hiring practices, as well as in other areas where disparities exist. This presented a united front to the established, mostly white power base, and created a unified source of political power within the communities of color.

Many whites viewed this newly-forged alliance and its ideas about increasing access, inclusion and equity as radical and disruptive. Tension and fear were mounting among whites, while people of color were feeling empowered. Recognizing and concerned about the growing polarity, white, African American, Latino and other leaders, mostly from the faith and business communities, came together to discuss mutual fears, concerns and issues. As time went on and common interests emerged, it became increasingly apparent to everyone involved that this movement toward shared power and equal access would, indeed, be good for Charlotte as a whole. And it has been.

We can already see the positive impact of the changing leadership, influence and power of people of color with our public education system. Leaders in the communities of color assert that education is the key to permanently lifting the disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and others who live in poverty out of their limiting circumstances. Therefore, as a unified front, these leaders have identified equity in public education as their top priority for influencing change. They have strategically joined hands with white advocates who also have been pushing this important agenda.

As a result, elected officials, with support from the business community, have committed the financial resources and other support needed to bring underperforming urban schools up to standard, relieve overcrowding in suburban schools, reduce attrition of experienced teachers and provide equal access to quality pre-school and after-school programs. Now all students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg have equal access to a quality education. And to increase access to higher education and advanced technology training in the community, the alliance and Johnson C. Smith University have spearheaded a collaborative effort with CMS, UNC Charlotte, Queens University of Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College to provide internships and other learning opportunities for students from elementary through high school.

The shift in the status of people of color has also resulted in change on the community revitalization front. Many of Charlotte’s once vulnerable inner and middle ring neighborhoods are now stable because an increasing number of middle and upper class African Americans, Latinos and Asians have chosen to live and invest in racially identifiable neighborhoods where they feel more at home. Their personal and financial commitment to these areas has been a catalyst for new business and housing development, which, in turn, has been a boost for the entire community.

While many people of color prefer to live in an ethnically homogenous neighborhood, others are moving into and investing in the integrated mixed-use/mixed-income neighborhoods that are developing along transit corridors such as South Boulevard where light rail currently operates. Young adults, including whites and people of color, who no longer emphasize racial and ethnic labels as a way to identify themselves, are moving into these “gray” transitional zones that exist between the established white neighborhoods and the evolving, strong ethnic communities. These young adults are successfully building bridges between the two worlds.

In Eye to Eye, the banding together of people of color to assume more power and to work collectively to increase access, inclusion and equity in Charlotte has helped to peel away yet another layer of institutionalized racism and to build understanding and trust where it did not exist before. Indeed, Charlotte is better off for this. And yes, more work needs to be done. But at least now, we have the processes and tools in place to help us navigate our way through this unfamiliar territory where people of color and whites are equal partners in making decisions. At last, we in Charlotte truly are meeting one another eye---to---eye.

What kind of community do you see?