The Most Powerful Voices Of 2020
The year 2020 will be one to remember. As we close this chapter for good, WFAE wanted to highlight a few of the many powerful voices we have heard from our community this year.
Kaden Knight, 18, and Cameron Parker, 19, were recent graduates of Charlotte's Myers Park High School when they led hundreds of Charlotteans protesting against police brutality back in June. The two teens organized marches that started in Freedom Park and traveled through the Myers Park neighborhood, and another through Myers Park and South Park.
Knight and Parker chose the neighborhoods because they are both affluent and predominantly white communities.
"We know we have to bring a peaceful confrontation to the people that don't generally hear us. We need to get that dialogue started," Knight said.
They spoke to WFAE's Claire Donnelly, and Knight said, "My great-grandfather was angry. My grandfather... my father... and now I'm angry. And I'm tired of it. I don't want my kids to grow up to be angry. We can't fight anger or violence with violence. We've gotta fight it with love and peace."
Greg Jackson is the co-founder of Heal Charlotte, an organization that aims to create an open dialogue between citizens, police, and elected officials. Jackson spoke to Lisa Worf earlier this year regarding the needs of his community since the pandemic.
He told Worf: "I wouldn't say that the needs have actually changed. They just have been magnified, and they're urgent needs. If someone was struggling with a job before the pandemic and they're now laid off, you can imagine just what's going on inside of the house right now."
Jackson and his team created a large group chat to keep up with the students' part of the community and Heal Charlotte, to assist them with school and provide hot meals. Additionally, Heal Charlotte provides rental assistance through their Heal A Home program.
Si Kahn is a world-renowned folk musician, community organizer, and civil rights activist. His song "Aragon Mill" is a labor anthem.
He spoke with Joni Deutsch for the Amplifier podcast about how his family inspired him to become a social activist and spoke about his experiences as a volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
He told Deutsch, "It's ironic to look back at 1965 from the perspective of 2020. It's really a case of how much has changed and how much has not changed with the killings of African American men and women by police and right-wing nationalists. It definitely brings me back emotionally to the stark racism and the dominance of the Klan and rural areas of the South that I found in 1965."
Gabriel Schuhl received a lot of attention after asking hard-hitting questions during an emergency Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting at the start of the pandemic, and continued to ask pointed questions and provide thoughtful observations at meetings throughout the year. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council selected Schuhl to serve as the board's student adviser.
During the March 16 meeting, he asked questions about what the online learning platform looks like, how participation will be tracked, what will happen to students' grades, and how a move to remote learning would affect AP exams.
The online audience loved him, and throughout the meeting commented, "I love this kid! Best questioner in the room"… "the only voice of reason"… "give the mic back to the kid."
The high school student said he did plenty of research before entering the meeting and was concerned about transparency and equity amongst his peers.
Health Care Workers
For nearly a year, health care workers have worked tirelessly for their patients and residents in their facilities in the face of a pandemic unlike anything we've seen before. There have been long hours, unfathomable demands and work in the face of a deadly virus that still has so many unknowns.
Aaron Hopping is one example who told his story to WFAE. Hopping has been working as a paramedic for 20 years. He now enters the homes of COVID-19 patients through the Atrium Health Hospital at Home program.
He told Sarah Delia for a Social Distancing segment that even though he is knowingly going to a home of a COVID-19 patient, he knows what he needs to do to stay safe and protect himself. "They know that they have COVID, and they are doing what they need to do to protect me from them," he said. "Versus say being out in public somewhere and it's a game of 'who knows,' you don't know if anybody is sick. There are plenty of people who don't see a need to take precautions for others."
As North Carolina's Health Secretary, Dr. Mandy Cohen has had her hands full working to improve the health and safety of North Carolinians while keeping citizens informed with updates regarding the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines, and distribution plans.
As new cases of the virus continue to rise, Cohen has expressed concerns for our state and recently said an eye-opening fact.
"Sadly, more than 5,000 North Carolinians have lost their lives from this virus since our first death March 12 of this year," she said. "To give some perspective, just under 1,500 people died from the flu in the past 10 years. In just 11 months, COVID has killed more than three times that number."
Cohen was appointed as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services in January 2017.
Banu Valladares is the executive director at Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, which prepares Spanish-speaking children for school and provides a dual-language education.
Valladares expressed concern about her students falling behind their peers from virtual learning due to language barriers, internet access, and many children's parents being essential workers.
Valladares told WFAE's Laura Brache, "You know, you walk our hallways, and you see 72 to 144 children learning. What would they have been doing if they were not here? They would have been isolated at home, fearful, whatever. Here, they are focused and learning."
It wasn't easy for the students to return to their preschool. Charlotte Bilingual Preschool was funded by my Meck Pre-K.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, CMS was entirely online, so Charlotte Bilingual lost its classroom for the school year. In September, the preschool announced a partnership with Thompson Child & Family Focus. This will allow the preschool to return to in-person operations by leasing classrooms.
Charlotte Uprising isn't a person, but three of the activist group's members — Jamie Marsicano, Ash Williams, Glo Merriweather — were at the forefront of news during summer protests against police brutality in uptown Charlotte.
While their stance against law enforcement has often been seen as controversial, their voices influenced many who attended the protests and helped form Jail Support, a group of volunteers who raise money to provide resources to help those leaving the Mecklenburg County Jail.
Kristie Puckett-Williams is a local activist and North Carolina manager for the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice. She organized protests on the prison system to release inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and pressured police to scale back arrests during the coronavirus pandemic.
She's an advocate for police reform and creating transparency from the criminal justice system and minority communities.
"We have to start embracing people because they are members of our community when we do things to enhance people's humanity," Puckett-Williams said.
Justin LaFrancois is the publisher of Queen City Nerve who gained a large following during the summer protests for racial equality while livestreaming each night's protest for his publication's audience.
LaFrancois captured Charlotte-Mecklenburg police's actions on June 2 through a Facebook Live streaming video, when officers fired tear gas and pepper balls at protesters from both ends of a city block.
"It had been a peaceful march – but we were met with tear gas and police in riot gear," he said. "As we were marching up 4th Street, CMPD officers trapped us before pelting us with tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bang grenades. With no way out, people were panicking, trying to get away from the tear gas and explosions. It was terrifying."
Braxton Winston was elected to Charlotte City Council in 2017 after he was a prominent voice during the 2016 protests for Keith Lamont Scott. Winston continued to be a prominent voice for protesters in 2020.
He was arrested May 29 after the first protests against systemic racism took place in Charlotte. Then, in response to the June 2 protest where CMPD fired tear gas and flash-bang grenades at protesters, Winston asked his colleagues on city council to stop CMPD from buying more tear gas.
"No chemical weapons should be used on a human being by another human being anywhere in this world. That definitely includes the streets of Charlotte," Winston said during a Facebook video.
As Mecklenburg County's Public Health Director, Gibbie Harris manages public health and environmental health activities and provides vision and directions for all public health activity in the county.
And that means she's had a huge job in 2020.
She's had to guide the county and Charlotte through the coronavirus pandemic, taking the lead when issuing the area's stay-at-home order in March and even an order of abatement to close a Charlotte church that continued to hold events after a COVID-19 outbreak in October.
She's been the go-to voice of authority for the coronavirus in Charlotte.
“We train for, expect and plan for situations like this in public health all the time. Part of our role is to be ready to respond,” Harris told WFAE's Claire Donnelly in April. “I don’t know that I anticipated in my career responding to a pandemic.”