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FAQ City: How To 'Compel' People To Interact With Those Different From Them?

Unity Ask Us Question

It’s time now to take one of your questions. A while back, one of our listeners submitted a question through our website asking if there was anything that could be done to compel Charlotte residents to interact with people different from them - something that could help the city counteract racial segregation that’s grown over the last decade.

This question came to us from a listener who wished to be anonymous, and over the last month or so, we’ve posed it to several Charlotteans, both community leaders and average residents.

Many of the people who we talked to took minor issue with the wording of the question - particularly with the word “compel.”

“I don’t know that there is very much that we can do to compel. That’s the key word, there. You cannot make people talk if they don’t want to,” says Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first African American mayor.

But for those who are motivated, Gantt says there are opportunities everywhere to meet and talk with different people. Just recently, several community organizations sponsored an ‘On The Table’ initiative, in which small groups of residents met up and discussed ways for Charlotte to become more inclusive. Gantt called that initiative “a good start.”

“That’s something that could become a tradition in our community, where people are asked to come and talk specifically about how we can get along better - not only along racial lines, but along economic lines also,” says Gantt.


Another idea, submitted by a listener, was to host neighborhood block parties featuring food and entertainment from ethnicities different from the neighborhoods’.

Armando Bellmas, who works with the McColl Center for Art and Innovation in uptown, offered this suggestion:

“One of the best ways to interact with somebody who’s different than you are is to just look around your neighborhood. Look around where you work.”

Bellmas says the McColl Center launched an initiative earlier this year specifically designed for its staff to get to know the center’s neighbors. Anytime Bellmas or his co-workers were walking to Seventh Street Station for lunch, or just stepping out for a cup of coffee.

“We stopped and would actually talk to people and ask them about them and tried to figure out a way to become a better neighbor to everybody in the neighborhood, whether they’re working at the doctor’s office down the street, they live in Fourth Ward, or they’re a homeless person who sleeps on our front steps at night,” says Bellmas.

He admits that at times it’s awkward, but other times it can lead to a new friend.

If finding strangers on the street isn’t your thing, consider joining a diverse social group. For Carol in Harrisburg, that’s a curling club with a range of ages and backgrounds.

“We don’t really talk politics. We don’t even really talk about what we do for a living. We just enjoy each other’s company without all the trappings of controversy,” says Carol.

That sentiment is shared by another listener, who says she likes to go dancing at a Latin club.

“I’m white, and white people dance in certain places, but at a Latin club, there’s white people, there’s Asian people, there’s black people, there’s Hispanic and Latino people, there’s old people, there’s young people, there’s gay people, there’s straight people. I have found the interaction at a Latin club to be so fun and refreshing,” she says.

One listener said Charlotte is self-segregated and that many white and middle class families can choose where to live and work. Simply put, the listener said, “White people need to leave their comfortable white spaces and engage with other communities.”

The CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry, Carol Hardison, says whenever her groups of friends are getting together, she’ll try to get them to do something outside of the so-called “wedge,” that’s the triangular-shaped area in south Charlotte known for its affluence.

“I have a responsibility to these people that I can influence to take them into areas, into cultures, into geographies that I know their life in the “wedge” doesn’t take them to,” says Hardison.

Some other ideas sent in from our listeners: find a diverse place of worship, take time to explore new neighborhoods, or look for volunteer opportunities.

People of different backgrounds mix every day at Charlotte Urban Ministry Center, which offers services and classes to homeless people. Its director, Dale Mullennix, says that’s broadened the perspectives of both those receiving services and those helping them.

“One gentleman who came down and volunteered said to me, ‘You know, I don’t read the newspaper the same way anymore. I don’t listen to politicians speeches the same way anymore. I don’t listen to the weather forecast anymore - the same way. Because I now know people who live a very different life from me, whether it’s - certainly - economically, but often times racially, socially. So that kind of interaction can’t help but broaden your perspective on the world.’”

In the end, most everyone we heard from agreed that it’s easy to get accustomed to our daily lives and the spaces we normally find ourselves inhabiting. But finding a way to intentionally spend time somewhere - anywhere - that’s not within our habits, is a great starting place.