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Charlotte Area News

City's Black Leadership Ponders How To Build Inclusivity

Charlotte is in a historic moment. Most of the city's top leaders are African American. The question is how they'll shape the city as it responds to economic inequality, crime and growth. WFAE tackled that question Wednesday night in a public conversation titled "Building an Inclusive City."

On the panel at the McGlohon Theater uptown were Mayor Vi Lyles, the first African American woman to hold the job; City Manager Marcus Jones; Police chief Kerr Putney; and district attorney Spencer Merriweather. Co-host Mike Collins asked if they had thought about how being African American leaders affect their work.

“Yes, it does shape my thinking,” Lyles said. “But it's not just my thinking as a black woman. It's my thinking about what do we want our future to be. And you said it, an inclusive community. I believe that inclusive communities can only be shaped when you know your history and deal with it up front and forthrightly.”

Collins asked Putney if being African American gave him some special lens into the community.

“I don't know that it really gives me a special lens. But I think there is some additional pressure. I think there's some additional expectations,” Putney said.  

Being an African American in a leadership role is something Merriweather said he thinks about every day. He says he feels a responsibility to make sure all people are heard.  

“I come from a history and a perspective of people who have been cut off and have not had influence and have felt disempowered,” Merriweather said. “And so I know that given this opportunity I have a responsibility to empower people, not just black people.”

That theme of responsibilities that come with black leadership ran throughout the hour-long conversation. Co-host Glenn Burkins of QCityMetro.com wanted to know if there were challenges, too.

Jones said he felt welcome when he moved his family to Charlotte a year ago to take the job of city manager.  He noted that the audience at the McGlohon Theatre was diverse and said there's a feeling of inclusion in the city. But he warned that many don't feel it, especially as Charlotte grows.

“We have to remember that there are 850,000 folks that call Charlotte home. And there needs to be opportunity for everyone,” Jones said.

"Yes, you can have all these folks up here in appointed or elected political positions, but to me inclusivity means that when you look at the business community, you see people of color, you see women on boards, you see people in a position of being able to have jobs and influence jobs," Mayor Vi Lyles said.

BUT HOW TO  MAKE IT HAPPEN

The question is how to make that happen. Lyles and Putney both said that responsibility extends across the city - not just on the shoulders of a few black leaders in the halls of power.

“Yes, you can have all these folks up here in appointed or elected political positions, but to me inclusivity means that when you look at the business community, you see people of color, you see women on boards, you see people in a position of being able to have jobs and influence jobs,” Lyles said. 

Added Putney: “To say you're going to lay it at the leadership's feet, who happen to be black, African American, I think is short-sighted. What I think we should be talking about is not just government, but what are businesses going to do? What are you going to do to share the access that you have around social capital, so people can have that inclusivity, they can have that opportunity?” 

Putney said some business have stepped up - to help fund summer youth employment programs. But he wants to see those expand.

JOBS, OPPORTUNITY AND AFFORDABLE HOUSING

The four leaders agreed that jobs and economic opportunity are certainly part of the equation. But there's plenty more. Merriweather pledged to eliminate fees for a diversion program in his office to keep people out of jail. And he talked about another to help felons clear their records - so they can more easily find jobs and housing.

Lyles said the city needs to do more to make sure existing affordable housing isn't lost to renovation or development. And the city must do more to develop new affordable units. She said the city missed an opportunity when planning the Blue Line light rail:

“We didn't do enough to make sure that the apartments along (the line) included enough affordable housing,” she said, drawing applause.

Lyles said people can help by voting - as they have every two years - for more money for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which goes to build or renovate affordable units.

Jones said many people see this moment in Charlotte’s history as a chance for positive change.

“It's amazing when I go into the community, and I speak with members of the faith-based community, the business community, the philanthropic community. They all say, 'Marcus, you know, there's something special that's happening right now in Charlotte,’" he said.

Merriweather said the broader community also has a responsibility.

“There have been communities across this country where you have seen African American leadership in place, and you have seen other communities run the other way,” he said. “And it is incumbent upon everybody in our community to make sure that people are willing to collaborate with the people who are in leadership positions here.”

QUESTIONS FOR THE PANEL

The program was followed by 30 minutes of audience questions and comments. They included complaints about police harassment, ways to eliminate fear among immigrants and those here illegally, and a plea for improved mental health services. Charlotte resident David Butler asked Jones how the city can build diversity and inclusivity in decision making about solving the city's problems.  

“So what things are you guys are doing within your departments specifically to make sure that we have a diverse way of thinking about solving these issues instead of thinking about them from a regular system perspective,” Butler said.

Jones replied the city has begun changing the way it does things. Instead of listening to residents' complaints about city services at city council meetings, department leaders have started going into the community to gather feedback.

WFAE's public conversation "Building an Inclusive City" will air again on Charlotte Talks next Tuesday morning at 9.

Listen to the full conversation online here