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Once incarcerated, Tiawana Brown now takes a seat on Charlotte City Council

Tiawana Brown is sworn in
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Tiawana Brown
Tiawana Brown is sworn in as Charlotte City Council's representative for District 3 on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, alongside Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles (left) and Brown's mother.

Tiawana Brown was pregnant and in her 20s when she was imprisoned on felony fraud charges in the 1990s.

"I was scared, afraid, didn't know what to expect," she said.

Looking back, she said the experience was a defining moment in her life that eventually led her into local activism after her release, and later to run for and win a seat last month on the Charlotte City Council.

She joined WFAE's Nick de la Canal to talk about her experience in prison, and about her priorities going into her first term on the council, including her views on defunding the police, and what it means to move from a position of protest to a position of power.

Listen to their whole conversation below.

From prison to power
Tiawana Brown rose from being incarcerated for four years on federal fraud charges to a seat on Charlotte City Council. She talked about her life story and her political views with WFAE’s Nick de la Canal.
Tiawana Brown is sworn in

Nick de la Canal: Tiawana Brown was pregnant in her 20s when she was sent to federal prison in West Virginia on a felony fraud conviction in the 1990s.

Looking back, she says it was a defining moment in her life, one that eventually led her into local activism after her release, and then running and last month winning a seat on the Charlotte City Council serving District 3. She's the only new member on the Council this year. But back then, she says she mostly felt fear and uncertainty. And you actually gave birth while you were serving your sentence.

Tiawana Brown: I did. I gave birth to my daughter, Tijema Brown.

De la Canal: And I think that you were allowed to keep her for three months.

Brown: I was not initially going to keep her at all. I had contemplated terminating the pregnancy. I contemplated choosing parents to adopt her. So both of those were a thought process, and one that I thought out in detail. To terminate the pregnancy, I was too far gone in the pregnancy. And then I wanted to choose to put up her for adoption because I felt like it would have been too much on my single mother that was already raising me, my sister and my 2-year-old toddler, which is very important that people don't forget — that I had a 2-year-old toddler at home when I went to federal prison as well.

De la Canal: But you ultimately opted to keep your child, right?

Brown: Absolutely. I have her. I love her. She is a source of my strength. And I was able to keep her in the Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together program and so Tijema and I were able to be a part of that program.

De la Canal: What was that time like for you? And do you think that that moment changed anything for you?

Brown: That time was everything to me. To spend with that little beautiful bundle of joy, where I would count her toes and fingers every day, rub her hair, hold her up against my face, lay her on my chest and just love on her, because I knew that three months will go by in the blink of an eye.

De la Canal: Do you think giving birth while you were incarcerated gave you any kind of a new perspective?

Brown: Yes — that I don't think women should have babies in prison. That it is one of the worst things that you can ever do. And even though I was afforded the opportunity to go through MINT and that changed the trajectory of my incarceration, understand I had a smaller sentence for white-collar crime. But there are women that come in with decades, and they're pregnant, and they lose their children in the system.

De la Canal: You were convicted on felony fraud charges and served four years, and you referred to that as you being a product of your environment. What do you mean by that?

Brown: I mean that when you're in an environment that is like Southside Homes community, that's still standing there.

De la Canal: Which is where you grew up?

Brown: I was born and raised in Southside Homes. I lived there for 18 years. When I say ‘a product of my environment,’ I'm specifically thinking about communities that are marginalized and often underserved, impoverished and overlooked.

De la Canal: Since your release, you've done a lot of work in the community, including the foundation of your nonprofit Beauty After (the) Bars, which supports women and girls who've been incarcerated and also works to prevent them from being incarcerated. You've also been involved in local protests against police misconduct, including at a protest this year following the death of Tyre Nichols, who was a Black man killed by police in Memphis. I actually interviewed you in uptown at that protest. This was in January, and this is what you told me:

Brown (audio clip): "You continue to kill us, run us down, shoot us, raid our houses, do all that stuff to Black women and men — Black women and men. And so we have to do something different. What's going on is not working."

De la Canal: I reported that you held a sign that said defund the abusers. This was January. So you still see defunding the police department as a priority, or can you tell me what you think now?

Brown: So, I think that we have to look at exactly what I said. I want us to do a better job of reimagining what our police department can do and will do for the citizens that they're supposed to serve and protect. My job, as you know, is to uphold and make sure that they're accountable.

De la Canal: Yeah. And, I mean, what exactly does that look like? Would reducing funding for the police department be a part of that?

Brown: I would have to cross that bridge when we get to it.

De la Canal: You know, I think that there is sort of a difference between, you know, criticizing institutions from the outside versus from within. Now that you've got a seat at the dais, do you see your role or your approach in these conversations changing?

Brown: No, I mean I am who I am. I can't go in and be someone that I'm not, Nick. I got elected with everybody knowing who I am. I don't want people to think that I hate the police. If anybody in their right mind knows, that (Mecklenburg) Sheriff Garry McFadden and I are very close in a professional relationship. He has provided me and afforded me opportunities that no one else has done — for my program, to go in, to be the voice for the women, to march with me in marches like the ones that you talked about. So I want to be crystal clear on when we say what does it look like, or reimagining what our justice system should look like. I want people to understand that everybody has a job to do. And we all have to be accountable in our positions.

De la Canal: There's also been some debate recently over whether City Council should recriminalize some minor offenses like public drinking and urination, which police currently can't arrest people for. I'm curious if that's something that you would support?

Brown: Absolutely not. No — not arresting anybody for being homeless and urinating in public. We have to check mental health and see what people need, what their needs are. Let's talk about bigger crimes like the guns and how our community has suffered. So if I am going to dedicate my time to citing someone for urinating in the public, it's not going to happen.

De la Canal: So you're representing District 3, which includes, like, South End and most of west Charlotte. What do you think your district needs most at this point to thrive?

Brown: Collectively, the district have different needs. If you go to the 1500 block of West Boulevard, we need to look at workforce development. We need to look at safety. We need to look at how we can create an environment where we can get people off of the street corners. But when we offer to do that, what exactly are we offering them in place of standing on the street corners? When you come down to Steele Creek, there's a different need. We need to talk about how we can make Steele Creek more accessible, how we can move around and decongest Steele Creek. So different needs. My goal for everybody is racial equity, make sure that we have a Council that unites together for all people where we can move together in unity, make great, sound decisions that's going to move our city forward inclusive of all individuals that live in our city. That's why I'm here.

De la Canal: Tiwana Brown is the newly sworn-in representative for District 3 on the Charlotte City Council. Congratulations on your win, and thank you very much.

Brown: Thank you, Nick. Thank you so much.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal