20 years later, Charlotte’s better equipped to tackle racial challenges

BY CLAUDE ALEXANDER AND AND EMILY ZIMMERN
Special to the Observer

In December 1997 we joined more than 600 other residents from across Charlotte at the “Something Has Begun” Conference organized by the new Community Building Task Force. Government, business and nonprofit representatives came together to confront longstanding problems in response to a series of police-involved shootings of unarmed African Americans that threatened to tear the community apart along racial lines.

Conversations were intense and cathartic. From this community crisis came strengthened commitment among individuals and organizations to address issues of access, inclusion and equity, and a desire to increase individual and collective capacity to do this difficult work. We knew that working on these challenges, shaped by our almost 400-year history of slavery and racial segregation, would not be easy. Real change would require sustained effort that is broad and deep.

Today we experience echoes of 1997, but the context has changed. Charlotte in 2017 is a very different city. It is larger and more diverse. Newcomers are altering the dynamics of the historically white and black racial landscape. Thirteen percent of the population is Latino. One in eight residents was born outside the U.S. Shifting demographics are reshaping community decision making.

We have much to face despite a booming economy – HB2 and the impact of the protests and riots that followed the officer-involved shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, inexperience at immigrant integration and being ranked 50th out of 50 in economic and social mobility. Yet we believe we are able to face these challenges differently than in the past and likely with better results.

More diverse voices at the table make us a stronger community. Organizations, like the Community Building Initiative, have improved our capacity to acknowledge and address legacies of our painful history and the differences that we confront in our increasingly diverse and changing city.

Since 1997 we have developed language and skills for working to be a more inclusive community. Now individuals and organizations are devoting equal energy to addressing growing inequities that affect our collective future. Twenty years ago we lacked a shared understanding of how to define an equitable community as well as a willingness to confront our personal and professional responsibility in building it.

CBI believes we will have an equitable community when we can no longer predict life outcomes by someone’s identity group or ZIP code. Achieving equity is foundational for our community’s health; addressing how and why our systems and structures produce inequitable outcomes requires our collective commitment.

As we gather for the Community Building Initiative’s Stakeholder Breakfast on Friday, almost exactly 20 years since that original conference, some like us were there in 1997, and many others have been working for inclusion and equity for years. Others are younger and newer to this movement, bringing fresh perspectives and innovative ways of doing things. Many are Charlotte newcomers.

One element unites the over 700 participants: a shared commitment to make our chosen hometown a better place for everyone. We invite you to join us. Each of us can look to see how inequity shows up in the places and spaces we occupy – at work, in the community, at home, in a house of worship. Then – if we commit to work for change whether small or large – something really will have begun.

Bishop Claude Alexander of The Park Church and Emily Zimmern, former president of Levine Museum of the New South, are honorary co-chairs for the Community Building Initiative’s upcoming 20th anniversary year.

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