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A one-year update on the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative

Mayor's Racial Equity Initiative Announcement at Jane M Smith Memorial Church on Nov. 1, 2021.
Jon Strayhorn
Mayor's Racial Equity Initiative Announcement at Jane M Smith Memorial Church on Nov. 1, 2021.

This month marks a year since the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative was announced. It’s a $250 million effort that Mayor Vi Lyles said would combine bold ideas, philanthropy and collaborative problem-solving to remove barriers to opportunity.

“It is my sincere hope that those who follow me will stand for this effort and it will be something that we will actually do and accomplish,” said Lyles at the announcement in 2021.

The initiative has four areas of focus:Solving the digital divide,transforming Johnson C. Smith University, recruiting and advancing more people of color within businesses, and a program called Corridors of Opportunity. So far, the initiative has raised nearly all of its goal. Now the hard work begins to ensure proper oversight, distribution of funds, and implementation of initiatives.

Layna Hong

The initiative has raised $230 million

The goal was to raise $150 million on the private side. So far all but $3 million of that has been raised. About $27 million has been allocated to the four areas the initiative wants to tackle, but only a few million has been spent on things like bridging the digital divide and new positions at Johnson C. Smith University. Foundation for the Carolinas is administering most of the private dollars. Its executive director, Michael Marsicano, says he’s heard from people who wonder about the impact of those dollars.

“When you're trying to put a $250 million package together, yeah, that's a year-long campaign. I think that the community might have hoped that more of the money would be flowing out sooner. I actually think the pace is exactly where we need it to be to do it right,” says Marsicano.

The public funding accounts for $100 million of the initiative. Just over $80 million of that has already been committed. It includes money from some future bond packages. Nearly $20 million is expected to come through federal, state, and local grants.

Questions about spending, structure, and accountability

Some concerns that have been raised are how much of that money is at work now and questions about how this whole initiative functions.

“I would like at this point a year into it to have clarity around what is the most baseline, basic foundational elements of the initiative — which I feel are missing or at least I haven't had access to as yet,” says Valaida Fullwood who works as a consultant in Charlotte’s philanthropic community.

In particular, how does the initiative define racial equity? How will it engage those impacted by inequities in the decision-making and hold itself accountable?

City Council member Malcolm Graham says the initiative is moving in the right direction, but the pace on the private side is slower than he’d like.

“It's been a year, and I would have hoped that we would have been further down the road in terms of understanding the mechanics of how it works and being able to put some of those dollars on the street thus far,” says Graham.

What impact has the community seen from the initiative’s work so far?

Part of the initiative builds on efforts that were already seeing some promise in the community. There has been a lot of work and coordination on Corridors of Opportunity and bridging the digital divide. That’s where the impact is starting to be felt. Johnson C. Smith University just hired someone to oversee its transformation. The work on the employer side with recruiting and advancing more people of color is in the planning phases.

Corridors of Opportunity

Most of the initiative’s public money is designated for a program called Corridors of Opportunity, which was started in 2020. The city funds projects aimed at improving infrastructure, transportation, safety and bringing jobs to six areas of the city that have high unemployment and poverty. That’s far along on the public side because the city has had two years to work on it, and a lot of that money was already budgeted before the initiative was announced. Here are some of the projects undertaken through the program:

The intersection of Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street has been a focus of efforts through the city's Corridor of Opportunity program.
City of Charlotte
City of Charlotte
The intersection of Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street has been a focus of efforts through the city's Corridor of Opportunity program.

· In the West Boulevard Corridor, the city has supported the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition and purchased a strip mall that had been seized by the federal government because of drug trafficking.

  • In the Beatties Ford Corridor, the city is working with private developers to renovate businesses and find new local tenants for several properties. Around one intersection, it helped revitalize two commercial properties, launched an affordable housing project, and upgraded infrastructure. It also started a “violence interruption” program.
  • In the Sugar Creek Corridor, the city worked with property owners to install security cameras and upgraded street lighting. Safe Charlotte grant recipients provide programs for youth.
  • In the Albemarle Corridor, a housing pilot works with naturally occurring affordable housing owners to protect housing supply.
  • In the North Tryon/North Graham Corridor the city is completing community engagement to identify priorities and projects.

The plan is for the initiative’s private money to follow those public dollars through grants and low-interest loans to small businesses and nonprofits in those corridors. No private dollars have been spent. According to Marsicano, the initiative has collected about 700 applications for those grants and plans to begin distributing the $20 million soon. The low-interest loan program is still in the planning phases.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Residents of Evoke Living at Westerly Hills wait to receive refurbished laptops and access to digital resources in October. The initiative's resources made it possible for digital navigators to attend the event and help residents.
Elvis Menayese
Residents of Evoke Living at Westerly Hills wait to receive refurbished laptops and access to digital resources in October. The initiative's resources made it possible for digital navigators to attend the event and help residents.

The goal here is to make sure people have a reliable internet connection, a device to access it, as well as training to navigate work, education, and civic participation. The Center for Digital Equity at Queens University has helped guide and corral that work for a few years now. The pandemic put a spotlight on the need for access to a reliable internet connection. The center’s Bruce Clark says about 17% of Mecklenburg residents are without one. He says the initiative helped the center take advantage of that attention and more rapidly expand its work. The center received $1.2 million this year to:

  • Hire three program directors to oversee its work.
  • Expand its digital navigation service. You can call 311 to reach a navigator and, if you qualify, receive discounts on internet service and affordable devices. The center has helped 900 families learn about and sign up for internet service through the Affordable Connectivity Program.
  • Help to distribute 20,000 computers this year that are funded by a federal grant through the library.
  • Fund the ideas the center’s community council comes up with to bridge the digital divide.

Transforming Johnson C. Smith University

The goal is to make Johnson C. Smith University among the top 10 historically Black colleges and universities nationally. It’s currently ranked 26 by U.S. News and World Report. The HBCU has already attracted $80 million in private dollars. That will go to growing academic offerings focused on careers such as data analytics and pre-med, recruiting students, and scholarships. JCSU is not saying a whole lot because it said it does not disclose use of private money. But it did say it just hired someone to oversee its transformation and will soon hire for two leadership positions focused on marketing and recruitment.

Catalyzing Employer Commitment

The employer side of the initiative aims to recruit and advance more people of color within businesses. It’s still in the planning phases. Moneywise, it’s the smallest part of the initiative with $3 million. The Charlotte Regional Business Alliance heads that up. Its team is working with a consultant to recommend goals, a timeline and strategy. The alliance plans to have those later this month.

Who’s in charge of it all?

Marsicano says a lot of time was spent figuring that out this year. On the public side, most of the dollars go through the city. All of that is voted on by city council or the public through bond referenda. City council member Braxton Winston calls the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative “a private initiative.”

“The city doesn't have, in our official capacity, any kind of domain over this mayor's racial equity initiative. It's sort of a brand,” says Winston.

The private side doesn’t have any domain over the city council’s votes either.

The initiative’s leaders changed the initiative’s structure after the person hired to be its executive director Kimberly Henderson resigned. That was following local media reports that pointed out problems with the public agency she oversaw in Ohio.

“We came to a decentralized system, which actually gives more ownership and autonomy to the four different focus areas. And I think it is a better structure than it would have been otherwise,” says Marsicano.

Spending in each of the four areas is overseen by a committee. They’re composed of representatives of big funders like Lowe’s, Bank of America, Duke Energy and a few foundations too. A fifth committee works to coordinate between the public and private sectors. The idea is staff in charge of those four areas provide another layer of accountability. For example, at Johnson C. Smith President Clarence Armbrister and his staff would provide another layer of accountability. The organizations’ governing boards, like JCSU’s board of trustees, provide yet another layer.

However, that can make it challenging to determine whom to hold accountable if the initiative falters.

Judging Success

The idea is that the $250 million will be distributed over the next four or five years. As for what defines success after five years, Mayor Lyles says that would be continuing to “always look clearly with an open eye towards what has gone wrong in the past and what we can do to provide equity for it in the future.”

She says the reaction of people impacted by inequities will be the judge of what the initiative is able to accomplish.

The initiative’s leaders say it plans to use a variety of tools to measure success and provide twice-yearly updates.

WFAE's Sarah Delia contributed to this story.

Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.