Next Era Seriesby Wilson Hooper, City of Charlotte, NC
In September 2016, violent protests erupted in Charlotte after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer shot and killed an African-American man who witnesses claimed was unarmed and posed no threat. Video of the incident taken from police body cams was not immediately released as local investigators’ sought to protect the integrity of their investigation.
The protests culminated in an intense confrontation at the City Council’s next meeting, when hundreds filled the building and over 130 speakers criticized the Council. Their testimony was raw, pointed, and powerful. And it demonstrated that, though their protest may have been based on bad information, their anger was sincere and real.
The protestors that evening didn’t just talk about the shooting. They shared their distrust of law enforcement, their frustration at the difficulty of making ends meet in Charlotte, their anger at the perceived complacency of city leaders to change anything. Their earnestness prompted a discussion of inequalities in Charlotte and how the local governments could help fix them.
Addressing The Community's Needs
"We the 11 members of Charlotte City Council, hear the anger, frustration and need expressed both in the streets and in our Council Chamber... Our love, passion and pride for our city deman action. To more forawrd requires everyone's help. When our community comes to together great things happen. This is our spirit. This is our culture. This is our city. We will lead. We will act. We will do this together.
The Charlotte City Council responded by jointly penning a letter to the community. The letter contained a frank acknowledgement of the city’s inequalities and specific policy pledges on how to remedy them. It focused on three areas: safety, trust, and accountability; access to quality affordable housing; good paying jobs. Furthermore, it pledged to make the City’s response inclusive: “We will lead. Will we act. We will do this together.”
So with this direction, the city organization and its partners embarked on an ambitious effort to meet the goals outlined by the Council and heal Charlotte. And they’re doing so with all the modern tools available to local governments: data and analytics, public-private partnerships, technology based engagement. But perhaps Charlotte’s most notable tool is something more old-fashioned. Something notable not in its newness but in its normalness – conversation.
An Old New Idea: Conversations
Such a simple act wouldn’t be the most effective approach under normal circumstances, as conversations are time consuming and do not yield the type of focused information that a typical survey would. But in this case, the goals were clear: demonstrate a commitment to inclusion, make personal connections, and get authentic answers. Three projects with conversation at their core are already completed or are underway:
- “Can We Talk” and “Peer Perspectives” Forums. Hosted by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Commission and its partner the Community Building Initiative, these gatherings were held throughout the community. Facilitators created a safe environment before seeking participants’ thoughts on provocative questions of race and inequality. Over 700 participants, including city employees, have taken part.
- “Take 10 Part II” The second part of an earlier engagement effort that saw 150 city employees take ten minutes per week to hold one-on-one conversations with residents. This round, employee ambassadors and ambassadors from the city’s civic leadership program will ask open ended questions such as “what areas of the Council letter are most important to you” and “what other ideas will make Charlotte better.” The answers will be coded according to theme by researchers at UNC Charlotte and the data used to inform Charlotte’s leaders. The goal is to hold several thousand conversations over the next few months.
- Cops and Barbers – Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department holds more than 30 community meetings a month, some in places like barbershops where the conversation is frank, but the barbers can bridge the divide between the police and the community members.
Why is This Innovative?
So what’s so innovative about this approach? Nothing really, except the purpose is to humanize the participants rather than hold them as a data point, or a bureaucrat. It makes government more personal and allows those in our community to have their voices heard. In difficult times, these aren’t typical approaches in government work.
But, in Charlotte, these approaches are changing how city government operates, so that next time the bonds are strained they don’t snap.
The work has begun. One conversation at a time.