Impact Greensboro seeks change along old power continuum

by Jordan Green

Greensboro’s famous distrust has been diagnosed in a handful of reports, not to mention at least three extended community dialogues. The latest, called Impact Greensboro, has engaged about 115 leading citizens, and though it has received the endorsement of Mayor Yvonne Johnson its work has generated relatively little notice in the city’s otherwise fractious public square.

Impact Greensboro has inherited a civic legacy in which important decisions were once made in private by a small circle of industry captains and then quietly ratified by elected officials – along with some of the accumulated wealth of once-mighty local companies. If civic affairs were managed through a clubby arrangement of powerful, private interests in the past, “transparency” and “collaboration” are the new watchwords of Greensboro’s self image.

A “Change Orientation Guide” handed out to aspiring council members, city employees, judges and civil rights-era activists at an inaugural session in January hints at a challenge to the old order, suggesting the exercise should cultivate “decision makers who are more accountable for institutional changes and relationships that will foster an inclusive, fair and equitable community.” And yet interviews with several participants and conveners reveal a strong measure of tentativeness, circumspection and awkwardness around the question of whether the process will challenge the city’s status quo.

“It probably is a good representation [of the community], but when it comes to power, who provides resources for it to happen?” asked Nettie Coad, an activist from the city’s Ole Asheboro section who has risen to positions of leadership within her neighborhood association, the city’s redevelopment commission and an organization called the Partnership Project. “You don’t necessarily have those people who are on the sidelines. Impact Greensboro is about being change makers.”

Many participants spoke of collegiality and patient discussion in small groups broken out to tackle the topics of economics, education, neighborhoods and race. A week designated to explore the twin themes of power and influence earlier this month appeared to spark few conversational fireworks.

“I don’t recall that there was anything unexpected there,” said participant Carolyn Allen, who served as the city’s mayor from 1993 to 1999. “We discussed how there are those in the community who wield power and this may come from their location along the economic scale, their past experience with organizations, their profession and their experience with governmental activity. The feeling seemed to be that [participation] was increasing, that things like the neighborhood congress had opened up an avenue for participation. I don’t know whether or not any of us know for sure, but the current political campaign may be involving more people than has been the case in the past.”

Donna Newton, an advisor to the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress and an Impact Greensboro participant, said it’s difficult to tell whether the city’s political process has opened up to broader participation in recent years.

“The congress is very concerned about transparency,” she said. “We’re very concerned about a broad array of people being heard on the issues…. I think it has changed to some degree. Our world in America runs on relationships, so I don’t think we’re going to stop the way relationships work. I do think we can push for transparency, and still allow people to have influence with their relationships.”

Newton’s salary in her capacity as an advisor to neighborhood associations across the city is paid by an organization called Building Stronger Neighborhoods that receives funding from the Cemala Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, the Moses Cone-Wesley Long Foundation and the Weaver Foundation. The four foundations were created with endowments from Cone Mills Corp., Jefferson-Pilot Corp., Vicks VapoRub and homebuilder Herman Weaver. Three of those foundations, the Community Foundation, the Cemala Foundation and the Weaver Foundation, along with a fourth, the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, are footing the bill for Impact Greensboro.

The initiative was formed by the Community Foundation and the Center for Youth, Family and Community Partnerships at UNCG, as a revised version of Mayor Keith Holliday’s Mosaic Partnerships. The city’s human relations commission, which was casting about for a way to address racial matters in early 2007, soon joined forces with the other two entities – a solution that provided private funding and avoided the need to turn to taxpayers for support.

Members of Impact Greensboro’s advisory committee represent a range of interests both powerful and liberal in the city. The committee includes employees of Replacements Limited, a company that advocates for gays and lesbians; and staff at the National Conference for Community and Justice, a Christian-Jewish alliance whose mission is to fight bias, bigotry and racism. Others include an immigrant-needs advocate, a pastor who runs a welfare-to-work program, News & Record Editorial Page Editor Allen Johnson, and Ed Kitchen, a former city manager who works under former Mayor Jim Melvin at the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation.

Participants include police Chief Tim Bellamy; former city council candidates Marikay Abuzuaiter, Cyndy Hayworth and Joel Landau; the Rev. Nelson Johnson; Guilford County District Court Judge Lawrence McSwain; and Henry Frye, a prominent lawyer who holds the distinction of being the first black elected to the NC House of Representatives in the 20th century and the first black appointed to the NC Supreme Court, where he was elevated to chief justice.

A classic liberal-conservative debate has raged in newspaper pages, blogs and city council chambers about whether to retain City Manager Mitchell Johnson, whether former police Chief David Wray has been treated fairly and how to pay for city services with increasingly limited revenue. A different kind of controversy has attached itself to Impact Greensboro.

In an open letter to Impact Greensboro participants last month, an anti-racist activist named Randy Johnston charged that “Greensboro’s progressive establishment – the sector of the community that has convened Impact Greensboro – plays a key role in the exercise of power in this city and… the role they play is a primary source of the confusion and division that Impact Greensboro is attempting to address.”

While not exactly welcoming the critique, human relations commission Chairman Wayne Abraham said facilitators encouraged participants to read the letter.

Johnston’s missive, which runs about 10 pages, draws from the thesis of Duke University historian William Chafe’s classic text, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Struggle for Black Freedom in its focus on a “progressive myth.”

“The progressive myth insists that Greensboro is a progressive city and that Greensboro’s leaders are progressive, diligently working to improve racial and economic conditions for all,” Johnston wrote. “The term ‘progressive myth’ is not used by those practicing the myth – the myth is their reality. I am going to explain why I believe that this is a false reality, that Greensboro in fact has a regressive operating system carefully disguised as progressive.

“The progressive myth is an impressively bold lie, repeated so often and in so many ways that it is accepted as truth by much of the community,” the letter continues. “Business corporations, including those that own the local mainstream media, make up an informal power structure that programs the community operating system to promote their interests above all else, while wrapping themselves – and their progressive establishment surrogates – in the progressive myth.”

Johnston is a close friend of the Rev. Nelson Johnson, and the two talk often about the dynamics of race relations in Greensboro. Johnson, who led the fateful 1979 anti-Klan march that saw five of his fellow communist comrades shot to death at Morningside Homes, played a key role in launching a truth and reconciliation process to reexamine that tragedy some two decades later. After the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report on the killings in May 2006, the matter has taken a bumpy journey to near oblivion in the care of the city’s human relations commission.

In July 2006, then-Mayor Keith Holliday informally requested that the human relations commission address race relations in response to the truth commission’s report. By the end of the year, the human relations commission had formed an ad hoc committee on race relations, but after a News & Record editorial questioned whether the effort would duplicate plans in the works by the Community Foundation and the Center for Youth, Family and Community Partnerships, the initiative was dropped.

A number of the truth process’ partisans have signed up for Impact Greensboro, including the Rev. Johnson, former Mayor Allen and the Rev. ZN Holler, but they have chosen to take a different approach to attain their goal of eliciting an official response from the city.

“Our efforts now are to have conversations with members of the council and encourage the council’s sending a resolution to the [human relations] commission to carry forward with a review and recommendations,” Allen said. “We’re talking to individual council members. We’re not there, but I think that’s the direction in which we’re going.”

She said the city’s mandate to consider the truth and reconciliation report “sort of got lost in there somewhere” after July 2006, but she brushed aside the question of whether a new mandate would be meaningful. “It’s a different council,” Allen said. “It’s a different mayor, a different head of the human relations department for the city, so I think in a sense we’re sort of starting afresh.”

In the meantime, Abraham said the human relations commission has convened a new ad hoc committee to deal with the truth process and make recommendations to city council, adding that the effort by Allen and her allies was unnecessary. As an indication of the bottle neck in communications within Impact Greensboro, Allen apparently had not been aware of the new initiative by the Human Relations Commission. The former mayor said in an April 18 e-mail that she planned to meet with Human Relations Director Anthony Wade on Monday to receive an update.

Not all the Impact Greensboro participants have read Johnston’s letter. One of those who did is Cyndy Hayworth, the former candidate for city council who is also president of Junior Achievement of Central North Carolina and a member of the city’s zoning commission. Her subgroup plans to implement a model neighborhood program at the end of the year, in keeping with Impact Greensboro’s charge that participants take some kind of action. In that light, she said she did not agree with Johnston’s criticism.

“I read that letter probably seven times,” Hayworth said. “The first time I read it I couldn’t get my arms around it. I asked myself, ‘Where is he going with this? What is the purpose?’ I see he doesn’t want this to be a group that sits back and after a year pats itself on the back.

“I have to disagree with him, [in] that this is not the status quo,” she continued. “If it was the status quo, I would not be here. I would have given my seat to someone else. We are discussing some hard topics, and we’re not just talking about one neighborhood, but all neighborhoods. We talked about crime, and crime affects some neighborhoods more than others, but there isn’t just one neighborhood that’s affected by crime.”

Abraham avoided taking a position on whether the initiative should be considered a challenge to the city’s power structure or a reinforcement of it, stating that the participants would decide for themselves what actions to take.

“The purpose of Impact Greensboro was to help solve problems, overcome them and deal with the power structure and issues as they are,” he said. “We want folks to help make change; that’s why they’re called change agents.”

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