Selected community leaders tackled Greensboro’s problems

by Jordan Green

Seated around one of dozens of round tables draped with white cloths at a conference center amid the pines in Greensboro’s Bryan Park were a retired state Supreme Court justice, a former mayor, the editorial page editor of the city’s daily newspaper, a two-time city council candidate, and longtime critic of the city’s civic culture.

Impact Greensboro took form on Jan. 10. The program is jointly sponsored by the city’s human relations commission, a prominent local foundation and a UNCG community outreach center and that aims to overcome civic distrust by convening community leaders to discuss challenges and plot a course of action. The selected participants, dubbed “change agents,” received greetings from Mayor Yvonne Johnson and took their marching orders from a handful of facilitators.

Lewis Brandon, a 69-year-old member of the Guilford Soil & Water Board who moved to Greensboro from his native Asheville in 1957 to attend NC A&T University and plunged into the movement to desegregate lunch counters and other public accommodations in 1960, indicated he was still in wait-and-see mode on this project, which rang familiar with some previous efforts. Brandon had served as vice-chair for Forecast 2015, a land use plan he said was initiated in the 1990s by former Mayor Carolyn Allen, embraced by county government and subsequently rejected by the city council.

Joel Landau, general manager of Deep Roots Market and a candidate for city council in 2007 and 2005, took a more optimistic attitude.

“I don’t want to waste a lot of days on something that’s not going to come to anything,” he said. “The intent is for this to be the impetus for people to go out and change things in the community, or at least to have a bunch of people knowing each other who didn’t know each other before. I’m interested in seeing positive change in the community. I’m interested in working for positive change in the community.”

The early outlines of the process, which is scheduled to stretch over the next 10 months, suggested a tension between sharpening distinctions and smoothing over differences, between building understanding and upsetting the power structure, and between leaving change to traditional leaders and broadening the playing field. The acknowledged challenges for the city are substantial: an abiding distrust that cleaves not just races but other segments of the community, anxiety about crime and policing, deepening divides between the rich and poor, and an unstable job pool, to name a few

“Your essays were compelling,” said Mary Kendrick, a consultant with the UNCG Center for Youth, Family and Community Partnerships. “What you said in your essays is that we are a city at a tipping point. We are a city in need of change, and you have the desire and commitment to bring about change.”

The essays were submitted by applicants for the program’s initial 90 slots, which were expanded to 115 to accommodate the high level of interest.

“Let’s throw out the stereotypes,” said Walker Sanders, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro. “Let’s throw out the white-black, the rich-poor, who wears suits and who doesn’t. Let’s throw out the rumor mill. Let’s have hard conversations. We don’t have to agree, but we do have to agree to be respectful.”

Kendrick briefed the participants on some basic demographics about Greensboro: a city of almost a quarter million people with a slender majority of whites; 37.4 percent African American; a refuge for people who are not safe in their own countries, including sizable communities of Montagnards, Russian Jews and Bosnians; a significant African population; a growing number of Latinos; a higher share of foreign-born residents than the state as a whole.

Then Kendrick led the group through an exercise to show who had been accepted in the program, asking people to stand as their respective demographic group was called.

Respectable numbers stood to represent the southwest, southeast and northeast quadrants of the city. Significantly more rose to identify themselves as residents of affluent northwest Greensboro, whose demographics skew more white and prosperous than the rest of the city.

“Whoa,” Kendrick said.

A handful of people identified themselves as being 29 years or younger, prompting a light wave of clapping. Many more identified themselves as being over 60, and they gave themselves lavish applause.

One man stood to represent Africans. There were handfuls of Latinos and Asians.

“What they didn’t ask is if there are any working-class people here,” Brandon quipped. “Because there aren’t any.”

Kendrick continued, “Greensboro has been doing a lot of talking. Would you agree? We need to go deeper. We need to go beyond civil conversations. We’re not saying, ‘Don’t be tactful.’ But ask hard questions.”

She added, “We want new leadership. We want change. We want new networks. We’ve got some tough stuff going on.”

Kendrick identified four arenas for change that had been identified as priorities by the applicants: race, economics, neighborhoods and education. Criminal justice, a category that includes community and police relations, and immigrant and refugee concerns did not make the cut.

Perhaps quality of life concerns for immigrants can be welded into the discussion about race, suggested Carlos Ortiz, an employee of Replacements Limited who comes from Peru. As a cofounder of Amistad of Greensboro, a Latino advocacy group that has lately fallen dormant, Ortiz indicated he would push to keep the needs of immigrants on the agenda.

“There are too many hate groups that are against immigrants,” he said, referring to the Minuteman Project and the Ku Klux Klan. “Some of the congressmen are trying to pass an amendment to the Constitution that kids who were born in the United States to undocumented immigrants could not have citizenship. Which I believe is wrong.”

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