By Caylin Viales
Not only am I new to Next Stage Consulting, but I’m also brand new to Charlotte. Over the past two months, I’ve dedicated a lot of my free time to traditional newbie activities. Brewery hopping? Check – Free Range Brewing is my favorite so far. I’ve made a point to take the light rail uptown, explore different neighborhoods and go for walks along the Rail Trail and the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. But while some may stop there, I’m someone who also dives head first into local policy and social issues. Check out what I’m learning and follow along.
You’ve probably heard this by now, but Charlotte has an economic mobility problem. What you might not have heard yet is that local Charlotte nonprofits are leading the way in creating innovative solutions to address it.
Background: Groundbreaking research from Harvard University and University of California-Berkeley ranking Charlotte 50th of the country’s 50 largest cities for upward economic mobility for children living in large metropolitan areas.
According to the research, a child raised in the bottom quintile of the national income distribution in Charlotte has just a 4.4 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. By comparison, children raised in some of the top ranking cities like San Jose, Salt Lake City and Seattle were more than twice as likely to reach the top quintile.
Since that familiar study was published, the city has organized to address these economic mobility issues. In April 2014, cross-sector leaders launched the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Economic Opportunity Task Force, a group of 21 community volunteers from diverse backgrounds working to lower barriers to upward economic mobility in Charlotte.
The task force was convened to research and report on the underlying social issues that contribute to generational poverty – including affordable housing, employment and education – and create an action plan for the city to increase economic opportunities for low-income children. Using the same five metrics (segregation, income inequality, primary school quality, social capital and family structure) as defined in the original report on economic mobility, the task force’s first report confirms that Charlotte is challenged across all five major opportunity indictors.
According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer, there is a surprisingly consistent pattern showing that the majority of neighborhoods in South Charlotte perform highly against indicators such as income, education, employment and health outcomes, while a crescent of neighborhoods to the west, north and east of the city struggle. Maps showing the racial breakdown of Charlotte neighborhoods follow that same distinct pattern.
This stark racial and income segregation can be attributed to decades of housing policy such as redlining and urban renewal, and it has perpetuated what some are calling the re-segregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s public schools. School district data, as presented by Amy Hawn Nelson of UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, shows that one in three schools is isolated by class – meaning at least 80% of students live in poverty. Half are isolated by race – meaning at least 80% of students identify as one race. One in five schools is “hyper-segregated” by race – a term defined as meaning at least 90% of students identify as one race. Research shows that isolated or high-poverty schools correlate positively with poor student achievement and negatively impact school quality, and diverse campuses improve educational outcomes such as test scores and graduation rates.
The task force’s final report will reveal important recommendations to address the five opportunity indicators that would move our city forward, but city and county government face a series of roadblocks when addressing intractable social issues such as economic mobility and education. Much like the launch of the task force itself, it will be a slow and meticulous process.
The Road Ahead
While real, long-term progress cannot be made without top-level success in addressing the structural barriers to upward economic mobility, we need to simultaneously invest in low-income neighborhoods by supporting the local programs and organizations that are actively building social capital and strengthening communities. Many community leaders are already doing important work to increase economic mobility and advocate for more equitable housing and school policies, and are doing so through grassroots programs and nonprofit organizations.
Nonprofits are unique in their ability to be nimble and highly responsive to community need – making them the ideal first responders in Charlotte to challenging social problems like upward economic mobility. In the month since I joined Next Stage Consulting, I have met and learned about many local leaders and programs focused on addressing economic mobility through art, education and advocacy:
- Hip Hop Orchestrated, founded by Kia Moore, works to knock down social barriers and shatter cultural boundaries by blending different musical genres to connect people of different backgrounds and battle classism, racism, ageism and sexism. When I think about innovative programs addressing economic mobility through building social capital, Hip Hop Orchestrated is one of the first that comes to mind.
- Gen-One Charlotte, led by Ian Joyce, gives talented low-income students a road map to and through college. The organization, which provides college counseling and intensive mentorship to cohorts of students, works to create opportunities for increased economic mobility by helping high-performing students in Title I schools prepare for, enroll in and complete college, setting them on a trajectory for career success.
I am also excited about the potential of a new community fund at United Way of Central Carolinas, Unite Charlotte, dedicated to supporting programs and organizations focused on building social capital, fostering racial equity and creating opportunities in Mecklenburg County. Established in response to the recent unrest in Charlotte, the fund prioritizes new and innovative solutions to community challenges that have been in operation for less than five years and have an operating budget of less than $250,000. This fund will provide important financial support to programs and organizations that might not have access to more traditional philanthropy. Shameless plug – applications are due on February 17, 2017.
All of us – life-long Charlotteans and brand new residents, government officials and community leaders alike – have a role to play in ensuring that Charlotte becomes a more equitable city for generations to come. What is yours?