Op-Ed: Charlotte doesn’t have time for ‘That’s not my job’ from elected officials

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Editor’s note: The writer is the co-chairman of OneMECK, an organization pushing for more diversity in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

“Student assignment can’t fix everything.”

I’ve heard this retort from from folks who disagreed with my stance on student assignment needing to reprioritize socioeconomic diversity in conjunction with proximity. “We’ve got to look at housing, transportation, and school location.”

The irony is, I agree with both points.

Student assignment is a critical part of, but not the total solution to our challenges with social mobility. Looking at housing, transportation, and school location are also priorities that I see as vital and ones I hope our community and civic leaders commit to addressing collaboratively.

OneMECK focuses on two priorities, ending practices and polices that promote highly concentrated poverty in schools and housing, acknowledging how naturally intertwined they are.

But these are issues we need everyone to work on.

When I first started challenging school board members and candidates at forums almost a year ago about what they could do about our schools and unequal opportunities in them, some city council candidates and county commission members would give a similar response: “I don’t do anything with schools. That’s a school board issue to fix. That’s actually not something that we have anything to do with.”

And while this quick deflection has a history of working in Charlotte, the game of avoidance, misdirection, and throw the other bodies of government under the bus is a game all too familiar in Charlotte politics amongst all of our political bodies.

Truthfully, I can’t really blame our political figures for doing it. It actually makes getting re-elected much easier when no one really can tell how to truly hold folks accountable. It also helps that city/county governmental structure befuddles so many of us, natives — yes, there are more of us than you realize — and newcomers alike.

Now to be fair, this is not unique to Charlotte politics. This is pretty standard for politics in general in our country. The goal is to get elected, get reelected, and not step too far out of line in order to prevent interfering with your next re-election.

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I have a goal of our community taking intentional steps to change the way we do politics.

And also the way we as citizens do development on a day to day basis. I have a goal of us all owning the parts we have in being the 50th city out of 50 or 99th county out of 100 in social mobility. I have a goal of us all seeing our role in creating that ranking as well as our role in changing it.

The school board has a role in doing student assignment in a way that stops isolating our children amongst economic and racial lines.

City Council has a role in addressing the residential segregation that our lack of mixed income development housing plays in supporting the aforementioned school isolation.

Being responsible for funding 30 percent of the CMS operating budget means that the county commission and school board must work in tandem to keep our funding up to speed with the growth of our region and to target the use of funds in the most intentional way needed to stop our multigenerational creation of haves and have nots.

Finally, we as citizens who drive the housing and education “markets” have to own our roles in our current community conflict, but also in facilitating community solutions.

I’m challenging our public figures to destroy the practice of looking at community failures as siloed governmental failures.

I’m challenging our public figures to operate across bodies of government in a way that is less “you” and “me” and more “we.” I’m challenging our public figures to engage less in turf protection and more in collaboration in taking the multifaceted approach making our region healthy requires.

County commission and school board joint meetings such as those of the ones earlier this spring must be about both parties initially owning their roles in our current challenges and shifting to what do “we” do now?

Public chastising, posturing, and non-constructive discourse must become a thing of the past. Collaboration, constructively challenging and then empowering each other must be the way forward.

Finally, linking with City Council and committing to intentional options of mixed income development with affordable housing options over simply flipping neighborhoods and zoning out long time residents must be on the agenda. Everyone must get their hands dirty in order to help our community get clean. And by everyone, that especially means those of us citizens and pursuers, creators, and distributers of education and housing.

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I’m challenging us as citizens to destroy the myth that in order for me to truly prosper, someone else has to suffer.

I’m challenging us to destroy the myth that the only way to a quality education is through economically and/or racially homogenous schools. I’m challenging us to destroy the myth that a good neighborhood has pushed out long-term lower income residents and consists solely of middle and higher income citizens.

I’m challenging us to destroy the myth that our practices of isolated living and education only harm one segment of our population. I’m challenging us to destroy the practice of allowing civic leaders to respond to questions of conflict by throwing each other under the bus without answering the question “what’s my role in it?” I’m challenging us to destroy the practice of casually erasing culture, history, soul, and living opportunities within communities in order to make a quick buck.

Contrary to the mythology, Charlotte can be both prosperous economically and reclaim the soul that it has sold at various times in pursuit of the next dollar. It will take courage, honesty, and intentional action at the citizen and government levels. It will take us as citizens challenging and empowering our civic leaders to take intentional steps in order to make our community a more equitable and sustainable one than our current status of only bettering Baltimore County out of 100 counties on a social mobility index.

This Sunday (July 3) from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the South End Common Market, OneMECK will sponsor an event called “Let’s Build a Community: Getting Intentional About Housing, Education, and Equity in Charlotte.” We will focus on opportunities for collaboration amongst government bodies and citizens in order to better address the intersection between schools and housing in our community.

This is a call for you to positively participate in helping lead our county out of tragedy and into triumph. Who’s ready to answer?

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Justin Perry
Justin Perry is the co-chairman of OneMECK, an organization pushing for more diversity in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.