When I met Melody for lunch, one of the first questions I asked her was if she would like for me to change her name in order to protect her anonymity.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “I want to tell my story. I’m giving you my picture. If I wanted you to change my name, that would imply that I was ashamed.”
Ashamed is never an adjective I would use when it comes to describing Melody, a 36-year-old single mother to an 8-year-old boy getting by on a salary of $22,000 (that she makes as Levine Museum of the New South’s social media manager) and food stamps. You’ve met her before – and if you haven’t, her financial story is here.
She’s smaller than I expected, well-spoken and dressed to the nines with a pair of cateye glasses that, even now, I can’t decide are real or fake. Along with an associate’s degree in business administration, she also has a bachelor’s degree in management with a concentration in marketing and is halfway through getting her master’s in integrated marketing communications.
No, ashamed is not a word I’d use to describe her. I’d call her a powerhouse.
Melody moved to Charlotte five years ago this week after spending her entire life in Harlem.
“Gentrification is fine to a certain extent,” she said about her decision. “But it has totally shifted. You know, I can’t raise him where I grew up because I can’t afford it.”
She chose Charlotte for the low cost of living and the impressive education system, settling in on the east side, where her son has his own bedroom and rent isn’t something that makes her panic.
“Working part-time making $22,000 a year helps me maintain my rent to a certain extent, but there have been struggles,” she told me. “Sometimes I sacrifice, sometimes I splurge. Especially when it comes to my son.”
Her son, whose identity I won’t expose, is 8 years old and attending school close to home. He loves science, robotics and his mom, who says they have an incredibly close relationship that’s been fostered by Melody’s decision to work only part-time.
She grew up in a close-knit family where someone was always home to greet her after school – mainly her grandmother, who was, looking back, a young one – and family dinners were key. That’s what she wants for her own family.
“I don’t want him to be a latchkey kid. I don’t want him to come home and no one’s there or he has to walk home by himself,” she explained. His dad is still in New York.
Working part-time gives her the opportunity to be there, volunteer at his school and do things like spend a day at Discovery Place, one of his favorite spots in the city. That’s when the sacrifice is worth it, because, to her, what else is there?
“I won’t be remembered by how much money I make. I’ll be remembered by the type of children I raise, especially my son, and what I’ve done for my community. That’s going to be the impact I leave.”
Don’t assume that she doesn’t think money isn’t a necessity – but to Melody, who does admit to enjoying it when she has it, it’s not all there is.
“When it boils down to it, do I sacrifice my son not really knowing who his mom is and not having these experiences for money?”
For the last five years, she’s loved the city and its diverse cultural environment, but admits there are moments that make her pause. She sums Charlotte up into two categories: The haves and have-nots. The haves have, well, the privilege. The have-nots, on the other hand, have the stereotype that comes along with the term “low-income.”
“There’s an unaddressed separation here,” she explained.
If you’re confused, she breaks it down in terms of her own life: She works Uptown, does things like go out at the EpiCentre and takes her son to museums and movies, but also takes the transit because she can’t afford a car. She is low-income, but not the stereotype.
“We have this misconception about what poverty and low-income is supposed to look like.”
To most minds, she says, it’s supposed to take the form of Charlotteans that ride transit, hang out at the CTC, dress and speak in a certain way and look like they’re down and out – and that isn’t fair. It’s also not fair to assume it’s about race – it’s very much classism.
“Yes, that’s a portion of the people. I’ll never say that doesn’t exist, but there are a lot of working professionals that get off that same bus that don’t hang around there. They’re going to work. They don’t look like that.”
In reality, it looks like working professionals, artists and small business owners that are pursuing their dreams instead of risking the possibility of being 50 years into a job they hate, living a life they don’t want and looking back when it’s all over and being disappointed.
Charlotte recently ranked dead last in a survey of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. and their potential for social and economic mobility, a fact that Melody isn’t surprised by. So how do we fix it?
By getting the right voices a seat at the table – and by setting up the table in the right place.
“There are some great people at the table that really try to do the work,” she said. “But if you’re constantly having the conversation at City Hall, in Uptown, in environments that aren’t welcoming, you won’t have the right people at the table. And that’s the problem.”
With 109 new people moving to the city each day, each with a more and more impressive salary, the divide keeps widening.
“We talk about things like affordable housing, but we’re not pressuring these developers to really do it. Tax incentives, sure, but what’s the push?” she asked.
Coming in dead last doesn’t surprise her because she sees it every single day. Those that don’t? They choose not to, she believes.
“We’re living in a cycle of brief, short stories, and we don’t want to have long conversations about real issues,” she said. “And when we do have conversation, it’s great for a bit, but it dies down because something else happens.”
Those that need the help can’t ask for it, either, she said, for fear of being shamed over not being able to really get their hands around the American Dream, whatever theirs looks like. For Melody, it’s not the standard.
“We have this ideal American Dream, but I don’t buy into that,” she said. “Mine’s not necessarily the picket fence in the suburbs.”
Hers is helping and providing for her family friends, and looks a lot like the family dinners she used to have growing up in Harlem, but it’s hard to reach living on the lower end of Charlotte’s salary spectrum, and it’s not just something she feels in her bank account, but when she’s out in public every day.
“Not having the privilege feels obvious,” she explained, and it comes in the form of appearance. Hers doesn’t come in the shape of smart business suits, but that doesn’t make her any less than those around her. “I get the looks, but I have two college degrees. If they go based solely on looks, they think, ‘Oh, there’s an African American woman walking around with her 8-year-old kid… and she’s a single mom.’ But then they speak to me and it clicks for them.”
Don’t think she’s finding her life easy. Exactly the opposite, she said.
“I still have days where I really struggle. It can be really scary.”
For her, it’s about self-care and knowing that she can survive on so little – which she knows she can do, because for six months after she moved to Charlotte, she survived on nothing after her unemployment checks stopped coming in. Her son had to be left behind in New York with her mother while she was essentially homeless, staying with a friend until she could secure a job.
“Through those six months, you wouldn’t think I was going through hell, but I was. I cried a lot.”
And sometimes she still does, she said, especially without transportation. Doing everyday, practical things get hard.
Moreover, she falls back on the idea of there being a higher purpose than just paying bills and working – and that it could be worse, like the time she stayed for two days in a homeless shelter without heat.
But she’s hopeful that a conversation will be had and continued, especially for those that are too afraid to ask for help and can’t see the forest for the trees.
“I’ve lived in different cities, and I’ve seen more successful black and brown people here. That gives me hope,” she said. ”I’m a true believer that for me, my situation is temporary. I work every day to make it better. And I’m thankful. I’m still thankful.”