Thank you, Charlotte. A farewell essay.

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Publisher’s note: Lelia King is the former Director of Communications at Center City Partners and has recently moved from Charlotte to Greenville, SC. 

I still vividly remember driving to Charlotte nearly six years ago on moving day.

It was pouring rain.

My eyes were set on the U-Haul driven by my husband in front of me, the Atlanta skyline barely visible in my rearview mirror, and a hefty dose of fear that was hard to swallow.

Three months before that day, I lost my job.

My husband was a part-time youth minister, and we had patched our lives together while we tried to figure out the next step. A church in Charlotte came calling, so we packed up our one-bedroom apartment and took a leap of faith.

We were greeted at the door of our new apartment in South End (we were the first tenants at Circle – now Post South End) with two buckets of fried chicken and two gallons of sweet tea from Price’s Chicken Coop. Not to mention the 20 people who showed up to help us unpack that U-Haul. I should have known, then, that I was home. It took me a few months to really open my heart to Charlotte, but once I did, I never looked back.

Several jobs, friendships, experiences and memories later, it is time to leave the city that I have grown to love. Charlotte has changed quite a bit, even in just six years. But its soul remains the same.

As I reflect, I wanted to leave you with seven lessons from my time in Charlotte:

Lesson 1: You are not alone: The #SMCLT story

I was a work-from-home freelancer when we first got to Charlotte. Though I had a built-in church family through my husband’s job with Pritchard Memorial Baptist, it was difficult to make friends. At the time, Meetups weren’t yet popular, social media was still growing, and I didn’t have enough money to join a true “professional” networking group. So, to avoid the trap of never showering before 5pm each day, I started looking up other ways to begin plugging into the community to find my “place.”

Enter Social Media Charlotte: a newly-formed group of people who were all interested in better understanding social media and, for some, working in the field. Though these weren’t my top two goals in life, I decided to attend a couple of breakfasts to try and meet a few like-minded people and maybe learn a thing or two. Little did I know that it would lead me to such a solid group of people. Some of them became my true friends and confidantes (like Genevieve Jooste, who became my freelancer-at-Starbucks friend who read my proposals and encouraged me), others hired me (giving me a much-needed confidence boost – thanks Bo Hussey and Aleigh Acerni) and still others have acted as connectors for me in the six years since (there is no better example than Logan Stewart!).

Logan-Stewart-and-Genevieve-Jooste

The point is not that #SMCLT was such a good group. The point is, no matter what your interests or needs, there is a group for you in Charlotte. The “Charlotte Way” is all about collaboration and idea sharing. There is no excuse for you to ever be alone. We are stronger when we are together. And when we take showers.

Lesson #2: Remember to breathe.

Charlotte gave me room to breathe. Soon after moving in, we discovered Freedom Park. I remember thinking, “oh, this must be the real Charlotte.” Something clicked in me. The diversity and vibrancy of the people in that park made me feel comfortable, even peaceful. Something about how it was (and still is) a safe and welcoming place, connected via the greenway to so many different neighborhoods, spoke to me. My husband and I visited many times over the years. We walked around the lake and talked about work, church, our future. On the day we adopted our dog Murphy, the first place we took him was Freedom Park. It was part of our home. I even bought a David French painting of the park for my husband for our fifth anniversary.

Fido-Fest

Here’s the best part, though. Charlotte seems to get that feeling too, and is working hard to create more and more spaces that allow us to breathe, interact, play, and observe. Romare Bearden Park is a great example, but just wait until First Ward Park and the Charlotte Rail Trail come to life. Spend time in these places and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Rail-Trail

Lesson 3: Education is for life. 

I never planned to go back to graduate school. For careers in public relations, journalism or communications, it isn’t really all that necessary. But soon after I started working with Goodwill in a PR/social media role, I stumbled upon a program that almost seemed too good to be true.

For me, the Knight School of Communication at Queens University was a game-changer. I don’t know what it was that led me to it, but from the minute I stepped into the first class, it felt more like a calling. Spending evenings in conversation with students from different backgrounds about communication theory taught me so much more than I ever expected. Over 2.5 years, Kim Weller inspired me, Mac McArthur challenged me, Zachary White encouraged me. The school’s mission is to prepare consumers and creators of communication messages to become engaged citizens, advocates and leaders in the communities they serve. I could go on and on about this program, but ultimately what I learned is the importance of challenging ourselves, pursuing knowledge and thinking critically. I apply what I learned at the #KnightSchool in my life daily, and I couldn’t be more thankful that it was part of my Charlotte experience.

Knight-School-graduation

Lesson 4: Open your eyes.

After I joined Charlotte Center City Partners, I was asked whether I would like to be part of the Community Building Initiative (CBI) Leaders Under 40 program. Without knowing much about the program, I agreed to take part. Little did I know, that decision would change my entire perspective, challenge my assumptions and biases, and open my eyes to better understand not only Charlotte’s story, but my own story as well.

The program pulls together young leaders from a variety of public, private and non-profit groups in Charlotte to meet monthly for one year in hopes of preparing them to understand and strive for racial and ethnic inclusion and equity in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community. We talked about our biases, we were put into situations of poverty and exclusion, we got on a bus and toured Charlotte neighborhoods on the west side and the east side, we learned about Charlotte’s history and we talked one-on-one with those who lead Charlotte today. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Not everyone will be in a place to go through this program, but everyone DOES have the ability to open their eyes. Here are a few ways I suggest you do so:

Lesson 5: Support local (with thanks to Kim Lawson)

Kimberly Lawson recently wrote her own beautiful homage to Charlotte upon moving to Atlanta, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Her message was this: I cannot stress enough how important it is to shop, eat, drink and indulge in the businesses and projects of people who actually live in Charlotte. I love knowing that my dollars and patronage are affecting folks I can actually see face to face. You should, too.

I couldn’t agree more, Kim (or say it with more grace or eloquence). I had the privilege of working with some of the business owners of the 7th Street Public Market, along with some small business owners in South End and Uptown during my time with CCCP. I have to confess that I didn’t “get” what the big deal was about shopping local until spending time with these business owners. For them, the choices you make with your dollars say something very important. Read Kim’s story, read Katie Levans’ 50 ways to #CharlotteFirst when you spend money, then go spend your money better. (Side note: also, read Jeremy Markovich’s Charlotte Magazine story about his move to Greensboro – great read.)

Lesson 6: Just ask.

This one is simple. In my experience, Charlotte’s leaders – the “movers and shakers” – are very, very open to talking to you. Most of them genuinely want to help people. Not just fancy, rich, powerful people. All people. You just have to ask.

I saw this first-hand many times during my time in Charlotte. When I went to PRSA meetings and events, it was less about competition for the best jobs or appearing to have it together, and more about helping one another and admitting that we are all in this together. Just ask Amanda DeWeese – former president of the chapter, she also happens to be a former dance team comrade from my high school in Birmingham! Many of my friends in the media were the same way. Just ask Kristen Miranda, WBTV anchor and one of the brightest stars in Charlotte. She gave me my first “break” as a new PR pro here, and became a close friend. I saw company CEOs and nonprofit leaders say “yes” when asked whether you could buy them coffee for an hour of their time, or whether they would allow your kid to shadow them, or whether they would give you advice about a particular issue. Michael Smith and Moira Quinn are wonderful examples, as are LaRita Barber, Tom Murray and countless others.

Kristen-Miranda

Most of the leaders I came into contact with said “yes” when I asked them for help. A bunch of people have helped me along the way. They have taught me how easy and important it is for me to help others, however I can. We’re all in this together. Just ask.

Lesson 7: Get connected.

Probably the number one question I got asked after I started working with CCCP was “how can I be more ‘in the know’ about what’s going on?” The truth is, there isn’t a silver bullet that is going to package up exactly the information you’re looking for and drop it in your lap. The folks behind Charlotte Agenda and a few others in town are working on making that process a little easier, but the true response is this: You have to put in a little effort.

If you’re interested in events, it’s pretty easy to sign up for weekly emails through a number of publications. If you want to know about what’s going on at the government level, find out when the meetings are, put them on your calendar and go. Pay attention to the flyers in your favorite spots. Care about economic mobility? Sign up for updates about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force. Read the news.

Basically, it boils down to this: Don’t be passive. Be an active member of the community. Charlotte is better because of each additional voice that is part of its story. I was lucky to add my voice for a few years.

To me, the Queen City is like a beautiful Southern front porch, inviting you up to take seat on a breezy afternoon with a cool glass of lemonade while you share stories with your neighbors. Thank you for letting me sit and share with you for awhile.

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