Dozens of conversations took place around Charlotte on Wednesday as part of a community engagement initiative called “On the Table CLT", coordinated by Charlotte's Community Building Initiative. The gatherings were designed to bring people together in small groups to discuss how Charlotte can become what organizers call “a more connected, inclusive and opportunity-rich community.” Here's how one of those conversations went:
In a sparsely outfitted classroom room at the Johnston YMCA in Charlotte's eclectic Noda neighborhood, about a dozen people gathered around a squarish table with a taco salad lunch. They ranged from 19 to maybe three times that age. There were white faces around the table and black. At least one person is a lifelong Charlottean. Another moved here three weeks ago.
The discussion facilitator asked participants what they see as the greatest community needs or struggles in Charlotte. The conversation quickly turned to youth and young adults with a suggestion that they need more outlets and shouldn't just be labeled as troublemakers.
"I feel like the millennials are going to really shake up Charlotte with more programs for youth and actually reaching back verses the me-me-keep-moving-self kind of path," said one women. "Why don't we have more of us in the city council meeting and in the church board leadership or in the Y board? Where are the millennials at because we're here in Charlotte?"
"If every millenial voted, you guys could elect anybody you wanted. I don't know how it's come to be, but it's very distressing to me how few people vote," responded another.
Building connections and creating opportunity for all in the community are primary objectives of Charlotte's "On the Table" initiative. At the Johnston YMCA discussion several participants were already connected either by working at the YMCA or through the Queen City Church of Christ which meets there.
Those existing connections made this question by conversation facilitator and Queen City Church Pastor Ryan Russell especially pertinent.
"Who's not at this table in terms of building unity in our communities? Who's not at this table that needs to be here?"
"Seniors," several people answered.
"I had an awakening experience about a year and a half ago, a friend of mine set me up in a police ride along in North Metro North off of North Tryon," one man began saying. "What I realized is that there's a whole piece of the Charlotte population that people like us don't get to be with very often. You know, they're not represented here. I don't know if they can be represented here in a sense. I mean they can be, but they're not taking time to be with us because that's not part of their deal."
The hour passed quickly. Discussion participants were textbook polite throughout. There were no voices raised in tension. Speakers quickly deferred to one another when two began to speak at the same time.
When asked about building bridges and opening more lines of communication between diverse groups of people there were comments about using social media for productive community dialogue. Also, there was a caution against anonymous speech, which one participant called a threat to society.
"Instead of just listening to respond, listening to understand where others are coming from," said Shawn Carlton. "I think that's a big one. Whenever we can listen to and say, 'I understand where you're coming from and how can I help you?' Instead of, 'Okay, how can I just rebut what you're saying and come back at you?'"
Charlotte’s Community Building Initiative says over 5,000 people at more than 150 gatherings took part in this week’s conversations. They’ll be able to share feedback through a survey. But organizers say they already know that people made “meaningful connections” and had “conversations of consequence” during Charlotte’s first ‘On the Table’ event.