Charlotte’s $250 million Racial Equity Initiative is a good start to address racial inequality in the city

 By Tyler Bunzey

November 3, 2021

Mayor Vi Lyles congregated with city and private sector leaders at Johnson C. Smith University’s Jane M. Smith Church on Monday to announce the city’s new $250 million Racial Equity Initiative. As a public-private partnership, the initiative seeks to address racial inequality in Charlotte through four sectors: the digital divide, investment in Charlotte’s six “Corridors of Opportunity” neighborhoods, the metamorphosis of Johnson C. Smith University, and the advancement of Black leaders in corporate spaces. 

The Mayor’s Equity Initiative

Of the $250 million goal, $196 million was pledged at the announcement by various public and private entities. The majority of the $250 million goal– around 84% percent– will come from philanthropy and public funding, while the remaining 16% consists of low-return debt and equity for investments in the Corridors of Opportunity. The largest public donor was the city of Charlotte, whose commitment to $72 million was supplemented by $8 million from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. An array of private companies announced generous donations including the Michael Jordan Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the CLT2020 Host Committee, which added to impressive pledges including $25 million from Bank of America, $10 million from Lowe’s, $8 million from Truist, and $6.1 million from Atrium Health. Undoubtedly, these philanthropic contributions will transform institutions throughout the city.

No single institution may benefit more than Charlotte’s metropolitan HBCU, Johnson C. Smith University. The University received a pledge of $80 million, a gift that will help transform the Historic West End institution from a small university of about 1,600 students into a “top-tier, career-focused HBCU.” 

The largest portion of this gift, $40 million, comes from the Duke Endowment, which has supported the university since James B. Duke allocated 4% of the endowment’s yearly earnings to Smith in 1924. These funds will be used by the university to create five new programs at JCSU, including a pre-med program, data analytics, and computer science alongside more robust scholarship opportunities and health services on campus. 

Shirley J. Hughes, Chair of the Johnson C. Smith University Board of Trustees. Courtesy of Johnson C. Smith University

The pre-med program– funded by a $5 million pledge from Atrium Health– is part of a citywide proposal to make Charlotte a hub for healthcare education. Smith’s future pre-med program is intended to feed into the Wake Forest School of Medicine, which will be in the new Atrium Health innovation district between the Dilworth and Elizabeth neighborhoods. The School of Medicine, planned to begin enrollment in 2024, will sit alongside 28 acres of proposed affordable housing, which was introduced to city council the same day as the Racial Equity Initiative announcement. 

The new development will create a pipeline for students interested in healthcare to establish careers in one of Charlotte’s foundational institutions while addressing the needs of underserved communities. Such funding “will fulfill a great need in getting more visibility to address some of the concerns in the community,” according to Dr. Bryan Patterson, Chair of the Public Leadership Studies Minor at JCSU. Dr. Patterson works closely with initiatives in the Northwest Corridor through the university, and he looks forward to the positive changes that this initiative will bring: “So actually having centers on this side or on the West and Northwest corridor, they could be more actively engaged in addressing some of the health concerns of disparities that exist here.”

The Racial Equity Initiative is the corporate response that Mayor Lyles called for after the murder of George Floyd in June of 2020.

The dramatic effort of the Racial Equity Initiative is the corporate response that Mayor Lyles called for after the murder of George Floyd in June of 2020. The Charlotte Executive Leadership council, led by EY (formerly Ernst & Young) Central Region Private Leader and Charlotte Managing Partner Malcolm Coley and CEO of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance Janet LaBar, met with more than 90 businesses and community leaders to develop the initiative. The mayor sees this initiative as an exemplary fulfillment of her original challenge to the private sector. 

The vision for this effort is to establish a public-private partnership for achieving racial equity, social justice, economic opportunity and upward mobility,” Mayor Lyles declared Monday. “The response from our corporate partners surpassed even what I could have expected, and we have set a new standard for an American city. We will celebrate today’s milestone as we continue together on this critical path to opportunity and equity for all of Charlotte.”

However, some groups fighting for racial equity, like Restorative Justice CLT, were excluded from the planning meetings, according to the Charlotte Observer. The activist organization has expressed doubt that the private sector has an independent interest in pursuing racial parity in the city. The funds, they argue, should be used to address the disparities that resulted from municipal practices like razing of the Black communities in Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. In this view, racial equity cannot be achieved until past municipal wrongdoings have been reconciled. 

Dr. Patterson still sees powerful potential in this initiative. “This is not just a reactionary measure, but a more of a long-term transformational approach to really addressing some systemic issues in Charlotte,” he said. “This gift will then impact many generations to come.” Despite some of its shortcomings, the initiative will push resources into Charlotte institutions that desperately need them. This is the first step of many to address racial inequality in the greater Charlotte area. 

Learn more about the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative.

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