April 1, 2018
The way Justin Harlow speaks, it’s easy to believe that we can change the world. The excitement pours out of my tiny headphones as Harlow, Charlotte’s new young city council member, explains with rapid-fire passion how he sees the future of the Queen City.
“Things are broken and we have to fix them,” he says. “But we’re on the right path. We have six new council members saying, ‘Something has to change.’”
Statements like this are normal in conversation with Harlow, as his ideas are regularly pregnant with a multitude of meanings. In a single thought, he refers to the relationship of Charlotte’s historical population as it relates to the new influx of young and monied, the racial strife and struggle that has bubbled to the surface in the wake of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting, and the identity that Charlotte needs to find.
“Some days we’re Atlanta or Charleston or Nashville,” he says. “And those are great cities. But why can’t we see ourselves and compare ourselves with New York, Chicago or LA? If we want to be world class, which I think we can be, we have to embrace those expectations. That’s how we can keep attracting world-class talent.”
And just as he arrives at his point, Harlow pivots to one of the other thoughts behind his idea that things need to change.
“We’re making folks uncomfortable by having the tough conversations,” he says, alluding to the racial and socioeconomic issues that Charlotte seems to be eternally tiptoeing around.
“Everything we talk about (regarding) implicit bias and diversity is becoming real,” he continues. “Before, those used to be campaign terms. Now we’re starting conversations with those terms and driving policy with them in mind. It’s about making folks stare in the mirror and say, ‘We have a problem and here are some solution-based ways to fix them.’”
He speaks with a flair and passion that is one part excited young activist, one part way-too-busy dentist/new father, one part overwhelmed new city councilman.
“I may have bitten off a little more than I could chew,” he says with a laugh, alluding to his post on the city council, on top of his profession as a dentist with his own practice and his growing family at home.
“But it turns out that I can chew okay,” he continues.
Harlow, a twenty-nine-year-old dentist who was born and raised in and around Atlanta, studied at his hometown Emory University, where he met his wife (Kiara), before heading to Chapel Hill for dental school. Harlow credits his growing up in a politically conscious family for instilling him with a passion for politics. He cites his sister, a District Attorney in Atlanta, as further proof of his family’s penchant for public service.
His political interests took deeper root when Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President in 2008.
“That was the first election I was able to vote in,” Harlow says, “and that was very important to me. I volunteered for his ‘America First’ campaign and found my way onto Emory’s college council.”
Unfortunately, dental school would prove far too busy for a slate of political activism and engagement.
“All I did was study.” He pauses before continuing with a hearty laugh. “And go to Tar Heel games.”
After moving to Charlotte in 2014 for a job, Harlow found himself almost immediately involved in his community’s goings-on, as Charlotte was now home.
“As soon as we got here, we knew we loved this place,” Harlow says. “So we built a home in the Five Points community and, knowing we were going to be here for the long-term, I began to get involved.”
His early local activism involved founding and orchestrating community gardens and increasing the number of speed limit signs in his own neighborhood. Soon he found himself running his community alliance as their president.
“It was there that I met James Mitchell and Al Austin,” he continues. “And it was Mitchell who helped introduce me to this political network. I worked on his 2015 campaign and became very involved with the local Democratic party.”
A self-described liberal, Harlow saw the vitriol that new-age conservatism produced in the era of Trump.
“I wanted to fight that,” he says. “I’m not an aggressive progressive but I just wanted to find a way to fight that.”
It was that spark that led him to run for the seat that was vacated by Al Austin, upon Austin’s appointment as outreach director for Historically Black Colleges and Universities at the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Encouraged by luminous Charlotte activists like Dorothy Counts-Scroggins, Judge Shirley Fulton, and Vilma Leake, Harlow soon found himself going head-to-head with mainstay westside community activist J’Tanya Adams for the open council seat.
“Charlotte is getting younger,” he says. “But our council did not reflect that.”
Speaking of Adams, Harlow is quick to praise, calling her a great community leader and one with whom he still regularly works.
“I see myself as something of a bridge,” Harlow explains. “I’m not from here but I am here, and that is so much of Charlotte. And in that, I’m not anti-growth but I am anti-displacement.
“I bulldozed a duplex and built a home,” he continues. “I’m very cognizant of that. But I am a young professional who doesn’t want to live in the suburbs because my W2 says that’s where I’m supposed to live and I see that everywhere in Charlotte.”
That conundrum, and the fact that unlike so many of Charlotte’s leaders and figureheads, he is not a native Charlottean, pushed Harlow to highlight his outsider status.
“I campaigned on that,” he says. “Embrace what’s different. Embrace the outsider’s point of view.
“We’re on the right path,” Harlow concludes. “I’m just hoping we can drive that conversation a little further and embrace our expectations.
“That’s how we’re going to be the city of tomorrow.”
Learn more about the Charlotte City Council members.