Charlotte’s pledge to raise $250 million for racial justice

Charlotte’s pledge to raise $250 million for racial justice

Mayor Lyles at Monday's press conference. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

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Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 19 to reflect the new fundraising total.

One after another, leaders from Charlotte’s largest corporations announced donations this month to a new $250 million fundraising effort to address racial inequity.

What’s happening: The public-private equity initiative, led by Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, focuses on four areas: bridging the digital divide, strengthening Johnson C. Smith University, encouraging employers to hire a diverse workforce and investing in corridors of opportunity.

Driving the news: City leaders unveiled the program at JCSU on Nov. 1, and have raised $216 million so far: $80 million in public dollars, $117 million in private philanthropy and $19 million in private equity/debt.

Why it matters: The racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s killing prompted corporations and governments across the country to direct millions of dollars toward mitigating systemic racism.

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  • This local effort convenes some of the most powerful and influential people in Charlotte.

What they’re saying: Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles told reporters that government and the private sector are working together to make up for that past.

  • It’s not going to be easy to erase generations of what we did,” she said. “And I hope people will see that we care.”

Yes, but: Some advocates charge that the process of developing the public-private partnership has left out the very people who’ve been harmed by past injustices.

  • Restorative Justice CLT, an advocacy group that pushes for leaders to repair the impacts of the destruction of the Brooklyn neighborhood, was involved with some of the initial conversations around the initiatives.
  • But they said the plan stops short of atoning for decisions that harmed people of color, like Brooklyn’s demolition. And they questioned why the corporations are the ones leading the response for communities that have been left behind.
  • “Who is going to be invited to sit at the table and make decisions about that money?” says Rev. Willie Keaton Jr., a member of Restorative Justice. “Will it be the same people, or are they open to outside voices who might not see things the way they see it?”

    Details: The funds raised from private corporations will be housed at the Foundation For the Carolinas, says Foundation president Michael Marsicano. There will be an oversight board that includes community members and public and private leaders that will meet to look at benchmarks and advise the Foundation on how to spend the money, he said.

    Contributions to the project so far include:

    • $40 million from The Duke Endowment.
    • $25 million from Bank of America.
    • $20 million from Wells Fargo.
    • $10 million from Lowe’s.
    • $8 million from Truist.
    • $6.1 million from Atrium Health.

    Much of the city’s portion comes from funds already budgeted for the corridors of opportunity program. Another $10 million that will be allocated to the digital divide efforts comes from American Rescue Plan money that City Council allocated last week.

    Flashback: After Floyd’s murder, Lyles says she approached the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, a consortium of corporate leaders formed to help come up with solutions to issues like economic mobility and education.

    • A group of people from the private, public and nonprofit sectors met for more than a year to flesh out the four focus areas, says Malcomb Coley, Charlotte managing partner at EY.
    • “This is not just a vision and headline,” Coley said. “There’s a lot of substance behind each one of these significant investments that we’re making in the community.”

    Between the lines: Each of the four categories has a certain amount of funding dedicated to it.

    • The corridors of opportunity focus area, with a goal of $109 million, will inject private dollars into an existing city program that aims to bring economic development to six areas of town in west, north and east Charlotte that have faced disinvestment. Some residents, though, worry it will also bring gentrification.
    • The digital divide effort, with a goal of $58 million, will look to provide computers to the more than 50,000 households who lack access to the internet, teach digital literacy and establish a Center for Digital Equity.
    • The Johnson C. Smith University efforts, for which leaders aim to raise $80 million, will center on increasing scholarships, expanding career-oriented academic programs and collaborating with other higher education institutions.
    • The employer commitment piece, with a goal of $3 million, will focus on bringing people of color into leadership, training programs and contracting with diverse vendors. Charlotte Regional Business Alliance CEO and President Janet LaBar told reporters Monday that, at a minimum, the demographic makeup of employers should reflect that of the city.

    The big picture: Raising large sums of money from the private sector to address our biggest problems is nothing new for Charlotte, from affordable housing to upward mobility. Lyles and executives touted the public-private partnership approach on Monday.

    But community advocates have long been critical of what has become known as the “Charlotte Way,” and how it leaves decisions in the hands of a few rich and powerful people.

    • “There’s a lot of posturing going on,” Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte Mecklenburg NAACP, tells me. “What I see is organizations who claim to be working towards elevating the poor getting wealthy, and the poor are still poor.”

    The bottom line: How the money is spent, and whether it will create long-lasting, systemic change, will be critical to watch as this latest effort progresses.

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