Dec. 4, 2019 was my last official meeting on the Charlotte City Council. My closing remarks included words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in which he highlighted his “shattered dreams.” It was interesting to me to see the many Black faces in the auditorium who frowned as I read Dr. King’s words along with my immediate recognition of the irony. As I read I also felt “disappointment” in fellow and former elected officials who are too afraid to fight for Black access to equity or even to say the words “Black people” when discussing economic growth and contract allocations.
From 2011-2019 I worked tirelessly for the district I was elected to represent as the City of Charlotte’s second African-American female and first openly LGBTQ elected official on city council. I felt that who I brought into each room was the activist who had worked in the community on issues of equity and access for over 25 years. I helped to move “Ban the Box” which was written by the community through city council in my first term, created a district-focused job fair that would become a staple through the entirety of my service and led the adoption of “domestic partner” benefits for city employees.
As I look back at different points of my eight years, I served on upward of 19 plus different committees, commissions, boards in leadership roles locally, statewide and nationally. It was not unrealistic for me to start my day before 8 a.m. and return home as late as 9:30 p.m. in the evenings, along with Saturdays and Sundays. I acknowledge my schedule was what I made it — I made a conscious decision to show up as much as possible when called upon by residents for assistance. I attended many neighborhood meetings, ribbon cuttings, community meetings to hear resident concerns regarding the impact of potential re-zoning impacts to be better prepared to represent their concerns. There was a time towards the end of my eight years of service where it seemed I was receiving more calls from residents outside of my area than from the specific district in which I was elected. I was not upset about it, I loved service; I enjoyed the role of service and fought for small businesses along with specifically Black-owned small business, to create access to the billions of wealth afforded to non-Black-owned businesses in the Charlotte area.
Starting off 2020 with a “bang” as I was gearing up to turn the BIG 5-0H, readying for my birthday party and taking time off after working non-stop for eight years, a reality check slowly slipped in. I realized my stress levels were extremely high, I replayed media’s reporting on my comments and questions of equity along with the social media posts and emails received.
It started slowly dissipating. There was no way to know just two months later a pandemic would stop the world as we know it. As my stress level slowly melted away, the realization of fighting for Diverse Price Point Housing, as I saw all the signs of impending gentrification displacing many of my neighbors, dominated my thoughts. I was slowly being re-consumed by the many thoughts of those I was not able to help, along with wondering how to continue to make an impact in my community. The sad and unwavering truth I learned as an local elected official is that the wealthy receive constant discounts and waivers when those attempting to access equity are told, “You don’t have enough experience,” (as with the African-American led organization that did not receive the Eastland Mall bid); “We are moving in a different direction” (like the small business that jumped through all the hoops for an airport bid and was still denied for the airport to keep the same company that had grown additional businesses from the contract); and some receive no response at all. Although I was a ‘no” vote to a 20 plus year-old business which had expanded with multiple restaurants and saw personal financial growth have their rent in Uptown Charlotte reduced from $3,500 to $500 a month due to a council vote, I wondered how to create those type of opportunities for true “small businesses.”
I wanted to understand why no one questioned all of the vacant ground floor space along taxpayer-funded light rail stations that were over-priced and not accessible to small business. So I tested a theory, after speaking with the head of City Real Estate. He stated to me “these spaces were not meant to make money, we just needed to add them for the parking deck approval.” I submitted a proposal to lease a space. I was bumped around to real estate staff, then to an agent paid by contract to lease the spaces and after weeks of a runaround (I did not use my former title to cut any corners) was told the rental would be $25 a square foot for a space that had been vacant over two years. I countered this offer only to wait many more months before receiving a response.
Over the six months of this back and forth I, like many, watched as our city experienced more police violence against its residents, community protests for police reform, evictions due to lack of employment which was COVID-related, landlords refusing to accept state monies to cover rent payments because the owner would need to sign waivers to not evict or raise the rents, loss of housing affordable to those earning under $60,000 annually and small business closures while big businesses received PPP funds to stay afloat.
What I experienced with attempting to work with the City of Charlotte is no different that what I heard from many in the community over the eight years I served in office and why I fought for access. I wanted to experience it for myself, to better understand the truths I already knew. And that is “painting a mural” is better than actually creating access and equity for the minority community. It sounds good for a campaign ad but is rarely implemented because it is a true disrupter of “bias” which, when I upset that balance, was many a time alone.
I reflect on the many conversations had in regards to development, re-zoning, who has a voice in rooms discussing equity and inclusion, what relational vs. transactional looks and feels like, and with pride I honor my successes and mourn my losses.
I see in community members daily the positive impact I made all while maneuvering a schedule filled with meetings. As I attempt to maintain through a pandemic that has taken over 300,000 lives — many being the lives of by poor, lower income, elderly, Black and Latino/a communities. Seeing daily on the news Black bodies be abused and assaulted by police officers sworn to protect and serve, while career politicians who have become millionaires during their elected services are the same ones deciding that “Defund the Police” is not acceptable language, or did not think to apply enforceable sanctions for major corporation or church misuse of PPP funds.
Nine months into the pandemic, multiple vaccines are either being fast-tracked through FDA or in discussion for approval. Masks are mandated to protect ourselves and each other, small gatherings only and lots of at-home time. Welcome to the new normal.
I was challenged like many to get up each day, brush my teeth, get dressed, comb my hair — you know the daily tasks. I am no longer stressing as much as I see more people helping each other as the holidays are upon us. I have had the opportunity to help others through food bank donations, passing out food to the homeless, giving out scarves in tent city and lots of Zoom calls in pajama bottoms and business tops. I am getting comfortable with meetings online, guiding people through negotiating with local government and returning to my passion of volunteering in the community.
LaWana Mayfield is a recovering elected official who served on the Charlotte (N.C.) City Council and is a video podcaster.
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