June 21, 2016

Can Charlotte harness its financial expertise to solve its most pressing problems?

Mayor Jennifer Roberts issues a challenge to her city's leading industry

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts speaks with The Atlantic's Ron Brownstein during a Renewal Series event in Charlotte. Photo by Mike McCarn

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Mayor Jennifer Roberts recognizes the challenges facing her city.

“I call it The Two Charlottes,” she told a crowd of city leaders and active community members gathered at a recent Renewal Series event in her hometown. “It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times.”

By many measures, Charlotte is an American success story, with growth at its core. But new job opportunities aren’t reaching the parts of the city where intergenerational poverty has remained constant and economic mobility is elusive.

The Renewal Project spoke with Mayor Roberts about some of the innovative solutions unfolding in her town, and how the city’s famous financial sector can serve an integral role. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Where do you see organizations creating innovative solutions to Charlotte’s most pressing needs?

MAYOR JENNIFER ROBERTS: One of my favorite projects to talk about is this group called E2D—Eliminate the Digital Divide. They’ve been working as a nonprofit to try to make sure that every student in our school system has a device at home and access to the Internet, because they discovered that part of what was keeping kids back is the fact that they didn’t have Internet at home because they were living in poverty.

It started with a dad whose daughter came home and said, “how come Sally sits right next to me and doesn’t have the Internet at home? That’s not fair.” And so the conversation started with his child, and they talked to Internet providers, they talked to companies that make computer devices, they got things donated, and they got a reduced price on the Internet access, and within a year they had 14 schools where every student had access. Now they’re trying to take it to all 170 schools in our system. It’s going to take them two more years to do it, but they are on a projected pattern to do that. So that’s an example for me, of how people in Charlotte see a need and they don’t need to get permission, they don’t need a grant, they just figure it out.

What do you think is an untapped resource that could be mobilized to be a change agent in Charlotte?

ROBERTS: Something I think about all the time is how can we mobilize our financial expertise, because we’ve got a lot of bankers. I used to be a banker; I was a banker for four years. A lot of people have moved in and out of banking because it’s one of our large industries here in Charlotte—we’re the second largest financial center in the U.S. But I think the challenge with bankers—traditional bankers—is they’re risk averse, so we need to mobilize our financial know-how in a way that is more proactive, creative, and more willing to take risk. It could be around growing our arts community; it could be around growing our after-school community; it could be around growing our entrepreneur community and really funding some start-ups, funding some great ideas, taking a little bit of a risk. And through that financial expertise that we know our community has—really growing and attracting talent, and the money that leads to that innovation—that’s going to help with starts-ups, with great ideas that people have in so many areas.

What advice would you give to somebody who thinks, “I’m just one resident—I don’t even know how to begin.” How do they become engaged at the community or even government level?

ROBERTS: The first thing is pick one thing that you really care about and something you may have some experience or some expertise with. Then talk to a lot of people, see if other people are having that same challenge, and then look at the community resources that might be able to help you with that challenge. The gathering of information part and the conversation part is always the fun part, because you are finding likeminded people who care about something similar.

They can also do things like [here in Charlotte], the League of Women Voters does a class every year called Civics 101, and it’s five sessions: with county commissioners, city council people, school board people, the media, and the judicial system. There are many ways that citizens can have access points to public policy, but they probably need to take a course like that from the League of Women Voters or from the community college or other groups, civic groups. The best thing that you can do is educate yourself about where those intersection points are and then find your passion.

Margaret Myers

The Renewal Project Editor