Patrick Graham shares parting words for Charlotte, including message for community leaders

Former nonprofit leader Patrick Graham is leaving Charlotte to serve as the Senior Policy Advisor for the City of Richmond, Va.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Graham

Over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded America that we failed to make good on the promises of democracy and inclusive access to our nation’s prosperity.

“America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” he remarked during his often misunderstood ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.

Charlotte is now in the process of writing its own promissory note for residents in pursuit of economic and social mobility. This will require more than thoughts and rhetoric of systems change. It will require a shedding of systemic paternalism and a desire for people of color to have co-ownership of Charlotte’s vision and structures. Most importantly, we all must lead courageously beyond our self-interest.

For the past 20 years, poverty has been my “white whale,” and I have been its “Ahab” in the Queen City. However, I learned over time to look at people as opportunities for us all, as opposed to mere victims of our de jure and de facto systems. I had to step out of myself as a savior and convert into a believer in the very people I supported. Charlotte must view residents hidden in the shadows of its economic towers as valuable human talent. A failure to do so will paralyze any good intentions because our actions will be saturated with unconscious paternalism that reinforces social hierarchies. No system can be effective with that type of prejudice.

Our community activists should lead with an urgency that is unbridled by a mere seat at the table. Too often communities of color are pacified with small gifts that equate to maintenance of the status quo. Our duty is to engage the issues of the day, not as invited guests, but co-owners of processes and resources. If we want to change issues of education, housing, talent, and others, we must communicate that support from benefactors cannot equate into subservience or mere acquiescence without shared power. We can have humility and command mutual respect at the same time if we are intellectually and spiritually brave.

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Brave leadership requires actions that go beyond self-preservation. While it seems idealistic, we can look at the sacrifices and risks of leaders from slavery to today’s modern era of Reconstruction as examples. The elected must lead beyond their hopes for reelection. The black and brown faces in the C-suites of businesses must tactfully advocate with conviction. Male and female leaders will have to confront their own patriarchal thinking to avoid toxic forms of masculinity and feminism that impact families. Just as important, we cannot allow resources to serve as an excuse for the underdevelopment of our future talent. Some sacrifices and sharing of our abundance are required from the courageous.

As I leave Charlotte to become the Senior Policy Advisor for the City of Richmond, I desire to lead with these principles. In many ways, my experience in Charlotte has fortified my own resolve and ability to dream. If this all seems a little too idealistic, I ask that we reconsider the purpose of vision. All things that become tangible realities for the good fall short of the fantasies that inspired them. My hope for Charlotte is that it dreams bigger about the talent waiting in the shadows and makes good on its promissory note.

Patrick C. Graham, Ph.D. is a public sector leader and author with over 21 years of executive level experience. He is also a professor of contemporary history and social advocate.

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