For many, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Oluwatoyin Salau and others, and the disproportionate impact of the global pandemic on people of color, have been an abrupt reminder that there is work to do to make our American ideals true.
In the wake of a movement to address a bevy of social ills based in racial discrimination, many are looking for organizations that support their fellow Black citizens.
While these problems may feel new for society at large, Black women leaders have been addressing the issues facing Charlotteans for quite some time. I set out to speak with four Black women leading in areas that support Charlotte’s Black youth, creators, and historically underserved residents.
As a child, Donna Dunlap saw her parents commit their lives to serving socioeconomically disadvantaged youth. Her mother mentored a girl from a working-class community, and her father advocated and worked for children as a high school principal and eventually as an assistant superintendent. Donna took a different route and worked her way up the corporate ladder at Xerox, eventually becoming the Regional Vice President of Sales, then continued her career at Microsoft – all while raising a child she took in when he was two days old.
Even as she volunteered on non-profit boards, she always felt like there was more she could be doing to be the positive influence she had grown up seeing her parents be.
And so in 2016 after an extensive corporate career, she accepted the opportunity to lead the Big Brothers Big Sisters Central Carolinas, a non-profit organization that serves Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, and York Counties, providing 1500 children with mentors. She even has continued her mother’s legacy by becoming a mentor (or “Big”) with a mentee (“Little”) of her own.
She knows that as a Black woman leading the organization, it signals something to the girls and children of color. To them, she is family and in some important yet hard-to-define ways, she understands the challenges they face because she has experienced some of them too.
Each mentee completes a questionnaire before they are matched and a customized development plan helps ensure that the mentor and mentee (with help from a Match Support Specialist) can achieve the goals outlined in the plan such as improved self-esteem or better decision making.
When I ask her for evidence of their success, I can almost hear the wheels whirl in Donna’s mind as she sorts through countless stories to share. “There was a Little who was destined not to graduate because he was not going to school. His Big went to the Little’s home and realized that his father was disabled and the Little was staying home to take care of him when he was sick. Then the Big explained the situation to the school counselors and they found resources to help the father and the young man was able to make up his work and graduate from high school.”
Bigs provide social capital and resources that oftentimes Littles otherwise would not have access to. Donna’s Little thanks her regularly for being consistent and showing up when she says she will. It is the little things that matter to the littles – no pun intended.
While Donna and the Big Brothers Big Sisters Central Carolinas focus on one to one mentorship, Jania Massey, Founder and Executive Director of Stiletto Boss University supports high school girls by teaching them the power of collaboration and sisterhood through entrepreneurship.
“[Before now], Black women have always been doing the work of philanthropy and service. Now we can hopefully get the backing and additional funding to move forward and validate that things we’ve always been advocating for and saying needed to be done.”
After a successful corporate career, Jania began working in non-profits and learned that her network and impact was limited by her lack of social capital. So, she set out to create an organization that could help high school girls develop their networks and improve their prospects of success in careers – either as entrepreneurs or in other environments.
Stiletto Boss University teaches young women public speaking skills, basic business skills and gives them the opportunity to earn a prized internship opportunity. The global pandemic has not slowed them down; it has just created an opportunity for the organization to pivot to online services, enabling them to serve a broader group of students.
“When you invest in Stiletto Boss University, you are helping a young lady find her purpose. You see a return on your investment rather quickly. We’re cultivating the next generation of leaders and how innovative they’re going to be.”
To volunteer or donate to Stiletto Boss University, visit the link here.
Bryan Stevenson, social justice advocate and attorney wrote, “You ultimately judge the civility of a society not by how it treats the rich, the powerful, the protected and the highly esteemed, but by how it treats the poor, the disfavored and the disadvantaged.”
If Charlotte is judged by how the citizens of Grier Heights have been treated, it will not score high marks. Grier Heights is a neighborhood developed in the 1890’s by a formerly enslaved man named Sam Billings who bought one hundred acres of land in the area. While it is one of Charlotte’s oldest Black and previously middle-class neighborhoods, it is currently a low-income neighborhood with higher than average unemployment and substandard housing.
Tiffany Capers, the Executive Director of Crossroads Corporation for Affordable Housing and Economic Development and her team are committed to supporting Grier Heights residents in improving their station. According to the Charlotte Neighborhood Quality of Life, despite being near some of Charlotte’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Grier Heights residents’ have a median household income roughly 1/3rd of the median income of the city at large.
“I was drawn to lead CrossRoads by the opportunity to not only work for but to work with the community.” She echoes the importance of social capital that Jania hopes to help high school girls develop for Stiletto Boss University. CrossRoads was founded by the Myers Park Presbyterian Church, an organization with extensive social capital and Tiffany aims to bridge the gap between their resources and the needs of the Grier Heights community.
CrossRoad’s approach includes a focus on affordable housing and critical home repair; education enrichment for preschool through adult education; staffing and operation of the Grier Heights Community Center and relationship building with residents. Their full-time staff members, many of whom Tiffany inherited when she joined CrossRoads, are all women. “As an all-girl squad, we bring sensibility to the work, a level of reflection and introspection.”
Grier Heights’ history is only one of the aspects that make it a special place. The descendants of the founding families still live there and as Tiffany puts it, “the people of Grier Heights deserve opportunities just like anyone else – no one is expendable.” The residents must know she means it; one young lady saw the Community Center Director nicknamed “Miss T” pull up to the neighborhood and yelled, “Thank you God for Miss T for keeping us out of these streets!”
Thank you indeed for Miss T and for Tiffany too.
Click here to donate to CrossRoads Corporation for Affordable Housing and Community Development.
If you visit Uptown Charlotte, you are likely to see emblazoned right on Tryon a beautiful expanse of art developed by Black artists that spells out “Black Lives Matter.
DaVita Galloway, co-founder and Executive Director of CrownKeepers, an organization that supports the art and creative culture of Charlotte, was personally proud of all the artists that contributed to the permanent art installation.
“New York, LA, and Atlanta are cities people think about when you talk about the art scene, but we have so much talent here. Several cities created Black Lives Matter murals, but we were the first city that gave it that much character.”
Within the arts and creative community, the pandemic has had a devastating economic impact. DaVita rattles off a few astounding figures from Americans for the Arts:
94% of creators have reported income loss.
79% have experienced a decrease in creative work that generated income.
66% are unable to access supplies, resources, or people necessary for their work.
She reminds me that those are the general numbers; for Black and brown artists they are even more disheartening. These numbers also reflect the absolute need for CrownKeepers, which gives directly to and amplifies the voice of Black and brown creators.
And yet, with people going hungry, homelessness rising, thousands of people in Charlotte who are sick, why does art matter?
“Art is how we communicate; it’s how we tell stories and express what’s currently happening. The music we listen to, the architecture we encounter, art is woven into our daily lives. It has a way of humanizing our perspective, and we often take it for granted because it is literally everywhere. But we need it.”
CrownKeepers allows students to shop for free in their wardrobe department, distributes art supplies to those who need them, provides a physical space for artists to perform, and creates art experiences for the benefit of the public. The organization is a nod to Charlotte’s nickname of the Queen City; the CrownKeepers believe they are the providers and keepers of Charlotte’s culture. If you are wondering if the crown fits, to date, they have supported over 10,000 creators in the Charlotte region.
To donate and support their mission to identify and nurture emerging artists in Charlotte, click here.