Mayor Vi Lyles launches $250 million initiative to promote racial equity

So far, donors have pledged a combined $196 million to support that effort, which includes a commitment of private and tax dollars.
Vi Lyles

Some of Charlotte’s biggest corporations and philanthropic groups have launched a $250 million initiative to address some of the social and economic disparities caused by centuries of American racism.

So far, donors have pledged a combined $196 million to support that effort, announced Monday as the newly created Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative.

Donors include large banks, healthcare companies and the region’s supplier of electricity. But the list of givers also includes private foundations, the library system and the city of Charlotte.

Mayor Vi Lyles, speaking at a kick-off event at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), called it “a defining moment” in the city’s history.

Donors said the money will be spent to address four broad categories, or “workstreams”:

  • bridging the digital divide
  • investing in Charlotte’s six “corridors of opportunity”
  • transforming JCSU into a top-10 historically Black college
  • and ensuring corporations commit to equity by advancing Black and Brown workers to executive levels.

“The issues we face as a community are bigger, broader, and more deep-seated than any one organization can address alone,” Lyles said. “The response from our corporate partners surpassed even what I could have expected, and we have set a new standard for an American city.”

Roots of an initiative

Lyles said the initiative stemmed from an idea she formed in the summer of 2020, when protests erupted in cities across America, including in Charlotte, following the murder of George Floyd by an-duty police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota — an event that forced the nation to re-examine its history of racism.

The mayor approached local business leaders, including Malcomb Coley of the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, to form a corporate response team to address historical inequities and boost economic opportunities for Black and Brown residents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Eighteen months and several strategy sessions later, the mayor’s initiative was born.

As outlined Monday, each of the four workstreams will have a business plan with a budget and metrics to measure success. Two governance boards will provide oversight and accountability for the funds.

Coley, who is Charlotte managing partner of EY (formerly Ernst & Young), and Janet LaBar, president and CEO of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, will oversee the workstreams.

Foundation For The Carolinas will lead fundraising efforts and administer the financial pledges.

Why it matters

Invited guests attend the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative event on Nov. 1 at Johnson C. Smith University. (Photo: Sarafina Wright)

The initiative comes at a time when governments and corporations alike are increasingly looking for ways to address racial inequalities caused by discriminatory policies and practices.

In Charlotte, as in other cities, Black and Brown residents struggle disproportionately to find affordable housing, employment and access to health care — all of which lead to social, economic and health disparities.

A 2014, a prominent study that examined economic mobility in America ranked Charlotte last among the nation’s 50 largest cities, with Mecklenburg ranked 99th out of 100 counties.

To address those and other challenges, the city of Charlotte in 2020 launched a Corridors of Opportunity initiative, a multi-year effort to reverse decades of civic neglect in six predominantly Black communities where crime and poverty are stubbornly high.

The City Council so far has voted to spend $38.5 million to make improvements along the six corridors.

In an interview with QCity Metro last week, Lyles said those allocated funds aren’t enough to overturn decades of underinvestment.

On Monday, as part of the mayor’s initiative, City Manager Marcus Jones announced an additional $62 million in taxpayer funds that will be devoted to addressing problems along the six corridors.

Lyles said government alone can’t solve Charlotte’s social and economic challenges. And even with the public-private effort announced on Monday, she said, patience will be required .

“It’s not going to be easy to erase generations of what we did, but I hope that people will see that we care,” Lyles said. “This is the beginning.”

An unprecedented day

Johnson C. Smith University President Clarence Armbrister speaks to reporters following the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative event on Nov. 1 at Johnson C. Smith University. (Photo: Sarafina Wright)

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative may be Johnson C. Smith University, which received more than $60 million in financial commitments from private and philanthropic sources.

The bulk of those commitments will come from The Duke Endowment, historically the school’s biggest funder. The Charlotte-based private foundation committed to giving $40 million to JCSU to launch new academic programs, career opportunities and to provide more scholarships and financial aid to students.

Minor Shaw, who chairs of The Duke Endowment Board of Trustees, said when its founder established the endowment in 1924, he named JCSU as one of four schools in the Carolinas he wanted to support with his philanthropy.

“Our partnership continues today as we proudly support these critical efforts to advance racial equity, diversity and inclusion for all,” Shaw said.

Atrium Health pledged $22.8 million to the mayor’s initiative, with $3 million going to JCSU to develop a pre-med program, scholarships, and a new student health center on the university’s campus.

Other JCSU commitments include: $500,000 from Mike and Mary Lamach; $10 million from Lowe’s; $3 million from Atrium Health; $5 million from Ally Financial; $3 million from Truist; and $10 million from Bank of America.

Kieth Cockrell, president of Bank of America Charlotte, attends the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative event on Nov. 1 at Johnson C. Smith University. (Photo: Sarafina Wright)

Kieth Cockrell, president of Bank of America Charlotte, said the commitment marks the start of a pipeline of the next generation of corporate professionals as the hometown bank.

“Education is a gateway to a better life,” Cockrell said. “Our long-term relationship with JCSU has set a foundation for this critical moment — a collective partnership among the public and private sectors working to eliminate existing barriers by providing unique opportunities to JCSU students.”

Red Ventures CEO and philanthropist Ric Elias also pledged $5 million to JCSU as part of the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative.

JCSU President Clarence Armbrister called the investments “unprecedented” for the schools, which was founded in 1867 as a “freedman’s school” to educate the descendants of Americans who had been enslaved.

“I’ve had every emotion,” he said. “I’ve been smiling, laughing, and crying. This is exciting for the campus and the community.”

For more information on the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative visit equityclt.org.

Sarafina Wright
Sarafina covers Historic West End under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. She earned a journalism degree from Howard University. Email news tips to sarafinawright@qcitymetro.com or connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @sarafinasaid.

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