Looking for community close to home

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Annie Perrin

30 August 2018

At Leaders’ Quest we hold this truth to be self-evident: Community is everything and everything is community.

I’ve had the privilege to work in diverse communities over the past year. I have met leaders in the Middle East, West Virginia, Detroit, Malaysia, and San Francisco. My experience in Charlotte, North Carolina prompted me to ask: how can I be more involved in my own community? What is my responsibility at home?

One of our Charlotte hosts (let’s call her Jane, for confidentiality), took her dog out for a walk one day and overheard some local neighbors saying that they had to move out quickly. A new, upscale housing development was replacing the affordable complex they’d called home for decades. They’d been offered $600 and given 30 days to leave. The upset in their voices was palpable. Jane felt their fear. Strangers – though they lived only a few hundred feet apart. The next day she knocked on their door. “How can I help?”, she asked. That brave move would change their lives forever.

Charlotte is divided along racial lines, geographically and socio-economically. These boundaries are traceable to Jim Crow* laws and redlining**. Currently, rapid economic growth is driving up city housing prices. Space is a premium commodity. The development (gentrification) of poor, urban neighborhoods is underway to make room for the upper middle-class workforce migrating to Charlotte. They’re coming to find jobs in a city ranked as the ‘#1 tech momentum market” in the US. Their arrival involves the displacement of lower income people. Most are people of color and the elderly.

Jane, a white woman, joined forces with her black neighbors to confront the developers. They formed a taskforce to make sure that every family in the soon-to-be abolished housing complex had somewhere to go. She confronted her own white privilege and sought to learn as much as she could about her blind spots. She asked her friends and neighbors for rigorous feedback. “Teach me”, she asked.

Meeting Jane and her neighbors, now life-long friends, moved me to my core. They spoke about the power of love. I reflected on my own neighborhood, East Harlem, and my place in this community. Historically black, Harlem is now experiencing an uptick of white property owners like me. I often wonder how my fellow residents feel about me. Where are my blind spots of privilege? Whom have I displaced? Are there “doors” I could be knocking on? Life here is much the same as any neighborhood. People walking their dogs, stopping to discuss breeds (and the best vets) with other owners. Families picknicking in Central Park; couples sitting on benches watching passers-by. A strong sense of belonging and history – and warmth.

Harlem, of course, is infused with music and soul. Just outside my window is a statue of Duke Ellington at his piano. Last night, I heard pulsating music wafting into my apartment from the street. I was drawn to the beat. I was curious. I looked out my window and saw a group of young black men in the courtyard. They formed a loose circle and took turns flowing into the center to dance. In and out they went with energy and grace. I could not contain my joy and emotion. I began whooping out the window. Cheering for their performance. They could not hear me over the music. Spontaneously I ran downstairs and into the courtyard. I approached them. They widened the circle to acknowledge my arrival. I told them how beautiful their dancing was. I blurted out, “I saw you from my window and I had to come to tell you how amazing you are. I am a dancer too.” They thanked me, raising their hands to prayer in front of their faces, like namaste.

I am still not sure how I will become more involved in my community, but for a few moments, in the courtyard, I felt connection, love and hope.

* Racial segregation

** Denial of services, based on race/location.