Next Era Series
Wilson Hooper, City of Charlotte, NC
After protests rocked the city and shined light on significant inequalities, Charlotte turned to one of the oldest engagement techniques –conversation- to try and win back trust and find out how residents really felt about the state of affairs.
24 May 2017
In September 2016, violent protests erupted in Charlotte after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer shot and killed an African-American man who witnesses claimed was unarmed and posed no threat. Video of the incident taken from police body cams was not immediately released as local investigators’ sought to protect the integrity of their investigation.
The protests culminated in an intense confrontation at the City Council’s next meeting, when hundreds filled the building and over 130 speakers criticized the Council. Their testimony was raw, pointed, and powerful. And it demonstrated that, though their protest may have been based on bad information, their anger was sincere and real.
The protestors that evening didn’t just talk about the shooting. They shared their distrust of law enforcement, their frustration at the difficulty of making ends meet in Charlotte, their anger at the perceived complacency of city leaders to change anything. Their earnestness prompted a discussion of inequalities in Charlotte and how the local governments could help fix them.
"We the 11 members of Charlotte City Council, hear the anger, frustration and need expressed both in the streets and in our Council Chamber... Our love, passion and pride for our city deman action. To more forawrd requires everyone's help. When our community comes to together great things happen. This is our spirit. This is our culture. This is our city. We will lead. We will act. We will do this together.
- Charlotte CIty Council
The Charlotte City Council responded by jointly penning a letter to the community. The letter contained a frank acknowledgement of the city’s inequalities and specific policy pledges on how to remedy them. It focused on three areas: safety, trust, and accountability; access to quality affordable housing; good paying jobs. Furthermore, it pledged to make the City’s response inclusive: “We will lead. Will we act. We will do this together.”
So with this direction, the city organization and its partners embarked on an ambitious effort to meet the goals outlined by the Council and heal Charlotte. And they’re doing so with all the modern tools available to local governments: data and analytics, public-private partnerships, technology based engagement. But perhaps Charlotte’s most notable tool is something more old-fashioned. Something notable not in its newness but in its normalness – conversation.
Such a simple act wouldn’t be the most effective approach under normal circumstances, as conversations are time consuming and do not yield the type of focused information that a typical survey would. But in this case, the goals were clear: demonstrate a commitment to inclusion, make personal connections, and get authentic answers. Three projects with conversation at their core are already completed or are underway:
So what’s so innovative about this approach? Nothing really, except the purpose is to humanize the participants rather than hold them as a data point, or a bureaucrat. It makes government more personal and allows those in our community to have their voices heard. In difficult times, these aren’t typical approaches in government work.
But, in Charlotte, these approaches are changing how city government operates, so that next time the bonds are strained they don’t snap.
The work has begun. One conversation at a time.
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City of Charlotte, NC
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