I’m not from Charlotte. I’m reminded of that nearly once a week, when someone declares, “I’m a native Charlottean” at a community meeting. After eight years, these words define my time in this city and sum up my complicated feelings about Charlotte. These feelings run the gamut from grateful (for amazing people) to frustrated (because of unrealized opportunities) to isolated (because it still doesn’t feel like home).
The first time I heard these words, I was working on a political campaign. People walked into our campaign office constantly to express their skepticism of a team of outsiders. They questioned whether we could win a local election. I heard them again when I proposed a business idea. It wasn’t the “Charlotte way.” Most recently, I heard them at a meeting about how to advance upward mobility. I’ve heard these words at business meetings and house parties. I’ve heard them from social justice activists and investment bankers alike. It is the single ubiquitous idea I’ve uncovered in eight years of exploring the city of Charlotte.
I’ve always found this sentiment to be curious. I want to know why it’s part of an introduction and not an explanation. I want to know if the speaker chose to stay or lacked the opportunity to leave. I want to know if hometown pride includes ownership of the problems seemingly calcified in a system of inequity.
“I’m a native Charlottean.” It’s only four words, but they create so much distance, intentionally drawing invisible lines in a city where visible lines are already problematic. Sometimes, they are offered as a tactic to lift up perspectives of people who have a history here above the perspectives of people who want a future here. These words are often heavy with a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time, not when problems didn’t exist, but when there weren’t so many channels to expose them. And, in my opinion, these four words hold us back.
Personally, when I hear these words, I feel unwelcome. I am reminded of my outsider status. I want to be respectful of history and context and as a result, take longer to offer my ideas. I spend time figuring out how to present solutions in the “Charlotte way.” A few times a month, I think about whether I belong here. And, I’m not alone.
Last week, I attended a meeting of young civic leaders. As part of our introductions, we were asked whether we considered Charlotte “home.” Only one person out of ten said yes, and yet, collectively, we had contributed so much to making Charlotte a great place.
Around a single table were people involved with alleviating homelessness, improving public education, catalyzing entrepreneurship, transforming criminal justice, elevating local politics, developing mentorship and leadership and building community. Professionally, we represented real estate, law, public service, higher education, nonprofit, banking, and tech. And yet, we were hesitant, almost reluctant, to claim Charlotte as our home.
The city needs its talent to stay. We bring our families. We build companies. We move here for jobs, but we stay for the communities we create. And, our outsider perspective is critical to the future of Charlotte. In a world of options, we chose Charlotte. We see something that is harder to see when you’re close: potential.
As outsiders, we bring different experiences, resources, and social networks to bear and serve as ambassadors for this city to our friends and families back home. We are unable to own much of Charlotte’s history, and as such, feel less sentimental about making necessary improvements.
The truth is, not everyone is comfortable in Charlotte. And, not everyone who can afford to be comfortable is comfortable being blind to the way things have always been. There’s something painfully universal about the problems that we face in Charlotte today – social injustice, educational inequity, poverty, political division, homelessness, hunger – the list goes on and on.
Each day, 100 people move to Charlotte. We should embrace and engage them quickly. When everyone who lives here feels a sense of ownership of the problems and believes they are responsible for the solutions, we will be closer to building a city we can all call home. Let’s move beyond where we are from, so we can all get to where we want to be.
We don’t need to be native Charlotteans to want a better future, but we do need to be Charlotteans to help create it.
Photo: John D. Simmons/Charlotte Observer
This story originally ran at CharlotteObserver.com.