By Yen Duong

Set a timer for thirty seconds, close your eyes and imagine walking through your daily life. Who are the people you see at your home, your work, the grocery store, your social groups? How segregated or integrated is your typical experience?

On Oct. 24, over 6,000 Charlotte residents across the city kicked off small group discussions with that exercise as part of “On the Table CLT,” an event meant to spur community dialogue about challenging issues. Participants discussed their experiences with segregation and brainstormed ways that the community could change.

Two maps with various shades of green. On the top map, dark green indicates areas of Charlotte that contain over 15 percent of households with incomes of $200,000 or more. In the bottom map, dark green indicates areas with over 30% poverty.
These maps from the Leading on Opportunity report indicate regions of households with income over $200,000 and regions of poverty in Charlotte. Graphics from Leading on Opportunity report.

In 2014, an economic study ranked Charlotte 50th out of 50 U.S. metro areas in terms of economic mobility. That means a child in Charlotte from the lowest 20 percent of income households was the least likely to rise to the highest 20 percent income level during their lifetime than in any of the other cities studied.

In the years since that Harvard and Berkeley study, Charlotteans have been reckoning with how to solve that inequity.

“We know health is linked to racial outcomes. ‘On the Table’ can shine a light on how [the way that] segregation can lead to those outcomes can be hidden,” said “On the Table” project director Janeen Bryant at a training session before the event. “If you have any kind of health crisis, it’s hidden, then you have to talk about it, diagnose it, then treat it. We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve diagnosed it quite a bit, but we haven’t treated it yet.”

After the economic mobility study, a community task force investigated how Charlotte got to this point and where it could improve. That task force published its report last year, and the first “On the Table,” focused on social capital, was organized in response.

Putting segregation on the table

Organizers chose segregation as the guiding theme this year because it affects every aspect – such as education or career readiness – that the report identified as main factors in an individual’s opportunity, said Charlotte librarian Angel Truesdale, who hosted an event.

“Especially when you’re talking about communities, access to […] health and food and things that create well-being in people are definitely affected by segregation, where you live, the neighborhood you live in, the transportation you use,” said Truesdale, who also hosted “On the Table” last year at the library.

Eleven people sit around a conference table listening as the host, seated at the far end, talks.
Participants gather for an On the Table conversation at the Charlotte Mecklenburg main library on October 24. Photo credit: Yen Duong

She continued, “Last year with social capital, [we discussed how] what you have in your neighborhood can bring you up, and this year with segregation, how people are kept from things that can add to your social capital.”

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Social Determinants of Health story map reveals inequity in access to housing, transportation and food. Social determinants of health are factors from the social environment, such as income, gender and discrimination, that affect an individual’s health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Latin American Chamber of Commerce executive director Rocio Gonzalez organized five “On the Table” events at the LACC this year. These included the city’s only two tables in Spanish. Gonzalez attended four conversations last year, she said.

“At last year’s conversation, the Latino community was not ‘on (sic) the table’,” Gonzalez said. “This time, even if we have [people from only] one group of communities, at least the conversation is there, so even [the Latino community] also understands how important it is to talk about segregation and integration and your daily life.”

‘Dissolve the legacy of segregation’

Some organizations worked together to provoke conversations from diverse viewpoints, Bryant said. For instance, Myers Park, an affluent high school, partnered with Sedgefield Middle School, where 99 percent of students qualify for free lunch.

Hosts held conversations over snacks or meals in locations ranging from cafeterias and churches to parks and outdoor breweries. They urged every attendee to share specific memories, which included school inequity, neighborhood and church segregation, school integration in the 1960s and resegregation today.   

Each table included a paper timeline of Charlotte, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year. It included descriptions of redlining from the 1937 U.S. Housing Act, school busing for integration and the end of those programs in 1971 and 1997, and the demolishing of Good Samaritan Hospital, “the first private hospital built exclusively for black citizens in North Carolina” after nearly 100 years.

A seated woman gestures with her hands while talking, two other woman at her table pay attention to her, others in the background watch the converastion
Participants at a model table during a host training for On the Table CLT. Photo credit: Genna Marshall

“For racialized outcomes like maternal health rates, we know that’s directly linked to segregation, but we don’t talk about it that way,” Bryant said during the training before the event. “We talk about the hospital here locally and what that looked like and what that meant for the black community when their hospital was demolished.”

The event was funded by the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Knight Foundation. It replicates the “On the Table” event in Chicago, which began in 2014. The Foundation will give out microgrants for organizations to implement ideas that came from the event. Organizations can upload a two-minute video to apply for the Act On Fund until Nov. 30.

“We really believe that convening and having frank dialogue and sharing and most importantly, listening, can lead to change and can lead to action,” said Whitney Feld, who works for the Foundation for the Carolinas. “We’re thinking of […] how to dissolve the legacy of segregation the city has been dealing with for the past 250 years and continues to be a challenge. Hopefully, when we have more equity, we have better health outcomes for all of our community members, all of our citizens.”

Three maps in shades of green show where white, non-hispanics, African Americans and Hispanic/Latino populations live in Charlotte.
These maps from a report on economic mobility show racial segregation in Charlotte. Graphic from Leading on Opportunity report.

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Yen Duong

Yen Duong covers health care in Charlotte and the southern Piedmont for North Carolina Health News.