It’s Your Business: Community strength is critical to small businesses

Patrick Graham, president and CEO of the Urban League of Central Carolinas.
Patrick Graham, president and CEO of the Urban League of Central Carolinas. 2007 CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHO

It didn’t draw big headlines, but an important business development occurred last week: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force announced the selection of 21 members who will soon get down to work.

The task force, you may recall, was formed after a 2014 Harvard study ranked Charlotte dead last out of 50 metro areas in terms of economic mobility. In other words, people who are born poor in Charlotte face pretty stiff odds against ever joining the middle class. (And a disproportionate number of those poor people, we all know, are black and brown.)

The task force’s job is both simple and daunting: Identify barriers that impede economic mobility and recommend ways to eradicate them. Supporting this effort are the Foundation for the Carolinas, Mecklenburg County, the City of Charlotte, the John M. Belk Endowment and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

So how does this affect business?

In lots of ways. In 2011, the Observer reported that Charlotte’s non-Hispanic white population dipped below 50 percent for the first time, to 45 percent. That percentage has likely inched lower since then.

How strong can our business climate really be if the two groups that make up a majority of our population – African Americans and Latinos – are disproportionately mired in poverty? As business owners, we can’t afford to write off entire groups of consumers.

The question becomes, are we willing to put aside all that divides us – race and class and gender -- to finally seek real solutions?

Patrick Graham, who heads the Urban League of Central Carolinas, said he’s not so sure.

“I don’t believe people fully appreciate how large the task is or how long it will take to fix it,” he said. “There is an interest, but we have not developed the will.”

The local Urban League has invested countless hours in workforce and entrepreneurial training for people on the economic fringes, so Graham knows better than most how difficult the challenge will be.

Charlotte as a whole, he said, must engage in “some real soul searching” to address problems that were generations in the making.

While I wish the task force well, I was dismayed to see that the list of 21 did not include any who are currently poor. After all, who better to represent the barriers they face?When asked about this omission, task force leaders said they would spend sufficient time consulting poor families.

That simply won’t cut it, and it smacks of paternalism to think that we can assist those left out by omitting them from the solutions table.

As a business owner, I need this task force to succeed. Or, as Graham put it…

“When it comes to disparities in this community, I have a chip on my shoulder, and I believe others should have a chip on their shoulder, and we should be determined to deal with that until it does not exist.”

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of, an online news site targeting Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.