Diverse economic opportunity task force to launch Tuesday

It was a study that stunned the city.

Of the nation’s 50 largest cities, the city where it was hardest for a poor child to escape poverty was Charlotte, according to researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley released early last year.

That spurred Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller to call for a task force on economic opportunity in January 2013 that not only would tackle the reasons for the challenge, but bring his board solutions.

City officials and the Foundation for the Carolinas joined Fuller’s call and last November the group’s co-leaders – doctor, Novant executive and ordained minister Ophelia Garmon-Brown and Charlotte banker Dee O’Dell – were introduced.

Now on Tuesday, nearly six months after that announcement, Garmon-Brown and O’Dell will introduce the 20 other members of the task force that is scheduled to begin work in early May.

“It has taken us a little longer than anticipated to get to the launching point, but we wanted to make sure that we were very thoughtful about who those 20 members were,” said O’Dell, who oversaw the selection while Garmon-Brown recuperated from a medical issue.

He wouldn’t name names, but said none are the usual cast of people who populate Charlotte’s boards or executives who run nonprofits.

It is widely diverse, he said. The task force includes elementary school teachers and teachers from Central Piedmont Community College. There are social workers, cops and ministers; people who “have worked in the trenches to combat the challenges,” O’Dell said. “Several members ... have lived this story, raised in poverty and transitioned out of it.

“So we believe we have representation from the broadest cross-section of the community.”

Along the way, they’ve picked up support from the Knight Foundation and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation based in Winston-Salem.

In his 2014 State of the County address, Fuller said he thought – perhaps naively – that Mecklenburg’s prosperity had been broadly shared.

But an Observer story last August showed that concentrations of poverty had spread throughout the county. In Mecklenburg, 1 in 4 residents lived in distressed neighborhoods in 2010, up from 1 in 10 in 2000, the Observer found. These neighborhoods have at least 20 percent of residents living below the federally established poverty level – for a family of four, a yearly household income of $23,850 or less.

That is the task force’s challenge – to recommend actions officials can pursue to spread economic opportunity.

The work will take about 18 months, with an action plan delivered to county commissioners and Charlotte City Council by the third quarter 2016, O’Dell said.

He said the task force won’t tackle all of Mecklenburg’s challenges, but agree on actions for several key ones.

They will discuss homelessness, but that “won’t be at the center of the plate for our work,” O’Dell said. “There’s already a lot of great work being done on that challenge. We’re not trying to solve every challenge in our community – but will concentrate on those challenges that relate to economic opportunity.”

He said those challenges include affordable housing, job training and education.

Garmon-Brown said the first few months will be a period of “discovery” for the task force. The task force will meet every three weeks, moving their meetings around the county so they hear diverse voices. It will start by listening to experts on where Mecklenburg stands on topics relevant to economic development such as education, race, availability of jobs and the locations of the county’s affordable housing.

“We know that there was a study and what it said,” she said. “But do we know where Charlotte-Mecklenburg is in 2015? We intend to take a deeper dive than what was in the study.”

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