Mecklenburg advocacy board for women faces questions about its diversity

Commissioner Vilma Leake
Commissioner Vilma Leake

Questions emerged Tuesday over the diversity of a Mecklenburg County citizen board that advocates for women after commissioners lamented the group’s apparent turnover.

Problems on the women’s advisory board came to the forefront as board members appointed new members to several boards, including the airport commission, juvenile crime prevention council and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library Board of Trustees.

Only one person applied to serve on the women’s board, leaving three vacant seats after two of its members said they weren’t interested in reappointment. Another resigned because of other commitments.

Commissioner George Dunlap noted that most women on the 15-member board are black. One woman on the board is white, and another is Hispanic. Pat Schulz, who the board appointed Tuesday, listed her race as “other” on an application.

Dunlap said he wanted to ensure the boards attracted a diverse group of applicants – a notion he’s raised about citizen boards in past meetings.

But the conversation soon touched on membership turnover, an issue that underscores the challenges for all-volunteer boards.

“There is something gong on with (women’s advisory) committee – people are resigning,” said Commissioner Bill James. “I remember when I first started in the ’90s; it was basically a lot of white people from Myers Park. That certainly has changed, but I don’t know what’s causing the friction.”

It can be tough for citizen boards to keep members who find out later about the serious time commitment, said Mike Sexton, spokesman for the county’s community support services division, which works with the women’s advisory board. “Some don’t understand that these are working boards.”

Commissioners asked County Manager Dena Diorio to speak with county staff to address why the board is struggling to keep members.

The group was first formed in 1974 under the leadership of former county commissioners Chair Liz Hair to increase awareness about the needs, abilities and problems of Mecklenburg County’s women. In the years since, it’s organized annual women’s equality day events and compiled a directory of women-led businesses and organizations.

For years, the group gave commissioners regular updates on the status of women in the county that cover topics including education, health and homelessness. The group failed to deliver a report in 2014 and this year because of its trouble organizing, Sexton said.

Commissioner Vilma Leake, who serves as a representative to the board and was once a member, said she was unaware of any problems.

She took issue with inferences that something is wrong with the board because it’s majority black when other citizen boards also aren’t diverse.

The 11-member human resources advisory committee, for example, has nine white and two black members.

“Because it’s all minority doesn’t mean something has to be wrong with it,” Leake said of the women’s advisory board. “When I was on this board, it was all white. It wasn’t a problem then.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov