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Task force aspires to increase economic mobility for Mecklenburg poor

A Mecklenburg County task force will spend most of 2015 on one daunting mission – finding ways to help the county’s poor overcome poverty.

The effort is set to be launched at a Monday news conference, where the group’s co-chairs will be introduced. They are U.S. Bank executive Dee O’Dell and Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a family medicine doctor, Novant Health executive and ordained minister who helped start and now directs a medical clinic for the poor.

They will lead a “very diverse” task force of 16 to 20 people – including low-income members – whom O’Dell and Garmon-Brown will recruit by the end of December, both co-chairs said. Their work is set to begin in January.

The need for such a study was first broached by Mecklenburg County Commissioners Chair Trevor Fuller in his State of the County address last January. He referred to a study by Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley showing that upward mobility for children in poverty is more difficult in Charlotte than in any of the country’s 50 largest cities.

Fuller described Mecklenburg’s growing poverty as “intractable” and vowed to form a task force to identify the root causes – and provide the board with an action plan.

The Harvard-Berkeley study startled many of Charlotte’s leaders, who agreed that fixes were needed. For months county staff, the Foundation for the Carolinas and The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute have teamed up to build a structure for task force meetings and decide on resources – literature and experts – that members should consider, said Assistant County Manager Michelle Lancaster.

The county has hired the Lee Institute of Charlotte for $75,000 to help lead discussions.

An Observer story in August reported that intense pockets of poverty have spread well beyond uptown’s periphery since 2000, with 1 in 4 Mecklenburg residents living in distressed neighborhoods in 2010 – up from 1 in 10 in 2000, according to U.S. Census figures.

“It’s going to be a deep-dive look at economic mobility in our county – or lack thereof,” Fuller said. “We don’t want just anecdotes, or what our beliefs are. We’re looking for enduring solutions that work.”

Fuller said the task force needs to be diverse “so that all facets of the community buy in.”

The study caught County Manager Dena Diorio off-guard. “For a community that has so much going for it and a community that is caring about its people, it was a shock to many people,” Diorio said. “It was a wake-up call to the leaders in this community to take a look at these people and see what we can do for them.”

Work on these issues has been underway for years by nonprofits that help the poor and groups such as Foundation for the Carolinas and the Charlotte Chamber. The task force, Fuller said, is designed to organize those resources into a unified, concerted effort.

Garmon-Brown said it’s essential for the group to tackle the issue now. “If that Harvard study is even 25 percent right, that is not where Charlotte and Mecklenburg County want to be,” she said.

Breaking down barriers

The two co-chairs have compelling stories that will bring different perspectives to the group’s work.

Garmon-Brown grew up in the projects of Detroit. After her father, a General Motors worker, died when she was 2, her mother, Marinda Garmon, decided to tough it out in Detroit instead of moving her two daughters to her native Windsor in Eastern North Carolina. But when Marinda’s family back home needed her help, she uprooted Ophelia and her older sister and moved them to North Carolina.

There, a high school chemistry teacher told her she’d never amount to much, despite making A’s.

But Garmon-Brown, 59, grew up knowing she wanted to be a doctor. She graduated from UNC Chapel Hill’s medical school in 1980, one of 16 minority students in a class of 160. In Charlotte, she practices family medicine and is a senior vice president at Novant Health.

Outside the hospital, she helped start the Charlotte Community Health Clinic, where she’s the medical director. She went into public schools and provided free physicals, and she is a former medical director at the Salvation Army’s shelter for women and children. She helped start Project Lift, a effort to raise academic performances at westside schools.

In 2011, she became an ordained Baptist minister.

She believes the task force will be one of the most important things she’s ever done. “I believe my life calling is to work with people who are on the margins of life – it’s where I came from,” Garmon-Brown said.

Difficult discussions ahead

Garmon-Brown heard O’Dell tell his story in June at an American Diabetes Association Central Carolinas fundraiser, where he was recognized as a Father of the Year.

“He spoke so lovingly of his wife and three daughters,” she said. “He said he wanted his daughters to remember him as a father who took risks.

“So when I was asked to be co-chair, I knew I had to bring in Dee. I told him, ‘Here’s a risk for you.’ ”

O’Dell, 50, grew up in Oxford, Miss., the son of a Presbyterian minister who helped guide the town’s Head Start program and started a camp for underprivileged children. His mother was forever finding ways to help the poor. In the 1970s, she started the college town’s first food pantry and a Christmas store that gave out toys to low-income families.

By example, they taught their son to give back.

After arriving in Charlotte in 2002, then a banker with Wachovia, he got involved with the YMCA’s Camp Thunderbird, which every summer draws underprivileged children for two weeks of camp.

“I’ve been blessed; I’ve had great role models in my life,” O’Dell said. “I am drawn to a project that looks at ways to provide opportunities for everyone. It will be an education for me along the way.”

He and others know that the effort will require difficult discussions on such topics as economic segregation in Mecklenburg, race, the issue of a living wage that other cities have tackled and barriers that hold back some from sharing in the county’s prosperity.

“It’s absolutely worth spending a year focusing on the issue of economic mobility, no matter how hard the conversations are,” O’Dell said. “If the outcome is immediate and actionable, … and there’s a way to measure the impact and measure the improvements, then we will have done our job.”

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