Sunday, August 20, 2006

Young Black Leadership Needed in Chapel Hill

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on May 23rd, 2006

At the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP's annual Freedom Fund banquet last Saturday, one of the folks winning an award had to be rushed to the emergency room. It was a beautiful ceremony, a testament to the great leadership folks in the NAACP have provided over the years. But this incident also reminded me that much of the black leadership in southern Orange County is aging out, and there aren't enough people waiting to assume the mantle of leadership.

I was disturbed by the small number of attendees between the ages of 20 and 40 at the dinner, but I was not surprised. The number of black voters in local municipal elections has been dwindling in recent years, down to fewer than 300 in last fall's Chapel Hill election even though it was imperative that Bill Thorpe win to ensure continued minority representation on the Town Council. The last two successful black candidates were both in their 60s, and so were a significant percentage of the African Americans voting for them.

The lack of civic engagement by minorities in Chapel Hill is something the whole town should be concerned with. The primary reason for this problem is that many young black people who grew up in this community can no longer afford to live in it due to the escalating cost of living.

In some cases these folks may still be working in Chapel Hill, but are among the many who must commute here every day due to the lack of affordable housing. During the time I've lived in Orange County virtually every candidate for elected office has talked a lot about the need for more of it, but I've seen little progress. Our elected leaders and UNC need to do more to reverse this trend of declining leadership among young black people by making it possible for more of them to live here.

The town of Chapel Hill could also be doing more to encourage civic engagement among young black people. It was nice that the Continuing Concerns committee was created out of the Airport Road renaming discussions to deal with ongoing issues of race relations and the place of African Americans within our community.

Unfortunately, this group has largely been allowed to languish. The Town Council should reinvigorate this committee and give it a clear charge of preparing a list of recommendations for how the town can get more black people involved in town governance.

The good news is that some progress is being made. For instance, last week the council agreed to budget Councilman Thorpe's proposal for a student internship program with the town.

This is going to provide a great opportunity for young people of all colors to play a role in town governance and will hopefully result in more people deciding to settle permanently in Chapel Hill and get involved. This initiative is progress, but there is much more to be made.

Chapel Hill's black community has strong leadership, provided mostly by veterans of the Civil Rights movement. It was nice to see two of those leaders, Braxton Foushee and Eugene Farrar, each of whom have contributed to our area in many ways, honored with awards at the dinner last weekend. Fred Battle presented one of the awards in his role as president of the local chapter, and he too has provided strong and steady leadership for many years.

But these folks aren't getting any younger and there needs to be a new generation of leadership to replace them. It's going to take a commitment from the whole community, white, black and everything in between.

If we can make a strong effort to create affordable housing and take other steps to encourage participation in local government by younger people of color, we will preserve our strong black community for decades to come. I hope this is something all Chapel Hillians value.

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