We Can’t Get Around/Across/Over It, So Now What?

When I was a child, we sometimes played a game, where we sat in a circle and slapped our hands on our crossed legs. We were walking in the woods and came across obstacles. “We can’t go over it, we can’t go around it, we must go through it” with the solution altering with every new obstacle. We had to choose how we would get past each obstacle as we “hiked” and then, when we suddenly “saw” a bear and we were running away, the choices and the chanting became more fevered.

After a recent arduous retreat with community leaders of thinking about how to solve issues pervasive in the state of North Carolina, suddenly this game surfaced in my brain after nearly 45 years. During our retreat, we had seen presentations from communities about their challenges and how they were attacking them with plans. Economic development, education, high poverty, land use, health issues and unemployment – and after the presentations, the dialogue among my fellow community leaders often fell back on “who wasn’t in the room”.  My head was overwhelmed with seeing committed community activists and their concern for their fellow citizens and yet, I found it difficult to comprehend the “who’s not in the room” comments.

I understand that after 50 years, I have yet to understand racism – from any side. I simply don’t understand prejudice. And I am frustrated with the inability of some people not being able to get past whatever prejudice to simply meet in the middle of the bridge and find a way to get along. Leaving our retreat, my brain hurt, my emotions were raw and I felt hopeless and lost and somehow segmented.

And then it hit me. We continue to do the same things to find solutions. We gather as community leaders and share our templates for success. We ask who is NOT represented, who has yet to be heard and we often get the exact same answers. In doing so, I believe it causes us to forget to think outside the box.

Princeville, North Carolina is the oldest African American incorporated community in the United States established by freed slaves after the Civil War. The most recent history of Princeville has had displacement of the residents due to 1999’s Hurricane Floyd and recent flooding of the Tar River. In these incidents, the Princeville residents have been frustrated with the response by state and federal agencies. In Princeville and other communities affected by natural disasters, how many times must the citizens go through the exact scenario to know that it will be months and years before they are rebuilt and whole again? We know FEMA takes forever to respond, we know the flood plains will flood again someday, we know so much and yet we haven’t asked the right questions, perhaps, to find the right answers.

In Wilson and Monroe, North Carolina, we see the same “type” of citizen say we need a plan to make things better and yet, some say that all citizens are not represented in finding the solutions.

In North Carolina, we fight about bathroom privacy for transgenders…..

And yet we live in a state of top-notch universities, with very intelligent and innovative people among us.

Why can’t our engineering and architectural students find a way to build houses that can stand above a flood plain and be strong enough to withstand floods and high winds?

Why can’t we find a way to upfit and rebuild bathrooms to allow privacy no matter the gender?

Why can’t we utilize technology to draw in underserved communities?

Why are we continuing to use differences to divide our progress and not encourage it?

As a white woman, I am more than ready to fight for inequities. I don’t know what it is like to be Jewish, or black or Latino. But if you share with me, I will listen. I cannot fight for anything to be better if I am resented BECAUSE I am a white woman. I see that as continuing prejudice. And like the people I sit with at retreats, I want my neighborhood, my community, my state to be a better place for all. I don’t want community leaders to be asking the same questions long after I am gone, because I want to be part of solutions.

We need to see our challenges as challenges of a region or of a state and work together to make an impact, a difference. We have to quit asking the same questions and meeting the same way and think differently. If we can’t get over the rock or through the rock or around the rock, could we create a balloon, build a bridge, use a tree as a catapult and be the first to blaze a new trail?

We MUST encourage creative thought.

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Hannah

When I hit my mid-20’s, after a long, confusing litany of medical tests, I was diagnosed with lupus. Aside from an anti-malarial medication, I was, for several months, on a high dosage of prednisone, the steroid. The doctor warned me that the medication could cause “moon face”, a puffiness of the face. For a single woman in her 20’s, that’s a cause for concern.

So daily, I checked the mirror to see if the moon face was coming. And I saw no change.

In the midst of my recovery, I flew a thousand miles away to the wedding of my best friend from college. At the reception, I sat next to a young man from school that had pursued me my senior year…and he didn’t recognize me. I had only been away for a year — I simply couldn’t imagine what was wrong with him. Until a sorority sister, who was a nursing student, told me my moon face would only be temporary.

Because I had been looking every day, I was oblivious to the slow change. But everyone at the wedding noticed more about me than I knew about myself.

Something similar happened to me last week. I was asked to attend a luncheon celebrating Women’s Equality Day and told that I would be an honoree as a female “political powerhouse”. The email was from a woman I’d never met, followed by a delightful phone call from another woman I had never met. I reminded both that I was no longer a mayor and that I was no more important than any other woman who tried to make a difference. “We hope you’ll be able to make it,” Hannah told me, and asked me to fill out a four-question survey online, which I did with some delay.

The day of the event, I hugged that Hannah in meeting her for the first time, wearing her bright red dress and knew immediately she was my friend. When the event began, I was announced as the first honoree and a young woman stood up to reach a poem Hannah had written…for me.

Poem for Jill Swain

the work doesn’t stop

service doesn’t just end

when it is tied to your identity

something that you would do again and again

 

you don’t do it for a title

you don’t do it for the glory

you do it for your legacy

your history, your story

 

when you choose to serve

when giving is playing your part

therein you find your reward

therein is the expansion of your heart.

 

People don’t stop needing help

the growth of your city is vital

So you graciously do the work

With or without a title

 

And I walk into a room

Back straight, head held high

Wearing confidence like it’s my crown

As I see to work change and make an impression on lives

 

I am striving to make an impact

I am running at my own comfortable pace

To be remembered as someone who cared

As someone who never quit her race

 

I hope the message that I send

Is very loud and clear

I am standing in my purpose

Without anything to fear

 

Sending those around me Gratitude

humility is what I am made of

Ready to serve and change that surrounds me

With a heart wide open that is full of love.”

Hannah Hasan is a poet, a kindred spirit, a woman who saw me in a light that overwhelms me. She wrote unique poems for each of the honorees, coloring their pictures perfectly.

I have struggled to write this, because there is simply so much emotion and amazement to this. We can look in the mirror every day. We can see what we want to see. Or not see what is in front of us.

Sometimes, the best thing may simply be to exist as we are meant to be, to open our hearts and experience new friendships and love. Because those people, the ones who touch us in unexpected ways, may be the ones that teach us who truly is looking back when we’re looking in the mirror.

 

I am still just overwhelmed. What a gift, Hannah. Thank you.

Women’s Equality Day

I am 56 years old. And to this day, I can remember my first job as an account executive in a direct response advertising company. I remember our “team” landing a huge new client and being treated to a night out at a popular Boston bar in the basement of a hotel. The dance music beat loudly as my co-workers and I hit the dance floor and savored the free drinks and appetizers.

I was enjoying myself up until the moment my boss, aptly named Dick, sauntered up to me and leaned into my ear. “So,” he said calmly, “do you want to dance or do you want to go upstairs and f*** our brains out?”

Today, I am a former 4-term mayor. In the last election cycle, I had a man that I have never met call me a “c**t” in social media.

It shouldn’t take this long to understand that we, as a gender, are perfectly capable of achieving and succeeding in this world. We’re not asking for the chance to show anyone. Because we’ve done it.

So today is Women’s Equality Day.

But so will be tomorrow. And the next day, and the next.

Because my daughter should never, ever have to hear the crap I’ve heard.

Forgetting the Road to the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence

I don’t know how the managed lane issue will pan out. At this point, I really don’t care. What is much more disturbing is the crescendo of vitriol that has replaced civil debate.

For some, the prospect of a toll lane is simply intolerable. The report that perhaps a toll in the year 2035 could reach $20, if the market will bear it, somehow morphed into a “fact” that the starting fee would be $20 each way. People still lament being forced to drive and pay a toll, when in actuality, there will be two
general purpose lanes and two managed lanes — a choice on any given day.

The reports that over 90% of North Meck citizens don’t want tolls is based on a Cornelius media poll…90% of the respondents didn’t want the plan. But how many responded? The Lake Norman Chamber also claimed a majority of their membership voted no…but the number again was around 90% of those members who responded and only 15 -20% of less than 2,000 members responded. Just take a glimpse of the FB pages Exit 28 Ridiculousness and How Occupy LKN Behaves to get an example of what has become a comfort level in public “debate”. Whether or not these opinions have validity, decision making should not be based on who can yell the loudest or make the worst threats to others.

Although many of us hail from other areas across the country, we are now citizens of Mecklenburg County. As such, we can proudly highlight the attributes that our County forefathers thought a civilized society needed in order to be successful. “We solemnly pledge to each other,” the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence reads, “our mutual cooperation, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.”

There is no honor in condemning a neighbor for not sharing your belief. There is no honor in saying that people who support tolls should “be hanged” or “are not fit to live among us”. There is no honor in denying discussion or opposing viewpoints in information sessions. There is no honor to citizens when elected officials make decisions on behalf of our future based on emotion and fear of losing their office and without guidance of educated experts.

The Mecklenburg Declaration encourages the preservation of peace and unity and harmony and that simply cannot be achieved when emotions cloud our ability to have honest and respectful dialogue.

Whatever the final decision, let us remember that it is here in Mecklenburg County where the standards were set for our democracy along with the foundation to be able to freely debate. The quest for education on issues, for knowledge, for comprehending not only the short term but the long term viewpoints should be more important than the posts on social media. As should our relationships with each other.

Tears Remain for 9/11

Just last week I attended a funeral for our former fire chief, Allen Irvin. When I first met the Chief, he was very wary of me, a newcomer in town. It took everything I had to win him over and I knew that I had succeeded on the day he saw me heading his way and said, “Here comes trouble.” That would be the phrase he’d use each time we’d meet. He was a cantankerous man, who thought his facial expressions never gave him away….but the sparkle in his eyes betrayed him.

His service was lovely and for the first time in my life, I drove in a processional to the gravesite. Fire trucks, rescue trucks, police cars led the way. At each intersection, police held back traffic as what seemed like miles and miles of cars weaved our way to the cemetery. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Several days after, I was conversing with one of our local first responders and I mentioned my awe at the processional. Quietly, the man looked at me and said, “Fifty. I’ve been in about fifty.” I suppose the look on my face showed my lack of comprehension, so he went on. “I worked in New York on 9/11. So I’ve been to about 50 of those processionals.” And he shared with me two memories of two dear friends and co-workers he had lost — one, whose remains were found weeks after the tragedy and the other, whose remains have never been found. I know now that I couldn’t possibly have said anything in that conversation that conveyed my emotions.

Because today, my emotions gave way.

Our Senior Center hosted a brunch today for our local first responders. They had a program for them and invited me to speak. Because I had another event at the same time, I came during the brunch and interrupted the table conversations to speak to the group. Surrounded by both seniors and first responders, I told the story of the fifty processionals. And suddenly, looking around the room at the professionals I have come to admire and respect and love, the story hit home and for the first time in my mayoral career, I cried in front of a crowd.

You see, I’ve been to a practice fire. I’ve been to a random shooter drill. I’ve been part of exhibits to show how medics can get people out of car wrecks fast. Most importantly, I’ve seen how the people who have these jobs look out for not only our community, but for each other. They are all deeply connected and it is a privilege to watch. An honor.

I’m embarrassed that I cried. Because the tears surprised me more than they surprised the audience. I simply cannot fathom the pain of 9/11 for our first responders, and I know that each year, the pain cannot possibly lessen.

And while I apologized for my tears, I cannot apologize for my emotions. Because 9/11 is too important. Because those who serve us with compassion and skill are too important. Because I believe, as we say each year that we move further and further from that event, we must never forget.

Metro Mayors Speech to Press

With much appreciation to Jamie Brown, with the Mayor’s office in Raleigh, below is the speech I gave at the press conference during the spring Metro Mayors Coalition meeting on Wednesday, April 29th, 2015:

Good afternoon – thank you for joining us today.

Today, members of the Metro Mayor Coalition gathered here in our Capital City to discuss issues that are important to the State of North Carolina. Coalition members have been closely following this year’s legislative session as a number of bills have the potential to greatly impact municipalities across the state.

Today’s meeting served multiple purposes;
– first in allowing our organization an opportunity to share information with each other and legislators in both the Senate and House related to bills impacting our cities;
– second in further building upon the relationships with legislators that we’ve actively been developing throughout the Session; and
– third, in having a presence in the General Assembly to help reiterate our message that Coalition members are here as a resource to work with legislators in helping to address municipal issues and concerns that will help improve and strengthen the economic vitality and well-being of the entire state.

I think mayors, not only in the Coalition but across the state believe that local municipal leaders often have their hand on the pulse of the community and are in a position to best communicate the needs and desires of their constituency. It is in that belief that the Metro Mayors Coalition has actively tried to make themselves available to the General Assembly this session. We’ve done that by implementing a Weekly Mayor program, ensuring that at least one member mayor visits the General Assembly each week to meet with legislators with a focus on job creation and economic growth for the whole state. We’ve also worked to make ourselves available to our local delegations and other legislative leaders to act as an information resource on key issues of importance to the Coalition (transportation, economic development, local revenue sources, job creation, etc…). We feel and hope that legislators agree that we’ve developed strong working relationships built on trust and mutual respect.

I’d like to thank our speakers from today’s meeting for sharing their insights, being so open to our questions, and engaging in honest dialogue about municipal issues facing our state. I would also like to thank Governor McCrory for allowing the Metro Mayors Coalition to host our first legislative reception at the Governor’s mansion this evening, which offers us another wonderful opportunity to develop and strengthen relationships. While we may not always agree, informed decision making is the key to developing good policy and the Metro Mayors appreciate the opportunity to share information and have a voice at the table.

“NC Tomorrow”: Speech for North Carolina Regional Council of Governments

I confess:  I am about to give you the fourth speech I have written for today. As humbling as it is to admit, I procrastinated. I knew, since February, that  I would be speaking today,and yet I stalled…until it was almost too late.

You see, part of my excuse is that I’ve been spending a lot of time lately, both as Mayor, and also as Chair of the Metro Mayors Coalition, talking about proposals in the General Assembly, specifically those on sales tax redistribution. And my mantra of late has been to say that if our state is to be able to compete against other states, if our future will have better paying jobs and more job opportunities, if our infrastructure needs are to be met and planned for, then why are we talking about taking sales tax away from some regions and giving to others? Why on earth are we not talking about a vision to make every region successful?

Two years ago, I went to China on two extraordinary trips. It took leaving our borders for me to learn that technology and manufacturing jobs are no longer the sweat shop jobs that some of us have assumed. The knowledge of computer programs and the handling of highly technical equipment takes study and aptitude and skill.  Coming home, my own children proved to me that our family is the microcosm of what our State’s vision of the future should be. With me today is my youngest child, Sydney, who will spend her junior and senior years of college studying in France…the first student at NC State to participate in this program. At the end of four years of college, she will have two degrees…one in business administration and one in international business. Back in Huntersville is my 22 year old son, who I envisioned would go to college to be an architect or an attorney. His grades and test scores indicated those as potential paths. And although Zack loves to learn, in fact craves it, he wants hands on, trial and error experience. Today, he is a diesel mechanic. He has the same chances of job success and satisfaction as his college educated sister.

The mayor of Plano, Texas told me last week that he believed, as I do, that as elected officials, our job is to be the leaders of our communities not as they are today, but as they will be when they reach their potential. In North Carolina, we talk about bringing in a car manufacturer, as if that is the Holy Grail. There is so much more out there…medical research and development companies, robotics, 3D printing, energy efficiency and sustainability companies, technology startups, video game manufacturers and incubators of all kinds. A car manufacturer may be a good goal, but all the rest should be what we strive for as well. With a strong emphasis on workforce development, apprenticeship programs, and a concentrated effort on STEM careers of the future, we develop a foundation for moving forward. That is precisely what NC Tomorrow is doing today.

We are ONE North Carolina. In this next stage of our Regional Council of Government’s framework for our future success, OneNC should be our rallying cry. As late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon would say, “Hashtag OneNC” and tell our citizens and elected officials that we will settle for nothing less. We are One in competing for outside investments, One in raising the bar in job opportunities, One in setting the standards we expect to achieve. As OneNC, we can be our best. The best.

I procrastinated in writing my words for you today. If I had shown up with no speech, I would have let you down, and myself down.  North Carolina simply cannot afford to procrastinate in moving forward on laying the groundwork for creating jobs for our future, because the consequences will be much more dire.

Clearly, my voice is loud, but with you joining me, we can have a chorus…and all we need is the drumbeat. Let’s start beating our drums today!