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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ron Carter: Charlotte's New Power Broker/ Bridge Builder (Decision 2012)

Meet Dr. Ron Carter President Of Johnson C. Smith University.

Dr. Carter Has Been Tapped As Charlotte, North Carolina's New Power Broker/ Community Bridge Builder.

Wise Choice!

Its About Time This Redneck, Segregated, Southeastern, So-called "Metropolitan" City Added Some New Blood To Its Leadership Ranks.

Thank God That Individual Happens To Be A BOLD, Extremely Handsome, Intellectual, Visionary Man Of Color.

A Man Who Can Help Mayor Anthony Foxx, Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, County Commissioners Velma Leake, Harold Cogdell & Jim Pendergraph Re-Shape Charlotte's Redneck Image Into An Image Of Welcome Diversity & Innovation.

A Man Whose Presence & Influence Among Our Black Youth, Will Prove Instrumental In Helping Pres. Barack Obama Carry Charlotte Come November 2012.

Especially As It Relates To Registered Independent Voters Like Myself.

A Man Who Can Help Pull Up Charlotte's Forgotten Lower Income Black Citizens Versus Stepping On Them Until Election Time.

i.e., The Southern Version Of Cory Booker (Mayor Of Newark, NJ).

Hey I'm Just Saying.

I Hope This Blog Post Praising Dr. Carter's Local Accomplishments Won't Stir Up Any "Haterade" Among Charlotte's Other Black Leaders Towards Him.

"Haterade" & "Willie Lynch" Envy From Charlotte's Leaders Seems To Be The Most Common Cause Of Division Within Charlotte's Black Community.

About 30 Years Ago My Biological Aunt Who Resides On Charlotte's West Side, Retired From Teaching At Johnson C. Smith University.

Today I'm Sure She Is Quite Proud Of This New Black Visionary/ Educational Leader.

Kudos & Many Prayers For Dr. Carter!

God Bless!

Ron Carter's two worlds

As tensions flared over the local school board's decision in January to use Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday as a makeup day following a snow storm, Ron Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University, made a friendly phone call to the loudest, most divisive figure of the moment: the Rev. Kojo Nantambu, head of the local NAACP.

At the time, Nantambu was making waves and headlines by denouncing Charlotte as a "racist bastion," and calling for an economic boycott. For a city that casts itself as model of the New South, such a charge was more than embarrassing; it was potentially costly.

Several city leaders dismissed Nantambu as shrill and ultimately irrelevant. "It was stinging," Nantambu said. "Some of these officials I had been friends with for 20 years, and now they were vilifying me as though I was the worst thing that ever happened to this city."

The notable exception was Carter, who had never met Nantambu. "I called Kojo and invited him to lunch," Carter said matter-of-factly, sitting recently in his spacious university office, "and I asked him 'What are you trying to get accomplished?'"

He paused for effect: "Look, let me be clear about this: I am going to befriend Kojo. If we don't, another Kojo will emerge."

The moment illustrates the delicate dance that Carter is attempting these days as one of Charlotte's most ambitious public figures. Since he took the helm of JCSU in 2008, Carter has made his goal clear: Along with raising JCSU's academic profile, he wants to rescue the community surrounding the university from decades of economic and social decay - an affliction, he says, that will only worsen with the planned public school closings in the northwest corridor.

In the process, Carter also has emerged as Charlotte's de facto broker for race relations - debating, pontificating, even instigating - as he straddles the city's often-polarized worlds.

One moment, he's the dealmaker talking about connecting gleaming uptown to the hardscrabble northwest corridor with the likes of Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber, or Michael Smith, president of Center City Partners; the next, he's crunching numbers with members of the Urban Business Network, who view him as both champion and consigliere.

One moment he's schmoozing local philanthropists Sally and Russell Robinson; the next, he's dining with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the university's new official residence in Myers Park. Then it's off to the 'hood to help grass-roots groups organize to minimize the impact of the school closings.

"He's a master bridge-builder," said Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas. "He knows how to move between different parts of the community. And he has earned a reservoir of capital in respect and can now use that capital in risky ways throughout the community."

Said Mike Whitehead, head of the Charlotte-based leadership development firm Whitehead Associates: "Dr. Carter leads from the future backwards. He has a clear vision of the future and leads from there."

Mayor Anthony Foxx put it another way: "This community is undergoing a transition demographically and economically and we are in the process of sorting out what the 'New South' is. In getting us there, Dr. Carter's approach is edgier than most leaders in the community - he's taking risks and probing and pushing people to embrace a divergence of opinion."

You'd think Carter, 62, was the new Gandhi instead of the president of a small historically black college. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to publicly criticize Carter.

Much of his popularity comes down to plain charisma. Carter's regal baritone coupled with sartorial flair (he prefers tailored suits and cowboy boots) and engaging tales of international travel give him lots of gravitas on the cocktail circuit. And in a city where leaders take pride in folksy accessibility, Carter doesn't seem to mind looking the big shot. Rarely seen solo, he usually has a handler or two spiriting him through even the smallest crowd.

For his part, Carter says he's not angling for a reputation as one of Charlotte's civic leaders.

"I didn't come to this city to be anointed, or to be a messiah," he says "I came to be president of Johnson C. Smith University, and so I've just been doing my work."

Carter's predecessor, Dorothy Yancy, is credited with putting JCSU on solid financial ground by tapping her strong network of wealthy individuals and foundations. Carter wants his legacy to be successfully leveraging the university's brand and resources to attract economic investment that revives one of the city's most historically significant black communities.

In that sense, he views JCSU as a kind of proxy for racial progress in Charlotte.

Of late, he has claimed some high-profile success. On Friday, for instance, he and a clutch of city leaders celebrated the 14,000-square-foot Arts Factory, which houses the university's performing arts classrooms - and serves as the embodiment of his collaboration with the city's arts community.

More symbolically, he is commissioning an artist to decorate the underpass that divides the city's central business district and its decidedly distressed northwest corridor. He plans to unveil the artwork this New Year's Eve with a light show.

"The underpass is the intersection of race and poverty in this city," he says. "When you go under the underpass, you realize you are leaving center city, its vitality and heartbeat and going into the ghetto, or the 'hood' as some people call it. We want people to say, 'We're entering Mosaic Village.'"

Carter also broke ground Friday on a $16 million, 70,000-square-foot mixed-use facility that will house retail, student apartments and some academic offices. While the project would be funded primarily by private developers and grants, JCSU officials are seeking $5.5 million in city funds, plus $1.5 million for a new 15,000-square-foot campus bookstore and print shop.

"This is our community's commitment to being an economic engine," says Carter, who notes he's also in talks to build a new private high school on JCSU's campus. "These are specific things that are happening, not just dreams."

Ironically, Friday's groundbreaking drew questions from some African-American contractors over whether they would benefit financially from an urban revitalization project in which the Griffin family and Shelco. Inc. have been named as the general contractors.

"I just hope that African-Americans get to participate in this project since it's so historic for this city and this college," said Carol Lilly, president of Lil Associates, a Charlotte-based diversity consulting firm that specializes in the construction industry.

N.C. Senator Malcolm Graham, who also serves as JCSU's special assistant to the president for government and community relations, said the university's goal for minority participation for the projects is at least 20 percent.

"Minority firms will not be cut out of this process," Graham said. Rallying the throngs Friday, Carter put it another way: "We plan to keep building tomorrow, and the tomorrow after tomorrow. There will be plenty of room for anyone with the vision and desire."

At the university's Arch of Triumph Gala awards dinner Saturday evening, Carter made another big splash: He announced that South African political leader Winnie Mandela is scheduled to deliver the university's May commencement (see box).

Along with new bricks and mortar, Carter also is pushing the 143-year-old private university to raise its own academic standards. His biggest goal: lifting JCSU's graduation rate, now around 60 percent, to the 90 percent range. To draw higher performing students, Carter raised the university's admission requirements a percentage point to a 3.4 grade point average, and boosted required SAT and ACT scores, shortly after his arrival.

"To be viewed as a world-class university, we need our graduation rate to be in the 90s," he says. "It won't happen overnight, but I expect we'll be in the game by 2015."

While raising the admission requirement has caused JCSU's enrollment to dip, to 1,347 today from 1,450 in 2009, Carter says the move already is yielding positive results. "We're starting to make great progress in attracting more of the quality student we want to attract," he says.

Carter also is pushing JCSU to get more involved in the surrounding community, and to that end has created the Center for Applied Leadership and Community Development. A new academic department, it conducts research and organizes groups around the area's most pressing social and economic issues.

"This (university) was seen as an ivory tower, even in the black community," Carter says. "The gates were always closed. I've opened the gates and we're not just stepping out, but we're going to engage."

There's plenty of hard work ahead. In Mecklenburg County, for example, 18.4 percent of African-Americans live below the federal poverty level compared to 5.6 percent of whites. The median household income for blacks in the county is $40,453 versus $72,468 for white households. Some 62 percent of African-American students graduated last year from Charlotte-Mecklenburg's public schools compared to 85 percent for whites.

"There's a powder keg in this city," he says to all who'll listen. "And we're all sitting on it. It's going to explode sometime around 2030 if we don't take the time to learn the language of each others' experiences."

He goes on: "The social capital of black communities has been depleted. But we still have an obligation to build. The people deserve to have a voice. And I'm going to do everything within my power to give them one."

"Dr. Carter's vision makes all the sense in the world," says Chauncey Mayfield, CEO of the commercial real estate firm Mayfield Gentry, which has two office towers in uptown Charlotte. "But he'll have to figure out how to bring some resources to that vision. He's got a natural environment to make some great things happen."

Carter describes his agenda this way: "I have said to both the city and the university - 'We are interdependent and as Charlotte goes, so will JCSU.' I have made a deliberate connection that way. And so we've had to take on some of the issues in Charlotte, and to become a real partner."

'I grew up struggling'

Carter's view of a healthy African-American community was largely shaped by his experience growing up in a segregated N.C. public housing project in High Point in the 1950s. His parents worked for the same family; mom as a maid, and dad as a butler.

"I grew up struggling," Carter said. "We wouldn't answer the phone because creditors were always calling my father."

Adjacent to public housing was a black middle-class neighborhood of doctors, lawyers and school teachers. Despite the class differences, the communities were tight, Carter said.

"There was not a great divide between the black elite and the working class," he said. "The teachers and doctors came to our house for dinner. We had all of the social capital we needed right there. In a very real sense it was a village, without exaggerating or turning it into a myth."

In fact, when Carter's high school English teacher realized that her gifted pupil's parents could not afford a college application fee, she reached into her own purse. Carter studied at Morehouse College on an academic scholarship, and later earned a master's in theology and doctorate in religion at Boston University.

Carter went on to serve as dean of students at B.U.'s Martin Luther King Jr. Center. But by the late 1980s, after meeting relatives of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, he was inspired to join the fight against South African apartheid. Married at the time, he and his wife quit their jobs, sold their possessions and uprooted to South Africa.

Carter ended up working as a senior administrator at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, charged with improving the health care of rural communities. Along the way, he became heavily involved in mediating bitter conflicts between black political factions jockeying for power in anticipation of a post-apartheid era.

"The problem was they had been fighting and killing each other for years and people were saying, 'You'll never get them to the table,'" Carter says. "It took me and a colleague a year and a half to do it, but one by one, we'd send an emissary and ask them to come talk to us and we'd present this vision that they would come to power in the very near future, and ask how would they engage their new power base."

"They started eating together, having conferences together - and they told me it would never be done. Compared to that, what's happening in Charlotte is small stuff," he says.

Carter returned to the states in 1997 as the provost and dean of faculty at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C. From there, he was tapped for JCSU.

Earlier this year, as the keynote speaker at the annual fundraising luncheon for the Greater Enrichment Program, a local nonprofit for at-risk children, Carter spoke movingly to a mostly white audience about his journey from public housing to Johannesburg.

"We were all touched by his story," recalled former UNC Charlotte Chancellor James Woodward, a JCSU trustee and Greater Enrichment board member. "I sat there thinking, 'This is Ron Carter's special time in Charlotte.'"

Straddling two worlds

Carter's days might be spent in the heart of the gritty northwest corridor, but he spends his nights in the lap of old Charlotte luxury. It's called the Smith House, and it's an 8,141-square-foot stone and stucco Tudor in the heart of Myers Park. Carter resides alone in the house, which was purchased in 2009 by JCSU's trustees to add firepower to the university's entertaining and fundraising efforts.

Carter views the property as the ultimate metaphor for his vision: The close proximity of black students to some of Charlotte's old-line powerbrokers can create a powerful new bridge in Charlotte.

Stepping into the cavernous dining room, Carter's hand swept the air.

"This is where we entertained Condoleezza Rice for dinner," he said. "We also host people who come to Charlotte and may be highly recognized but just don't want to be bothered with a lot of public attention - we'll put them up. We've been highly successful. To date, we've raised $11 million here."

Not everyone, though, is thrilled with JCSU's arrival in Myers Park. A few months ago, for instance, after hosting a group of local black business leaders, a car sped past and its passengers hurled eggs out the window at the Smith House, he said. While the moment was recorded on the Smith House's surveillance camera, Carter did not to report the incident to police.

"They yelled, 'You n------ , get out of the neighborhood,'" Carter said. He shrugged at the memory: "I said, 'You know, I'm not going to make an issue out of this.'"

"The issue of racial distrust in the city is really deep. I hear how people are talking about racial trust. 'Why are they talking this way? What's really wrong?'"

It was a late Friday afternoon, a day dominated by media reports about uprisings in Egypt.

Carter saw an irony in the two histories unfolding on different parts of the globe, and it set him off on Kojo again.

"We sit and look at the Egyptians rioting and we say, 'They are standing up for their freedom. That's democracy at work, we need to listen to those people.' But then, why is it passé and out of order for the black community here to do that? When we do it, even some old black folks say, 'That's back in the '60s; we don't need to be doing that.'"

"Black people were asking, 'Why is Reverend Kojo taking this stand?' But that's a weasel question. And I'm disappointed that some of our black politicians were even asking that. Why are they not asking, 'What has led the Reverend Kojo and other people to go to that extreme?' That's just a symptom of a larger problem, and Kojo isn't acting alone."

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