Economic opportunity, access to local government central to first CoRE community forum

Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne organized The CoRE: Conversations on Race and Equity to discuss community issues in Burlington and Alamance County

The economic disparity between east and west Burlington and inclusion within local government were the main topics discussed Monday during the first in a series of online community forums focused on race and equity in Burlington and Alamance County.

Organized and hosted by Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne, The CoRE: Conversations on Race and Equity, will continue with virtual forums each Monday evening through Sept. 7, with the discussions addressing topics including policing, education, and immigration among others. Layne devised the online forums as a way for area police chiefs to meet with the community during the pandemic and following national protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans this spring.

During Monday’s forum, “Burlington: United or Divided?” community activists Mon Holmes and DeJuana Warren-Bigelow asked city leaders to increase access to government for marginalized groups and people of color. Burlington Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Hykes, City Manager Hardin Watkins and Police Chief Jeffrey Smythe answered questions about the city’s governance, policing, and functioning.

Holmes and Warren-Bigelow stressed that city leaders need to intentionally recruit and invite diverse voices to advisory boards and conversations. As often as possible, the city should meet interested residents and communities where they are to make available information about economic opportunities and issues that affect them directly — rather than wait for them to attend meetings at City Hall.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be White. I can imagine, but I’m Black. If we’re having a conversation about a particular group of people, let’s have them in the room with us. They have to be in the room,” Warren-Bigelow said. “Race hasn’t been brought up yet: We’ve been talking about opportunity and access to resources. We’re going through national unrest right now, but what we’re hearing is not about race. I think we have come a long way. Burlington and the city should be happy about that. This is coming from a place of wanting to improve.”

Over time, Burlington has become increasingly segregated, with Black communities and people of color concentrated north and east of downtown and the largely White and more affluent residents expanding west toward Elon, evidenced by the U.S. Census racial demographic maps. As west Burlington has expanded and developed areas of commerce, Burlington’s east side has languished with the shuttering of industry, like the Western Electric complex on Graham-Hopedale Road,  and dwindling economic investment, panelists said.

Warren-Bigelow suggested that access to and better relationships with city officials would empower residents to build coalitions for community-centered improvement. She helped organize a community task force in Burlington’s Morrowtown neighborhood that brought together residents and city leaders to increase the sense of community and decrease crime there.

Watkins advised entrepreneurs and business owners — especially in east Burlington — to contact the city’s Economic Development Director Peter Bishop for detailed information about specific grant and funding opportunities already or soon available.

Layne proposed more focus on early education around the importance of building wealth among marginalized populations — through property ownership and knowledge of the stock market, for example — and said a future CoRE forum about education with Alamance-Burlington Schools Superintendent Bruce Benson could address that.

The forum began by airing Elon alumnus Daniel Koehler’s short documentary “Burlington: A City Divided” about the city’s 1969 riots. The National Guard was called in and martial law declared after Black students at the recently integrated Williams High School protested for access to campus activities and resources. A Black 15-year-old, Leon Mebane, was killed during the events. Law enforcement said Mebane was caught in crossfire between the law and protesters. Witnesses said there was no crossfire and that Mebane had his hands in the air when the shooting started.

When the subject of policing arose in Monday’s conversation, it was concerned with crisis intervention and de-escalation training for Burlington officers. Smythe pointed to the department’s recent hiring of a mental health specialist who is dispatched with officers to scenes as needed. He would like a county-wide team of specialists who would assist officers from all area departments. He admitted that only around 70 percent of Burlington officers have specialized training in mental health issues but is pushing for 100 percent of his officers to have that training. Smythe said his department routinely compiles reports on dozens of policing efforts to track trends in traffic stops, arrests, and patrols from year to year. As a result of training and those reports, Burlington officers’ reported use of force has decreased from around 60 incidents in 2016 to around 25 last year, Smythe said.

Hykes said Monday’s discussion was helpful in reorienting her focus on matters beyond youth solutions, violence prevention, employer recruitment for living wages, and neighborhood development.

“Those initiatives have given me insight. … I love having that level of access to people. These other issues you have spoken about, like racial equity in building wealth, those are issues I have not focused on. I really value your input there. It’s helpful to me to know that is the direction you’d like us to go.”

The CoRE forums are from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Mondays on Zoom. Registration is required, and links to register will be shared on The CoRE’s Facebook page prior to each session. The next forum, “Defund, Dismantle or Defend the Police?” is Monday, Aug 3. Panelists will include Dawn Ellzey Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC with the Carolina Justice Policy Center;  Kennedy Boston, Elon University student organizer; Terrence Caldwell, Mebane Police chief; Kasey Fountain, Elon University student organizer; and Rep. Stephen M. Ross of Alamance County.

Future online forums will include:

Future forum topics include:

  • Aug. 3: Defund, Dismantle or Defend the Police?
  • Aug. 10: The Clash of “Black and Blue”
  • Aug. 17: Immigration
  • Aug 24: Elon (NC): Safe and Bold for Whom?
  • Aug. 31: Capping the School-to-Prison Pipeline
  • Sept. 7: The State of our Mental Health

Panel discussions will be shared on The CoRE’s YouTube page.