Below Clinton Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church in west Charlotte on a recent Thursday night, a group of about 15 people stood in a line. One by one, they went down the line sharing stories about their experiences with policing.
The vibe was that of so many support groups around the country, but these people weren't gathered in a church basement because they were victims or addicts, they were there to learn and build community.
Educate to Engage is a free, six-week class based on Michelle Alexander's best-selling book The New Jim Crow. Patrice Funderburg launched the discussion group last year as a one-off, but after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and the community response that followed, she decided she'd continue the work.
Now, Funderburg is one of four community organizers who have joined together to form The Real Majority, a network that aims to lift up the community members the women have worked with in separate endeavors over the years and give them a voice in discussions that have taken place since the Charlotte Uprising.
Over the last couple of months, Funderburg and the three other founders of The Real Majority — Jasmine Hines, Linda Hill and amalia deloney — have been collecting video of Charlotte residents to get a feel for what, if anything, has changed for people in Charlotte's more marginalized communities in the year since the Keith Scott shooting.
The group hopes to give voice to a population that is often overlooked in the panel discussions that have taken place since the Uprising.
"We were all doing work in different areas and it was clear that there were communities that were impacted in different ways," says deloney, who also founded the Co-Learning for Action Project, an education project aimed at engaging the community. "We come from the same communities and populations, but at the same time, because of our professional jobs, we're all in spaces all the time where those people who are impacted aren't in the decision making. And so we wanted to start centering this idea that there's a large and growing population in this city who really is the majority, and yet they are not at the table for decisions."
The women hope to upload 100 videos of residents discussing what's changed since the Keith Scott shooting. They have currently posted more than 20 of them. The women hope the project will act as a platform for the concerns of residents who are too often left out of decision-making processes in Charlotte.
"Our root belief is that the power is with the people, but if the people don't have a platform for their voices to be heard, then it's always submerged by the predominant narrative," said Hines, owner of The Inspower Agency, whose mission is to inspire and empower its clients. "So we're giving the power back to the people through their own voice and their own strengths."
Opinions vary among videos currently posted, but one theme that emerges is a frustration with the lack of progress made in Charlotte since last September, despite plenty of discussion and dialogue about inequity and other issues in the city.
One younger black man vents his frustration from a YMCA basketball court.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing," he said. "I feel like nothing has changed, it's still the same. White cops harassing us, me, black males, so nothing's changed."
Contrasting that opinion, another black man uses his video opportunity to praise the CMPD, calling it one of the best police forces in the country and stating that he believes officers have done a lot of good work to better their relationships in the community.
The majority of the videos, however, are more skeptical. In one post, a food vendor in west Charlotte said he has not seen much change.
"I would love to say more has changed. It sure the hell needs to," he says. "People don't have nothing, and it's getting worse. I hear a lot of 'We're trying,' but I'm tired of try. We need do."
- Patrice Funderburg leads a discussion on 'The New Jim Crow.' (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
Patrice Funderburg, 44, spent more than 20 years in "The Fortress," her term for the corporate power brokers of Charlotte and the space they inhabit. She left her successful career as a recruiter to focus on social justice following the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in July 2016.
"I'm like this corporate HR person that was a part of, theoretically, the 'Other Charlotte,'" Funderburg said. "While I was well-informed about a lot of the issues, I bought into that shit. Now, I'm totally about disrupting the Fortress in very creative and innovative ways."
She launched Educate to Engage shortly after Castile's death, and had originally planned for it to be a one-time thing, but then Keith Lamont Scott was killed while the first class was still meeting. She saw the need to continue the work she was doing around The New Jim Crow and mass incarceration, so she planned more classes. She's now in her sixth session of the six-week class.
"I would call it community engagement as activism," Funderburg said. "People learn differently, and how they learn affects how they show up. I'm a learner, I'm an intellectual person, and so delivering information in a unique and descriptive way that causes people to behave differently is essentially organizational development. It's sort of a rebranding of what I've done in corporate space."
Funderburg is always looking for new ways to engage people in the struggle for social justice. At a recent meeting, she lined up each of the classmates by how heavily policed they believe their neighborhoods are and asked them to share whether they're comfortable with that police presence — or lack thereof.
The idea came from deloney, who does similar storytelling exercises at her Co-Learning for Action events. It's a small example of how the four women have been working together on each of their usually separate projects.
"We're badass on our own, but the collective — and this happens in business and in industry, right? — it's a merger," Funderburg said.
She hopes the Real Majority video project will help change a narrative perpetuated by city leadership and the media.
"I'm annoyed by mainstream media grabbing, with vice grips, the narrative," she said. "Redefining language, or releasing videos of the protests a week before the one-year anniversary to remind people, 'No, you should be afraid of these people, I don't care if you see them on panels.' Like, no. Just no."
- At a recent Educate to Engage meeting, amalia deloney looks on during a group exercise. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
For amalia deloney, storytelling is a key component to activism. She has recently been hosting story circles with CLAP that are similar to the exercise she ran at the recent Educate to Engage event. The last two topics discussed at the story circles were economic security and safety, respectively.
The Real Majority is an extension of that, and deloney, 43, hopes that sharing the stories of everyday Charlotteans can help other residents understand the "two Charlottes" that have been discussed at length in the year following the Keith Scott shooting.
"What we have seen is that most people feel like we contribute to this city, we've lived here forever, and the city doesn't care about us," deloney said. "We know the city doesn't care about us in all these different ways: they raise our taxes and give us no more benefits, we can't afford to die in the homes we were born in, we're one paycheck away from absolute financial ruin, with our family on the street."
She had hoped to gather 100 videos before the anniversary of the Scott shooting, but has been surprised at the reluctance of many people to speak on the record.
"Whether we're talking to service workers in a restaurant, to undocumented workers who might be working in lawn care, or social service agency people outside of their organization, they all have opinions, but very few people want to be public about them. So we're building it out more slowly," deloney said.
A key focus for deloney is on access — who is allowed at the table to make decisions. Many people, she says, point to lack of engagement at city council meetings, for example, as proof people do not want to get engaged.
"When you're in these meetings and people are like, 'Well, they didn't reply to this survey or they didn't come; I invited them but, but, but, but,'" she says, "that isn't a reflection of the outreach you're doing and the desire of other people to come, it's an opportunity to reflect on the process that you're perpetuating."
As a west Charlotte resident who lives in the Seversville neighborhood, deloney has seen her share of gentrification take place nearby, but she's also been frustrated to witness what she calls the privatization of public space, as breweries and other such venues become the new community space.
"We do most of our activities in church basements," deloney said. "In a city of 1 million people, the fact that you can get access to a co-working space, coffee shop, dog park or brewery before you can get access to free community centers is mind boggling to me. And that is now being used synonymously with community centers, as if somehow hosting panels at a co-working spot is community. No, it's not. It's privatized public space. But we can't get a park or a community center? It's crazy."
When Looking for spaces to hold events, the women turn to Linda Hill. An event planner, she founded Top of the Hill Solutions, but she's a jack of all trades in the activist community.
"Linda is a little bit of everything," Funderburg said at one point during the group interview, laughing.
Hill admitted that she does have a wide range of skills related to community building, but said she doesn't advertise it because some people see it as a weakness when a person doesn't have one specific area of expertise.
"I just show up and do the work," Hill said.
At 58, Hill sees the work The Real Majority does as simply an extension of civil rights activists and social justice organizers that came before. She hopes the videos will help vent a historical trauma that's been suffered for decades by people who now make up the majority in Charlotte.
"You can go back to the beginning and it's the same story all along," Hill said. "What we're doing, it's nothing new. Honestly, this has been done. But we're committed to the work our ancestors put in to continue to fight. Fighting gives us hope."
For Hill, the most fulfilling part of her experience with The Real Majority has been seeing participants' reactions to being asked to share their opinions. She said most people she approaches are confused at first, because most media members or city leaders don't ever ask them what they think.
"The more that I heard stories as we were collecting them, it validated the real experience versus the marketing package that's so pristinely put together by The Fortress," Hill said. "And I think people really start to feel a sense of value that 1) someone asked them, and 2) there are many other voices that share their experience, and that The Fortress are not the only people asking."
Hill has made sure to be inclusive along the generational spectrum, something all four women involved with The Real Majority are intentional about. Hill worries that so much focus is placed on young millennials moving into the city that the older generations, many of whom have decades of lived experience in the city, are too often brushed aside.
In the end, Hill hopes The Real Majority can change the narrative and empower everyday Charlotteans.
"The reason I'm doing this is because I would like to see people in this community have opportunities based on their skills, interest, ability and commitment versus their pedigree," she said.
- Linda Hill [left] and Jasmine Hines hang out after class. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
With all of the frustrations these four women confront on a daily basis, it helps to have a self care guru on the team, and that's where Jasmine Hines comes in.
On top of owning The Inspower Agency, an organization development firm, she also teaches yoga, and she successfully petitioned the city of Charlotte last year to proclaim December 4 as Self Care Day.
Hines has lived in Charlotte for about 15 years, and in that time has seen the yoga scene transform in a way that's representative of what deloney has seen in the West End and what's been happening among so many other groups and neighborhoods throughout Charlotte.
"My experience in Charlotte has been a joyous and a painful one, in that I've seen the evolution of the yoga community move more into a segregated microcosm of what we're experiencing in our communities as a whole," Hines said. "I had consciously decided to pull away from the studio-typical experience of yoga and start building community with people who are feeling marginalized because of that shift."
Hines created yoga and self-healing spaces for those marginalized populations, and has started teaching some of the women in The Real Majority, as well, although Hill guiltily admits that her attendance to Hines' classes is sporadic.
Hines said she looks at self care through seven different lenses: spiritual, emotional, economic, artistic, educational, physical and social.
She views The Real Majority as a team of warriors made up of four women of color who were predestined to come together and share people's stories.
"What you're seeing is an intersectionality that we innately knew was right and organically timed," Hines said. "Call it the universe, God, Allah, whoever you need to call on, but this union happening, it was just divinely inspired in that way."
She views the videos and recent story circles as types of self care, allowing people to confront the trauma they live with, whether it's something they're aware of or not.
When Funderburg began to describe how she wanted the people of Charlotte to use their voices as weapons in the healing process, Hines continued for her:
"We are creating an invitation to use that muscle, to use the power of their voice as a tool and to exercise the muscle of getting out the trauma that has been stored in our bones; it's epigenetic in that way," Hines said. "And so, to be able to have that release of pressure and oppression and trauma is a freeing experience."
Each of the women involved with The Real Majority looks at community work as a calling, something Hines describes as a part of her legacy.
When she spoke about the end goal of her work, which may only come long after she's no longer here, her voice trailed off in reverie.
Through the frustration and skepticism she's familiar with in the communities where she works, Hines manages to keep an optimistic attitude regarding work that remains to be done.
"I just want to spark humanity back into our daily lives," she said. "As humans, we want a safe place to live, food on the table, so if I think about what does utopia look like, could that be actualized, and in what ways?
"If that's my legacy to contribute to a utopic type of place, a place that I would want my daughter or her daughter or future generations to live in, like, why can't I have that?," Hines asked. "Why don't I deserve that?"
And getting there starts with telling a story.