What is a leader? What is leadership? How do we work together? These are questions I've found myself asking over the past several months as Charlotte debated and then passed its local anti-LGBT non-discrimination ordinances. Now, we've watched the furor rightfully inspired by the resulting House Bill 2 continue day after day and week after week, I couldn't help but return to those thoughts.
Amid all the chatter and dialogue in the city and state, there's been one important narrative overlooked. Over the past two years, there's been a tremendous upswell in new voices and new perspectives among our city's LGBT community leadership. It all began when a large, local coalition came together to propose the city's ordinances. As that fight has gone statewide, individuals who had never or rarely stepped into leadership or grassroots activist roles began speaking up.
So many new voices and perspectives bring both opportunity and challenge for our local community. With new ideas and new visions, our community grows stronger with different perspectives and solutions for old problems. But in a place like Charlotte, where we've long struggled to support a local central hub like an LGBT community center or other similar resources, an upswell in new leaders and voices can also exacerbate existing challenges. Some local leaders have begun taking steps to solve a lack of cohesion, unity and accessibility for local community members and those seeking involvement.
Many of those leaders gathered locally in Charlotte two weeks ago with an eye toward changing that dynamic. Those involved in local advocacy efforts, community members interested in learning more and volunteers and staffers of local LGBT non-profits mixed and mingled over drinks and conversation at Free Range Brewing in NoDa.
The mixer was organized by Rodney Tucker, executive director of Time Out Youth Center. It was an opportunity, he said, to bring together a diversity of community leaders and members who work or volunteer for causes in the same field, but often don't know each other.
"There's got to be a common ground on organizations knowing who leadership are and how to work together," Tucker told me.
He pointed directly at the city's and state's recent advocacy challenges and the tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last month.
"[We need a] baseline on what events are happening and how to rally the community when we need to pull together," Tucker said. "That's been the hard part with Orlando and HB2. Not everyone knows everybody."
Melissa Morris moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia a year ago. She's one of the many new voices rising up in local leadership, but she agrees that it's important to find new ways to centralize local community leadership, relationships and resources — especially with Charlotte's absence of a local LGBT community center or other central hub around which community members can coalesce.
"I'm honestly still trying to figure out really who is leading what effort," Morris told me. "I think part of the challenge is there not being a substantial central location for information on who's who and what organizations are doing what, and I think it's challenging to figure out when you're looking not just for leadership but also for resources."
This leadership dynamic has become all the more complex with the addition of new leaders and activists, Morris said. On one hand, new voices can find a benefit in open spaces; there's plenty of room and opportunities for people to be vocal and to be heard. It's how Morris, for example, was able to find a space when she moved to Charlotte last year.
For others, it can be more difficult.
"I've found some of those people, especially younger people, who are trying to find space within an organization or within a larger framework, and I don't think they find it easy to integrate themselves into a larger structure," Morris said.
Tucker and Morris are both hopeful that challenges like HB2 will create a stronger, more cohesive community. Morris sees common conversations and dialogues and hopes that a common vision and purpose will emerge. Tucker and other leaders, he said, will be looking for ways to continue bringing together leaders in formal and informal spaces. In the fall, he plans on bringing together staff and board members of local organizations.
"People just need to know each other," Tucker said.