Honing In: Grants’ Community Conversations Highlight Critical Issues

By Gigi Egge

One of the many benefits of being a member of Women’s Impact Fund is gaining a deeper insight into the key issues our community is facing – understanding how and where we can make a difference. Each year, the Grants Committee seeks to identify the greatest areas of concern for the community and those areas where we can have the most impact in addressing them, and therefore, strengthening Charlotte. Our five Grants Work Teams (Health, Human Services, Environment, Education, and Arts & Culture) conducted extensive research this fall and engaged in many informal conversations within the community. This article highlights the key issues emerging from that process as critically important within Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

The Health and Human Services categories frequently overlap, with both work teams hearing of the need for access to healthcare, services for the elderly and challenges in employment, homelessness, and affordable housing. The working poor and immigrant populations face all of these issues, and all impact social mobility, quality of life, and school readiness. In the area of Health, chronic disease prevention is a primary concern. Chronic diseases are responsible for 7 out of 10 deaths each year, according to the CDC. To complicate matters, access to care remains difficult within and among the uninsured population. In Mecklenburg County alone, there are 112,000 uninsured residents, and 17% of adults lack a primary care provider. Another continuing challenge is the lack of mental health programs accessible to the poor. Untreated mental health disorders contribute to increased levels of other chronic conditions and greater risk of suicide, addiction, homelessness, incarceration, and disability. Violence prevention emerged as a final key issue. In Mecklenburg County in 2015, the total number of police incident reports filed citing domestic violence was 9,053.

In the area of Human Services, key issues include homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. As a result of our booming economy, Charlotte apartment rents have jumped 35% in the past five years. Rising rents lead to low-income workers struggling to live inside the city limits.  City officials estimate that Charlotte needs 34,000 more housing units that meet its working definition of affordability. In addition, because demand for housing is so high, landlords are able to turn down rent subsidies without fear of losing money. An emerging issue in the area of Human Services is Community Relations/Social Inclusion/Economic Opportunity. In response to recent unrest, efforts are ongoing within our community to support programs focused on community healing, rebuilding trust and creating opportunities for disadvantaged residents.

The Environment team noted that poorly planned development is one of the key factors that contribute to many other environmental and community issues. Chief among these are poor water quality, protection of our tree canopy, waste reduction, wildlife management and the effects of air pollution. Locally, the Catawba River has been named the 5th most endangered river in the US due to a host of water quality issues. Research also highlighted the environmental injustice of having a disproportionate number of air and water quality issues located in economically challenged neighborhoods. Although Mecklenburg County has seen a reduction of solid waste and an increase in recycling, residents and businesses still send over 5 million pounds of solid waste to landfills every day. There is a critical need for education at the local level to increase awareness of and solutions to all of these environmental concerns facing our community.

In the area of Education, the most consistently identified issues involve school readiness and support for teachers and principals. Addressing the social and emotional needs of CMS students is critical, as students from all backgrounds can struggle with mental illness, family turmoil, and other issues that may detract from academic success. Teacher and principal retention is also a challenge, as CMS struggles to attract and retain superior teachers. Enrollment in all UNC Colleges of Education is declining, and North Carolina ranks 47th in the nation in teacher pay. Other issues that need to be addressed include family engagement, one of the keys cited by researchers in positively impacting the school dropout crisis, and summer learning loss prevention. Students not exposed to summer learning experiences lose approximately 20% of what they have learned in school during the year. Finally, research underscored the critical importance of access to early education opportunities (birth through 3rd grade), which can have a significant impact on an individual’s lifelong development potential.

The most challenging issues and needs around Arts & Culture in Charlotte are the lack of audience diversity and public engagement, i.e., the fostering of arts exposure and new audiences for the arts. Funding cuts have all but eliminated the arts experience for most CMS students. In addition, demographic shifts have changed target audience profiles, and our arts and culture organizations therefore need to reconsider old subscription/attendance models. It is important for programs in this area to focus on providing an outlet of expression and embody imaginative, creative, and nonscientific branches of knowledge. Also in demand are programs that focus on community healing and connect members of the Charlotte community.

Understanding the critical community needs and emerging issues in our five focus areas is an important component of the WIF grants process. Our ability to identify and prioritize the challenges facing our region ensures that we are well positioned to make the greatest impact possible in the Charlotte/Mecklenburg community.