An historical problem
“When I first came here in the early ’70s, there was a core cadre of about 15 blacks that had just been hired,” said Mike Terry, a retired Charlottesville High School teacher and assistant principal. “We used to get together at each other’s houses, but the social support we maintained as a group waned away as we got older.” At that time, Terry said, “social outlets were limited to communication sparked by chance encounters with others.”
Although he doesn’t consider himself a member of YBPN, he admires its mission, because, “at least, younger people can grab ahold of this and lean on it. It’s a valuable tool to share ideas and talk about issues.” As his career evolved Terry also saw the problem from the hiring side. “There was nothing definitive or specific as a social outlet in Charlottesville for hardworking, professional African-Americans,” he said. “We could say, ‘It’s central, near to Richmond and D.C., but what Charlottesville had to offer wasn’t well-defined.’”
Charlottesville School Board Chairperson Juandiego Wade came to town in the late ’80s to attend graduate school. He moved back in 1991 for a position as Albemarle County’s transportation planner and used his school network to get involved in community organizations that he felt were critical to his professional advancement. “I got involved with my fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, and the United Way, which got me established in the community,” Wade said. “Through the United Way and the NAACP, I was able to meet people that were established—both white and black—and learn, make mistakes, be taught, and open doors… If you don’t have that in, it would be difficult, you’d have to make your own ins.”
Pierceson Harris didn’t choose to live in Charlottesville, but he did move here for a job. His father got a promotion at State Farm, which involved relocating to the Charlottesville operations center. Harris was less than optimistic about his chances to make his own ins, repeating another refrain I heard over and over again during interviews for this story. “Unless you’re a student at UVA, there’s nothing here. It’s not worth it,” Harris said. When I caught up with him at the end of the evening, he was more hopeful, saying he’d made some useful connections. A few days later, he sent me an e-mail, saying he’d landed a promising internship opportunity. “That $20 [to enter the bowling fundraiser] was the best $20 I’ve spent here so far,” he wrote. Not everyone at YBPN is from out of town.
Shantron Franklin-Sims grew up in Charlottesville, before moving away to study business management at George Mason University. She explained the draw of a group of like-minded peers. “Here there’s no negativity,” she said, taking a brief look around. “I know enough of them to say it’s a good group of people.” After graduating from GMU, Franklin-Sims moved to New York City, where she spent five years working in marketing. When I asked her what brought her home, she said, “I realized it’s a great place, and there’s something here for everyone.”
She moved back in 2006 at a time she felt more of her peers were finding jobs and professional opportunities that hadn’t existed when she was growing up. She said she had a feeling more UVA grads were sticking around and there was a young professional scene that was growing. In a town where so many employers have UVA ties, the alumni hiring network is part of the equation in attracting and developing black professional talent. The percentage of African-American students at UVA has gone from 10 percent in 1990 to 6.5 percent last year.
Dr. Marcus Martin, the vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at UVA, knows that’s a problem for the University: “That is something we are watching and trying to correct,” he said. After 18 years in Charlottesville, during which each of his three children graduated from UVA, Martin believes that the town has become more welcoming to minorities, although he acknowledges, “There are incidents of racial bias that pose challenges… and we still have a long way to go in terms of graduate and faculty diversity.”
His office operates horizontally within UVA and outward into the community, collaborating on various projects that aim to change the status quo on diversity. “Some students here are not afforded the same opportunities, and the first five years of life are so critical, giving children the early education opportunities. The challenges are the same, maybe even a little steeper with the tough economic situation.” Of YBPN, he said, “I see them being supportive of each other and providing peer mentorship.” Martin supports the organization, which he says, “is filling a definite need.”
For African-American students at UVA, the social scene here can leave something to be desired. Lindsey Jones, a graduate teaching assistant at UVA, came to YBPN in order to get a deeper connection with the community. The student organizations at UVA are helpful because they provide “an environment where you’re not the only black person,” but they tend to be “a bunch of transplants.” As Taylor Harris noted in a column for UVA Magazine, the University’s black alumni are a powerful group when they are concentrated on campus, but getting them to engage in the local workforce is still a work in progress.
That’s a major concern for Andrea Copeland, director of member education services for the Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce. As someone who grew up here and works here and whose job it is to recruit black professionals into a business network, she has witnessed the lack of overlap between the UVA African-American community and the local community. When I asked her if she thought the YBPN could help solve that problem, she was hopeful, if not convinced. “I don’t know if they have that community connection yet, many are not from here or are UVA students, but Wes can encourage people to get involved,” she said. “I hope they can make that connection. At the end of the day, we need more diversity on City Council. Our voices need to be heard politically.”
Copeland has been a major influence in addressing race issues in Charlottesville, through the Dialogue On Race, through the Chamber’s Minority Business Council and through her television show, “Positive Channels.” That experience has made her aware of an evident generational tension in the black community. While young people are focused on moving up, their parents remember, all too distinctly, when there was nowhere to go, which makes dropping roots in a professional community that relies on generational transitions of power, even more difficult. “I am the beneficiary of a lot of things that Mike Terry and those have done… It’s hard to have a strong network of black professionals,” Copeland said. “A lot of people I knew, as many black people as white people who wanted to be professional, we ended up in different circles or they moved away. I noticed the higher I grew in my career, I saw less and less people who look like me.”