Apr 27, 2023 30 min read

Building Community in Charlotte, NC

Image of Guest Janeen Bryant, with quote from transcript.

Episode 45, 43 min listen

At the State of Inclusion Podcast, we are on a journey to discover what it takes to build more inclusive communities. There are few communities working harder at this than Charlotte, NC. In this episode, we talk with Janeen Bryant, Executive Director of Charlotte's Community Building Initiative. Join us as we learn how they are building community in Charlotte, NC.  


Listen on Apple Podcasts   or    Listen on Spotify


Learn more about the Community Building Initiative.

A Few Additional Charlotte Economic Mobility, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives:

More episodes about Charlotte. Learn about Leading on Opportunity by listening to our interview, Achieving Economic Mobility for Charlotte - with Sherri Chisolm.

Listen to the TED Talk that Janeen mentioned, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story.

Janeen mentioned Somatic Literacy during our discussion. If you're a little curious about that concept, you might enjoy this article/interview with Adrienne Maree Brown, What your Body Has to Do with Social Change.

We also discussed the book, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, by Margaret J. Wheatley. Check out a brief overview of the book here.


Janeen Bryant is the Executive Director for Community Building Initiative (CBI). An advocate and catalyst for building organizational capacity, Janeen Bryant is an inter-sectional educator, facilitator, and community engagement consultant. Most recently, Janeen worked as the Founder and Principal Consultant for Facilitate Movement, LLC where she and her team specialized in crafting proactive strategies that guided institutions to address shifting demographics with responsive leadership to strengthen long-term vision, cultural competency, and empathy. Janeen also served as a liaison and Community Catalyst Coach for twelve communities in the Southeast through her work with My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative of the Obama Foundation. She has served on the boards of MeckEd and the Brenda H. Tapia Family Foundation.



Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of Inclusion podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better, and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I'm Ame Sanders, welcome.

If you've just discovered the State of Inclusion podcast, you might not know that we're on a journey--a journey to discover what it takes to build more inclusive communities. There are very few communities working harder at this than Charlotte, North Carolina. In all of our discussions, we've discovered that the most progressive communities have multiple equity and inclusion initiatives across their community, as Charlotte does. And these progressive communities are also committed to community building and community conversation as part of their work. Join us as we learn more about community building in Charlotte, North Carolina.

So today, I'm happy to welcome Janeen Bryant. Janeen is the Executive Director of the Community Building Initiative, or CBI, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Welcome, Janeen.

Janeen Bryant  01:30

Thank you very much. It's nice to be here with you.

-About CBI

Ame Sanders  01:32

So, you're fairly new to CBI, assuming the leadership at the organization last year. You've been doing this work a long time, and CBI has been around a long time. So, I know that CBI is about to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Congratulations on that. What is CBI been doing for the last 25 years, and where are you focused right now?

Janeen Bryant  01:54

So, CBI stands for Community Building Initiative, and it was launched in the late 90s with a real key focus on addressing community involvement from a police-involved shooting. I'm based here in Charlotte, North Carolina. As it is common in this community, a task force emerged that was supposed to help address the needs of our community members as they grappled with what was really rocking our city at the time. So, from that emerged this task force, and from the task force emerged six issue teams that were supposed to work on very discrete aspects of rebuilding our community trust. This is happening simultaneously with the larger issues that were revealed by Bowling for Columbine. Our understanding of social capital was really starting to pivot at this time.

So, CBI emerges into a landscape in which our communities were grappling with a number of many-layered issues. From that came an initiative that was really about giving us space to talk to each other and learn from each other and to develop our leadership capacity to address change in real-time, particularly around racial equity. Over the years, CBI has developed a number of signature programs, the first of which (which is well known in our community) is called LDI, which is the Leadership Development Initiative. That program was about capacity. It was about who our leaders are, how are they connected to each other, and are they asking questions around real change-making? Later, they would develop a program called LU40. So, that's particularly for leaders under 40. This emergent class of leaders in Charlotte is strong.

If you know about Charlotte, is a magnet in the South for growth and change. Even during the pandemic, we had over 60 people a day moving to our community. The standard is between 100 and 130 people moving here a day. So, the real goal here was for us to have an opportunity to talk to each other and learn from each other, relate to each other and create networks, and to change the literal leadership capacity for the people who are at the top--who are creating the vision.

The last is our Equity Impact Circles, the last program that we see people really taking utilization of. This program is open to folks who want to learn some of the basics, who want to learn the language, and want to get exposure to what it means to use the word equity in real-time. So, those are the signature programs. Of course, we do a bus tour that we've been doing for the last couple of years, which will literally take you around Charlotte to learn about the history and to more deeply understand the geography of Charlotte and how it emerged through policy constraints and how some of our key decisions of our leaders impacted what's happening on the ground?

-Community: The Big WE

Ame Sanders  04:36

So, this is probably a good place to ask you, what do you think community is? How do you think of community?

Janeen Bryant  04:42

This is a question that I hear often. The simplest answer and the way that I remember to ground myself each time I'm talking to folks is I think of community as the "big we." I define the "big we" by thinking about how intentional are we being. We use the word "we" and use the word "community" all the time, especially in nonprofits, right? But, there's an opportunity for us to think about the "big we."

For me, that is based on some of my experience as a classroom teacher. When you're growing up, you have an understanding of who you were in the community, usually linked to your parents or to what school you go to. But when you emerge, and you start your professional journey, and you're in the community, especially as an educator, you start to understand each of these systems affect each other. Education is fundamental to how we disperse and disseminate information. We have to be so intentional about creating the space for everyone to show up. I think public education and classrooms are a great example of what that looks like.

That's where I had my first definition of the "big we." I was teaching in what would be considered a high-poverty, highly marginalized, very fragile community. I needed to show up in a way that was both intentional and honest. It helped me to account for what I was doing in that classroom and how I was communicating to parents and students. Not just my teacher-friends and the administration. That was my first lesson. I could extend my big week to thinking about trust and safety, and what does that look like? Because ultimately, I will leave the classroom and go on to work at a museum, and that museum was a history museum well beloved in Charlotte. But then I started to understand the context of how do we get here. Some of the decisions that were made had to do with acknowledging harm and moving us toward correcting that harm. That, to me, that is fundamental to a sustainable community.

Then the last one, which is a fairly new concept that I've been grappling with, is the intersection of joy and grief in community building. I talk about this a lot. We get an opportunity to experience real joy when we're connected with each other. But the flip of that--the spectrum of that--is that joy and grief are on the same pendulum swing. So, the only reason that we have such deep grief when we can't be together (the pandemic showed us what this looks like) is because of the joy we have experienced with each other in connection. So for me, the "big we" is us being deliberately conscious around that dynamic ecosystem that we're all a part of and being willing to be intentional, trusting, and joyful in the continuous creation of that community.

-Community Building How To's

Ame Sanders  07:38

There is so much to unpack there in all that you said. But I want to ask you a question to extend that. In that context that you just shared with us, how then do you think about community building?

Janeen Bryant  07:51

I have a bit of an organizing background. One of the concepts that I was introduced to early and that I literally campaigned for was around restorative justice. Like I said, we overuse a lot of these words. The concept of restorative justice begs us well, who was harmed? Who's the most harmed? When you use that question to center your intentionality and your safety, and your trust building, then you'll understand that you have to address those who are being harmed first. Because if you address those who are already being harmed by the systems and by what you're doing in your community, then I guarantee you're going to help everybody else. Right? So, it's not a matter of hierarchy, or it's not even a matter of power. It's really about intentionality.

Are you willing to face in ways that create space for people to name their harm and to correct it? Because that restorative justice allows us to build together. It allows us to see each other, to see our fallibility, and to be honest about what it takes to build something together. When you hear me use the word "build," I'm not just talking about a forward future-facing building, I'm talking about reconciling injustice and inequity so that we say that our foundation is built on something solid and that we actually trust each other. Too often, I think people want to go with, "Well, we're building community together because we made some new connections. We have new partnerships." I would add, "AND we understand the historical context that got us here so that we don't keep making the same mistakes."

Ame Sanders  09:22

Wow. So, there's a lot of things in those conversations we just had. So, we talked about trust. We talk about understanding and reconciling our past and also forward-looking. We talk about the relationship we have with one another and the joy that we can find in that. Also, the risk or the grief that we have when that does not work as humans as we need for it to. So, we were talking a moment ago about your conversations that you have in community. We talk about the programs that you have at CBI. So clearly, communities can advance and build themselves organically, but how does an organization interject itself into that process and stimulate or support community building either through these conversations that we were talking about a minute ago, or your other programs or something else that you might have in mind?

Janeen Bryant  10:14

You used the word just a minute ago that I think is incredibly important around like how does an organization do that? It's risky. There's literal risk involved because you're inviting people to examine their own biases as a mechanism to explore how those biases to actually impact the community and how they're showing up in the community. How they're showing up when we are in together spaces. How they're showing up in policy. How showing up in how we treat each other--and that's through any of the systems. That could be the criminal justice, education, health, and equity.

So, an organization like the CBI is really about examining those systems by providing our key leaders with the knowledge, skills, and courage to act. Once they have the knowledge, and then the key understanding of like, how are these systems playing together? Who am I inside of the system? Once they have that initial knowledge, they really have to then build some skills around it, right? It's not that just knowing it is enough to turn the magic switch and make people suddenly behave better with each other. In fact, there's real skills around listening and dialogue and influence, and understanding narrative and narrative setting, understanding what it means to interact and collaborate and also understanding conflict, and how conflict shows up and what we need to do to mitigate or mediate conflict. So those skills are real.

I would say most of us, in our professional capacities, have actually been taught not to have conflict and to go in with a power stance, which doesn't actually give much room for listening. So, in some ways, CBI helps unlearn some of the ways we've been taught to interact with each other so that we can have the courage--CBI alum just said something to me yesterday about psychological safety--so we can have the courage and the psychological safety to confront things when we see them real-time.

So, we don't wait until we have another issue we can be proactive about what it means to support. Like I said at the beginning, it's risky to do this work. It's not a hammer-and-nails proposition. This is about sustained and ongoing personal, organizational, and structural investigations so that we can actually build a different way of being together that supports each other.

-Community Conversations

Ame Sanders  12:33

So, I love how that echoes back to what you said at the very beginning about creating a space for us to share and talk with one another. You know, I recently read Margaret Wheatley, his wonderful book called Turning to One Another. It's all about community conversations. I was most intrigued by your work in community conversations. So, Margaret, in her book, says real change begins with the simple act of people talking about what they care about. She also says that conversation is the natural way we humans think together. So, maybe you could tell us a little bit about your equity circles and your community conversations.

Janeen Bryant  13:15

I'm not familiar with Wheatley's book, but the concept of being able to relate to each other is fundamental to the work of CBI. As a person who's been involved in community engagement work, what's fundamentally necessary for us is to be able to see each other in our full and whole selves. The equity impacts circles give us some language and tools so that people are what Chimamanda Adichie talks about is "resisting that single story."

We actually start using a TED Talk that she has, where she invites people to examine the single story that they're carrying and to resist that by really understanding what stereotypes are informing how you interact with each other. What biases are you literally putting in front of your conversations, in front of how you communicate and interact with each other? She says the single story creates stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is they're not true, right? Because they're incomplete. So, they make that one story the only story. So, what's essential for us is around understanding who the people are by listening carefully to their stories. So, that net notion of using a conversation as a way for humans to naturally link with each other I think is fundamentally important and true.

We talk to each other in our humanity, and that's how we build community. I laughed because I said, "You know if you were living alone in a cave, you don't have to worry about community. Right? You wouldn't have to worry about what other people were doing and how you related to them. You would be a singular human." What makes us whole in our humanity is actually our ability to network and relate and connect to each other. That's what makes us humans. Without it, we are just single individuals existing.

Ame Sanders  14:59

So, a couple of things that come to mind from that is one is practically speaking, what does that look like in these conversations that your community has? Also, how do you make sure you're including all of the community, the whole community so that we see each other fully?

Janeen Bryant  15:18

That's a great question. What's really critical about that, if I can kind of pushing through that question a little bit, is that--you gotta know that I'm coming from a family that has a literal neuroscientist in it. So, I come from a social science anthropology background. So, when I think about the necessity of building community, and it being intentional action, for me, those are built upon the cultural constructs that allow us to see each other and have a sustained way of interacting with each other. So, when I think about like, "What does that literally look like?"

Well, it means that people are going to show up fully in themselves. When I say make space, this is around understanding that we do not all have the same backgrounds. We don't all have the same knowledge and skills that we're coming in. When you create space, you give people the room to show up in the way that they need to, so they can actually hear and process the other folks who are also in the room. That means that those people who feel like they have high expectations get to come in and say their high expectations, even if they're coming from places of perceived privilege. Those people who have been invisiblized also get the space to say what they need to say.

When you're in a shared space like this,--and CBI has created the mechanisms for a lot of these spaces, and I've been blessed that in my career, I've been able to partner with and work with organizations just like CBI over the course of 20 years, so that these spaces are sacred. No one thinks that it's navel-gazing when somebody gets killed or when somebody is harmed. But when you say well, let's undo and unpack what happened to get us there, people say, "Oh, we don't have time for that." Instead, what we do is dig the hole deeper. Then it gets harder, and it gets darker down the hole. And it makes it really hard to see that there are any solutions to what we have dug ourselves into a hole from.

So for me, much of this work is around creating the spaces for what I call the "aha" moment. I'm an educator by training. So, I love to create the spaces where it's not just the knowledge that we have. It's the "aha" moment. That's the moment of surprise and acknowledgment and curiosity that says, "Oh, I see myself inside of the system."  In these community engagement conversations, those moments happen over and over and over again.

One of the ways we do that is we're very intentional about creating the container. So, as a facilitator, we create the container for this, which means that we have to have a set of group agreements that everybody says I want to work with, right? We have to have a group agreements around what happens when conflict happens. How do we acknowledge it real-time? We don't wait. You don't go home and talk to your partner or spouse about it and then say, "Man, I wish I would have said so and so right then because that was important." You say it right then in the moment. Ultimately, what that leads to is a level of accountability that our communities and our individual leaders are often not pressed with. The idea of accountability and the ability to clarify, like, what do you think was going to happen? And did it actually happen? We don't take a lot of moments for that, even when we say we're doing evaluation. Who are the humans that are making those decisions? And in these kinds of dialogic and facilitated spaces, and these kinds of conversations where we are using critical resources to add some evaluatory lens, we get to be owners of our behavior. In that ownership, we can hold ourselves accountable, and we also learn how to hold each other accountable. That accountability is joyful. We don't all have that frame for accountability, but it's joyful.

Ame Sanders  18:49

So, take me into one of these kinds of discussions, just so I can live vicariously through your experiences. So, are you typically doing this in a large group or a small group? You mentioned creating a sort of space or a container, but I assume that has a physical environment to it. You also talked about some facilitation. So, maybe you can draw us a picture of like if we joined you in one of these conversations, what would we experience? What would it be like?

Janeen Bryant  19:20

That's a great question because I think some people have these kinds of opportunities all the time, and some people don't get to go into these kinds of spaces or may even be fearful to go into these kinds of spaces. So, I'll give you an example. Some of my work has been with CBI, but of course, as I mentioned several times, I've been in and out of the Charlotte community for 20-plus years. So, a lot of my work looks like this.

So, a typical CBI program is going to have anywhere between 25 to 50 participants in a room. For deep dive work, smaller is better. Typically, you're going to be in a space where there is a there is limited hierarchy. It's not lecture-style. It's deliberately created into a space where you know you're going to be communicating with each other. Even though the way in which we situate the room and the way in which we invite you into the space is all considered. So, the language that you use. Whether we have to translate that language and create some spaces for interpretation, even before you come into the space, is very much a part of the overall experience. Once you're in there, we take time to introduce ourselves to each other and to really set the frame. Physical space is a part of it, yes, but really it is about the container for the conversation and the dialogue that we're about to have. And the notion that collectively, you can learn more than from a single individual when you give space for multiple perspectives to be shared. That the solution that was born from that multiple perspective sharing is always going to be greater than the single perspective, which is also the value of diversity and inclusion, right?

So, what happens in these spaces is--okay, I'm going to use some educator language--there's going to be differentiated access points and an opportunity for people to check in with themselves. So, there'll be personal reflection moments. Sometimes that is in silence or with written reflection. There will be moments where you are in dialogue with other people, but on small-scale, so dyads, or triads, or quads. Once you turn to somebody, and you share a very particular poignant moment of personal reflection in a group. Then we look for ways to synthesize that information so that it can be shared with a larger group. So again, we turn back to the 25 to 50 people, you share it back with a larger group.

Then from that larger group, the facilitator is asked to synthesize a larger, more expansive picture of our knowledge and understanding now that we have shared with each other, and then you reflect on that. So, these are cycles of reflection, and storytelling and accountability and questioning, and curiosity. We are very intentional about creating these spaces. Most of these are sustained dialogue in sustained sessions. So, you are with the same group of people for multiple months, sometimes up to a year.

In EICs (Equity Impact Circles), you go through a five-week course. For the smaller circles, it's usually a smaller group of 15 to 20 people. You're in that group for five weeks. For the longer more signature program, you're in that group of 25 to 50 people, and you're in that group for eight months to a year. This is designed with the understanding that adults take longer to process and learn because they have to unlearn some of those behaviors and those key strategies first before they even try to really listen carefully to what they hear going on. It can be contentious, right? You're gonna have people who were sitting in a room with wildly different opinions, wildly different political perspectives, polarizing thoughts around health equity and vaccines, different understandings of sexual orientation, and who is allowed to have what in what space. People who refuse an outright will not acknowledge someone else's personhood based on what their faith traditions told them. We train our facilitators to be able to create the conditions for acknowledgment and mechanisms to help rectify that. The group is vitally important to maintain the safety and trust. So, the facilitator gives the group the access points and the mechanisms to help course correct in these spaces.

Ame Sanders  23:17

One question that comes to mind is do you start these discussions centered around specific questions or around specific topics? How do you kick off this kind of conversation?

Janeen Bryant  23:30

For most of how the community-building initiatives work, the topics are going to be thematically related to the realities of Charlotte. So, we're gonna we're going to have a conversation around immigration. We are literally going to invite Charlotte teens who have an immigrant experience and immigrant background to come in and talk to us. They can speak to us in their native tongue, or they can speak to us in the ways that they feel comfortable with, and that can be through any kind of resource sharing they want to--posters, timelines, PowerPoints, historical background, their personal lived experience.

Then, that serves as a catalyst for internal exploration for folks on the ground. So, if we're talking about the indigenous experience here, we're going to talk to and listen to and learn from people who have an indigenous identity. If we're going to talk about sexual orientation and gender expression, we're going to talk to people who have had experiences and are willing to explore those experiences in public spaces. It's not a public space as in like, you know, we're not broadcasting across the news, but this is a public space, and we have to create the safety for people to come in and share their perspectives their stories with us, and then give our participants an opportunity to reflect on, "Did you see yourself in that story?" The questions are designed to give them a neutral access point for that and designed to challenge them to think about other people's perspectives and how those perspectives may involve pain or not.

Ame Sanders  24:52

Right, so you identify topics that are really critical for Charlotte in order for the community to grow and for you to build community. Then, you inform those conversations, as you said, with lived experience from people who can bring their own voices to the table. And then you use that as a jumping-off point for these conversations with the broader community over a period of time so that it allows you to get deeper and deeper as you go.

Janeen Bryant  25:18

Now, I do have to say that sometimes we have to be more reactionary than that. So, for example, when there was a police-involved killing, CBI was, like I said, born out of a police-involved shooting. So, when there's police involvement in community harm, that happens as a result and community reactions, we oftentimes create healing spaces so that people can have a space to react, fear, and connect with each other in that moment of pain. That came out of looking at community needs and hearing a request from our stakeholders: "We need a space to breathe. We need a space to see each other in our humanity. We need a space to invite skills around healing, as well as skills around addressing and acknowledging harm."

So, to create that space, we invite people who are experts in somatic literacy and people who are experts in understanding full-body trauma reactions to help inform what would it look like for us to heal together. They join us in the space. They help lead our community members in that space. Our last one had 75 respondents, and that was in a 24-hour window, basically where people joined us on Zoom. Our hope is to do those more cyclically. We were hearing these from the public because we need them, right? Sometimes we need just as much help learning how to heal from each other as we need into raising our collective voices when we see harm happening.

-Leading a Mature Organization and Shifting Direction

Ame Sanders  26:44

So, you have a diverse background and a lot of experiences. Plus, you're pretty anchored in Charlotte. So, I had a question for you about how your leadership and vision for CBI have been aligned with CBI's work? Can you tell us a little bit about what it means to take over the helm of an organization that might be going through some transition? What kind of reorientation is needed to take? A lot of people are coming into mature organizations and trying to increase their focus on equity and inclusion, and social justice. How is that working in CBI and what's triggering changes that you guys might be considering?

Janeen Bryant  27:29

So, the beautiful thing about my alignment as a new leader at this organization is that I've already experienced CBI. I actually attended the LU40 program. I was part of the second class, so it was a fairly new program. What I enjoyed about it is it was pretty fearless. We were almost immediately asking questions around our choices, geography-wise, where we selected to live in Charlotte, and then what were the implications of living and working in that geography or working in two different geographies--different zip codes--or living in two different zip codes. In a community like Charlotte, as we know across the nation, we have experienced staggering amounts of segregation and displacement, and gentrification, which means that we have to ask ourselves questions like, "How are we making very deliberate and intentional decisions about where we show up in spaces?"

So, I came into CBI with that background and with that experience of their programming, which was fantastic. So for me as a person who, like I said, was a classroom educator and then went on to do education program and dialogic design at a museum, when I came into this space and into this opportunity, it was really important for me to wait and listen first before I espoused a vision of what was next. My orientation towards listening is born out of some skills around facilitation and listening, and ethnography. Because what's been true for many nonprofit leaders, I think, and many people who step into the role of leadership, we have constructs around leadership that are really based on, for lack of a better term, the great man theory of leadership. You come in, you have a certain posture that does not involve listening. It involves leading and taking charge. I mean, even the language that we use is oftentimes militaristic and focused on battle and fighting.

For me, if you're talking about building community, well, then you have to start with listening and collaboration because those are fundamental to understanding what people need in a community. So, it happens that CBI's orientation towards equity--primarily racial and gender equity when they started but has now moved in towards other facets of identity and equity. When I came into this role, the vision of the board was really to acknowledge that there is something bold needed in this moment. The training and development and signature programs of CBI, while they had created this capacious understanding of what our leadership could look like in Charlotte, what they couldn't quite do was map and evaluate the outcomes. So, those of us who are working in spaces that are geared towards inclusion and equity know that if you don't have a severe grasp (and by severe, I mean you got to have a tight hold on what outcomes are you actually trying to get to) that you do not move the needle.

So, I was invited into the space as a person who has an evaluatory lens, who listens carefully around equity audits, and being able to understand and address an equity-based strategy that aligns itself to community needs. For me, this is not jargon. This is what I have been practicing. That looks like understanding the history of a community, understanding the policy that lends itself towards justice or not. Understanding what actions community leaders continuously take and what patterns and cycles develop in a community because those become embedded as cultural practices and they become embedded as the way we are. I'm using air quotes for that because people will say, "That's the way we are," as if we did not create that. Then having the fortitude to create some accountability inside of that space. So, I came into this understanding that. The board, their vision for bold leadership was around change-making and creating spaces for our stakeholders to have additional skills for accountability when it comes to advocating publicly. So, although CBI doesn't have to take on one issue because our stakeholders and those whom we have trained are interested in affordable housing. They are interested in immigration rights. They are interested in disability rights. They are interested in creating more green spaces. They are interested in small business acumen. They are interested in health equity. So, what we need to do is support them.

So, the work of that is a slight pivot because we're not just supporting them with understanding what that looks like and means and how those systems interact. We're also helping them understand what does accountability inside of the system looks like? What does accountability to our communities look like when we are building something together? What are the critical questions we need to ask around who has been harmed, and how are we correcting that harm? That's how we start. So, that's been the joy of working with an organization like CBI. Your other question was around if people who are starting this work and coming into spaces and wanting to create a more intentional equity lens, I would offer that when you're asking people, and you're listening to what they say that clarity can mean that you have some real discomfort. So, when you hear a critique of your organization from the community or from the staff, or from the stakeholders, you, as a leader, have to be humble enough (and carry that humility with you at all times) to hear what people are saying. Because there's a reason why they shared that with you. If not, then we would all be clapping for each other, right?

So, you got to have the commitment to hear the truth. Not just the positive truths but to hear the whole truth and to hold yourself accountable to both the good and the corrections that need to happen when you're in an organization, especially a mature organization. And be sensitive to the fact that you're here and stepping into a foundation, and that foundation is what gives you the critical mass and the people power and the capacity to even do the next step. So, that's what I'm stepping into,

Ame Sanders  33:31

But it sounds like your board, and you as well, have a broader vision now for CBI--a much bigger vision for CBI. That sounds very exciting. It also reminds me that a couple of years ago, I interviewed Sherry Chisholm, who is head of Leading on Opportunity in Charlotte. One of the things I always look for in communities is this, and I'm thrilled to find communities who have several big initiatives going on because that demonstrates a broad vision as your board seems to have, and also a willingness to take on a very difficult challenges that the community is facing.

-Collaborating with Other Local Change Leaders

So, one of the questions I had for you--because there's a lot going on in Charlotte, not just you and Sherri, but there are others who are doing work on equity, inclusion, social justice, and economic mobility--so do you guys as leaders in these organizations and these initiatives share with each other coordinate, collaborate, commiserate? Do you guys pull together on some of the work that you're doing?

Janeen Bryant  34:41

We do. In fact, there's members of Sherri's team who have been trained at CBI, right? So, it makes it a lot easier. We are already speaking the same language because they've already been trained through this organization that I'm working with. This is a great example. We recently created a public-facing survey. So, when I called Sherri's team over at Leading on Opportunity, and said Community Building Initiative is doing some work, and we really want to make sure that our evaluation is strong. We want to make sure that inside, we have neutralized our language enough so that people can feel like they can critique or celebrate. We collaborated on that. This is a way that we can work together really quickly.

In the future, we're working on a community-facing symposium. That's not until the end of the year, closer to November. Already, we know that we're partnering with each other and gathering resources right now that we'll use as a part of our public programming, with the hope that we're going to have hundreds of stakeholders who are involved in a hybrid symposium that is joined by local-level and state-level expertise. We have plenty of it in Charlotte. So, typically good partners in Charlotte are the ones that are willing to, like I said, wear that veil of humility at all times and be willing to--and here's some organizer language for you--but be able to lock elbows with each other. Because we do have to face the same direction. If we're orienting ourselves towards justice, we have to face the same direction. We can't be all pulling all different directions.

So, we do a lot of all three, the collaborating and the commiserating and celebrating with the real emphasis on not just knowing what our organizations do but knowing what we are capable of doing. We have some real possibilities in Charlotte, and the people here are smart. This is a highly competitive city. So, I'm not sure why that is, maybe NASCAR. But everybody here is moving fast and has a lot of good ideas. It takes considerable effort to name what it looks like to partner with each other. We name what it looks like when we're going to have conflict. We name it at the front. We don't wait until we get into conflict. We name it at the front.

-Charlotte's Challenges

Ame Sanders  36:49

What do you see as some of the challenges that Charlotte is facing right now, and how do you see CBI's work in helping to address that?

Janeen Bryant  36:54

So, I've been living in Charlotte for longer than anywhere else I've ever lived. I've had experience internationally and lived in other cities--in big cities like Houston and Atlanta. It always seems to me that Charlotte has been waiting to give itself permission to be a big city. So, we use words, even in our in our larger policy frameworks around globalizing and our commitment to creating an inclusive and global city. Then somehow, simultaneously, we undermine what it looks like to be an inclusive and globalizing city.

So, CBI's work to me is really critical in understanding and learning lessons from other communities. My real hope is that as we do these next steps in what these notions are emerging from our public and our stakeholder is that we CBI is responsible for creating these healthy, compelling, and catalyst moments for Charlotte. That we are being very deliberate and intentional of creating these convening spaces so that the big ideas can emerge and that the right people are in the room to hear them.

I feel like CBI has been critical in creating the leadership capacity and the knowledge for that, that now will be dispersed. So, we're not talking only to the "leaders" (the C-suite level leaders), but we'll be talking to the people who are across the spectrum and experiencing different socioeconomic conditions, different educational levels, different kinds of health challenges, and letting them inform the next thing. They are the people who are helping us create the big ideas and the collaboration. I think that's a real key challenge for Charlotte. Because once we give ourselves permission to do it right, I feel like Charlotte will once again and has historically has been a model for quite a few social capacity-building strategies, including public school busing strategies and education strategies, and some immigration strategies actually more recently. Charlotte can be a model for other kinds of strategies as well.

-Wrap-up Advice

Ame Sanders  39:06

Before we wrap up, I wanted to see if there was anything else that you wanted to touch on or talk about or share that we haven't talked about.

Janeen Bryant  39:15

I'm excited to have conversations like today's because it also helps me think about these in which communities is truly built. Because, like I said, we can overuse some of the language. The reality is we've been taught not to collaborate with each other, and we've been taught not to see each other. We've been taught to look at change-making as destabilizing and disruptive. I think anything that we can learn from this moment after many years of radical change in our communities and our political landscape, and our health is that the "big we" are the ones that can make the changes to support each other. It doesn't have to be the "wait for" generation. It might be. But the reality is that we can start to do some of these things right now. The one thing that we can always start to do is listen carefully to each other. From that listening, we can care about each other. Even if the perspective is different, we can still care about each other. Like I said, once you do the listening and the caring, the bigger solution when you have multiple perspectives in the room is always better.

Ame Sanders  40:21

I love that. That we should listen to each other. We care about each other and then live into today, the changes that might take us a generation to realize, but we can begin to live into those today.

Janeen Bryant  40:41


Ame Sanders  40:48

Thank you, Janeen Bryant, for talking with us and for your work in Charlotte.

Janeen Bryant  41:42

Thank you so much. It's been a joy and a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me to the State of Inclusion.


Ame Sanders  41:48

As I listened to Janeen talk about the signature programs of CBI, I was taken back to how the seed for State of Inclusion was planted during my own involvement in a diversity and equity leadership program. It reminded me that the ripples and impacts of programs like CBI's can go on for years. I especially enjoyed the rich and insightful discussion that Janeen and I had around community conversations.

One of the things we hear over and over again in our discussions is that on this journey to create more inclusive communities, relationships are everything. Building or rebuilding trust is fundamental. And community conversations are necessary to prepare the community ground within which seeds of equity and inclusion can grow and flourish. Janeen reminded us that building community is not easy and it's not without risk. It's not only a forward-looking process, but it also requires us to understand and acknowledge our past. We have to realize who has been and is being harmed and be willing to work through conflict that comes up.

She shared a little bit about how Charlotte accomplishes this kind of work, how they create containers for conversation, design interventions, facilitate difficult conversations, and, when needed, support community healing. Janeen reminded us that it's important to listen to and care for each other. I'm all in for that. Perhaps the most important takeaway, for me, was the reminder that in this work, where some change may take a generation to realize, we can still begin to live into these changes today. We don't have to wait a minute longer to begin to build a more inclusive and equitable future for our community. To borrow a phrase from Charles Eisenstein, to begin today to "build the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible."

This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time.

And if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others. Leave us a review. We'd love your comments.

Thanks so much for listening


Guest: Janeen Bryant

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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