Queen City Nerve

Charlotte's Cultural Pulse

NFL Player Visits Charlotte on Southern Social Justice Tour
Kenny Stills hears from community members on issues facing Charlotteans

By Ryan Pitkin

February 6, 2019

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills was in Charlotte on Wednesday, his first stop on a tour of the South in which he’s looking to connect with community organizers in different cities to see how he can help with social issues people are facing there.

At a lunch with community organizers representing organizations like Safe Coalition NC, Historic West End Partners and Action NC, Stills heard about a range of issues Charlotteans are facing, with much of the conversation centering around housing. After the lunch, Stills toured the Historic West End with HWEP president J’Tanya Adams to learn firsthand how families who have lived in the area for generations are being pushed out as developers and investors take a new interest in its historically black neighborhoods.

Stills made a similar trip around the South in 2018, but said he didn’t make much of a connection with anyone in Charlotte, where he attended the Women’s March and met with just a few people. On this trip, he’s hoping to get a better grasp on issues that Charlotte’s most vulnerable populations are facing, he said.

“I’m hoping to figure out a way to get involved in solutions,” Stills said following the lunch. “We sat today and talked about some of the issues that we have here in Charlotte, and we’re going to work towards figuring out ways that I can help and get involved and help get some of my friends and teammates and coworkers involved as well.”

Stills and those in attendance at the lunch discussed gentrification and displacement, as well as potential solutions like land trusts. When asked whether his help would involve financial support, simply using his platform to help shine a light on certain issues, or using his connections in the NFL to solicit help, Stills quickly replied, “All of it.”

Kenny Stills (third from left, in hat) hears from local organizers. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Stills also entertained the potential of working with Carolina Panthers players Eric Reid and Torrey Smith, who have been involved in local social justice issues like bail reform.

Bree Newsome, a local organizer who helped organize Thursday’s events, has been working closely on displacement issues in Charlotte communities in recent years. She said she was happy that someone with Stills’ means is interested in getting involved.

“He wants to learn personally what he can do, and that’s definitely a conversation that we as community organizers are wanting to have with people, because one huge element of it is the economic conversation,” Newsome said. “What are we going to do to address generational poverty in a place like the Historic West End? We need economic investment there, but it has to be in a way that is really going to improve the quality of life for people who have been living there in a place where the city has economically divested for so many decades. We don’t just want to have all of these improvements to the neighborhood and everybody just gets displaced — everyone there just gets pushed out.”

Newsome was encouraged by the fact that someone like Stills, who seemingly has no connection to Charlotte — he grew up in San Diego, played college football in Oklahoma and currently plays in Miami — is sincerely interested in learning more about local issues in the city and others that he will be visiting in the weeks to come.

“I think it reflects exactly that consciousness, the awareness that it doesn’t matter where you live, where you grew up, the fact that we are all connected in this together,” she said. “He recognizes that it doesn’t matter what level of fame or wealth he might have, that he still has a vested interest in what is happening here in Charlotte, he has a vested interest in what is happening in Atlanta and throughout the South, and the only way that we are going to address these issues and really turn the corner and move forward is to have people operating with that awareness in the way that he’s doing it.”

After touring the Historic West End with Adams, Stills toured Brookhill Village with local photographer Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. Planned development has lead to the displacement of hundreds of people in Brookhill Village, with more to come. The neighborhood is the subject of an exhibit put together by Jacobs and currently on display at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Stills (center) and organizers including Bree Newsome (third from right) pose for a picture before leaving for neighborhood tours. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Before leaving for the neighborhood tours, Stills said he noticed how prevalent the issues housing and displacement were on the minds of the organizers he met at lunch.

“Everyone stressed the housing situation here and how fast people are being driven out of their neighborhoods and their homes, and that’s something that’s a really urgent issue here,” he said. “So I’m hoping by the end of the day to have some type of information on how I can get involved and get all my coworkers and friends involved as well.”

After the tours, Stills planned to have dinner with Charles Thomas, director of the Knight Foundation, to further discuss what he had seen throughout the day and how he can be a part of potential solutions.

After leaving Charlotte, Stills plans to meet with community organizers in Alamance County and in the Raleigh-Durham area. Other stops on his tour include towns and cities in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. 

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