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A Charlotte Newcomer’s Guide to Community Engagement

I moved to Charlotte this fall — a brand new city to me and so many people who have chosen this Southern gem as our new home. Charlotte now holds my hopes and aspirations for future adventures. It has so much to offer, which is why I chose to try making a life here.

We all have our own reasons for landing here; perhaps it is a fresh start or a homecoming. We have chosen this place for reasons all our own but we are here together now. There are new people to meet, new foods to eat, beautiful nature to get lost in and new opportunities to explore it all, so I want to share my experience thus far. 

Charlotte newcomer's guide
Caitlin Mroz. (Photo by Alex Mroz) 

Once I settled in, it could feel a bit like trying to read in a language I did not speak. I felt like I needed a translator. What is “NoDa?” (North Davidson Street between Sugar Creek Road and Matheson Avenue.) Is downtown actually Uptown? (Depends on whom you ask.) Slowly, things have started to come together, and while I am still asking a lot of embarrassing questions, I am embracing the unique advantages of being new. 

If you were fortunate enough to move here in a position of privilege, like myself, you will discover that Charlotte has a lot for you. When thinking about all this city might give to me, I have also been thinking about what I will give back. 

Real relationships are about giving as much as you take, and it’s the same with wherever we live. It is a fact that the choices we make will shape the future of the city we live in, the question being: What kind of future do I want to contribute to? 

This year has woken many of us up to the need to connect with our respective communities, care for our neighbors and stand up for our values. It can feel daunting to figure out where to start. How does a new person even begin to get involved when they are still trying to determine where to get their groceries? 

The good news is that caring for your community is easy, which is why I’ve created this newcomer’s guide to Charlotte. There are small things we can do to increase our awareness, be engaged in what is happening in our new home and care for our new neighbors.  The following guide, built with a little help from Q.C. Nerve editor and long-time Charlottean Ryan Pitkin, is just a launching pad. There are countless opportunities to volunteer, get engaged, support local and make the city a better place. 

Get Involved in Giving Back

Grassroots advocates and organizers have been working for generations to make a city that holds space for everyone. Charlotte is not there yet, but for every challenge there is opportunity for positive change. There are many people working to build that better future right now, and there’s plenty of room for you to join them.

Block Love Charlotte 

“It’s easy to give when you give out love.” The words of Deb Woolard, founder of Block Love Charlotte, ring true for her volunteers. However, Woolard herself gives so much more than love. 

While she and her team provide food, supplies, and sometimes shelter to our homeless neighbors on a daily basis, you don’t need to give anything but your time to help their efforts. Join the team by volunteering to serve dinner to the community every evening at 6 p.m. on Phifer Avenue (The Block). All you have to do is show up. 

newcomer's guide to charlotte
Volunteers with Block Love Charlotte have visited encampments with food and provisions for residents every day for more than 200 days. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“Many people didn’t realize the magnitude of the homeless population in Charlotte,” Woolard says, but recent events have seen a growth in awareness around the issue as people are seeing how great the needs are and how important it is that they get involved. 

You should know the group also serves breakfast on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m., which is when they see their biggest demand, back at The Block. 

There’s no need to commit to a specific schedule or anything, just come when you can. There are no excuses. If you have shoes or clothes you could do without, they will take those too. 

Feed the Movement CLT

The committed folks at Feed the Movement work to support movements for justice and equality across the city by feeding protestors and those on the front lines of movement work. 

Gabe Cartagena, an organizer with Feed the Movement CLT, reminds us that “a lot of people who are interested in social justice work are the people who are gentrifying the city,” and for us to “have any change we need the people who are gentrifiers to be on our side.”  

newcomer's guide to charlotte
Feed the Movement organizers get folks fueled up before a protest in June. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

If you are passionate about social justice work and love to cook, this volunteer opportunity is a chance to nourish the movement for change. 

It’s also a great way to get exposed to various efforts across the city — groups like Charlotte Uprising and the Southeast Asian Coalition, that they work with often. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram and send a direct message if you want to get involved.

Share Charlotte

While Feed the Movement can be a good conduit to the activist scene in Charlotte, Share Charlotte serves the same function in the nonprofit sector. The local organization is a one-stop shop for connecting with more than 480 Mecklenburg County nonprofits. 

“One excellent way to learn about our history, our heritage, our growth, our triumphs and what is possible for our communities is through the eyes of our nonprofits,” says Amy Jacobs, the organization’s executive director.  

Share Charlotte is “making it easy to learn about what they do and who they serve, and offering a variety of ways our community can support their work,” says Jacobs. 

That includes in-person and online volunteer opportunities. Follow them on Instagram and Twitter

Support your new local favorites

Connecting with local businesses is not only one of the best ways to explore your city, it is also a way to support the kind of vibrant culture that makes living here great. 

It can be tempting for newcomers to head straight to that recognizable big box store or familiar chain restaurant, but taking a little time to look up a local alternative will go a long way for that small-business owner and for strengthening your own community ties. 

When I decided to move to Charlotte, I didn’t know the first thing about the city or even the state. I looked for ways to educate myself, and Queen City Nerve was one of my first discoveries. Q.C. Nerve introduced me to cool restaurants, businesses and local happenings, and that’s what inspired me to pitch this story in the first place.

Simply walking around is another good way to get connected to your city. On a recent walk I happened upon Don’s Tennis on Kings Drive, where I was able to get sized for a racket, told where I could get lessons, and told to come back once a year to have my racket restrung. I already can’t wait to go back. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Charlotte created Open for Business, a database of local businesses so you can discover and support local businesses of all kinds. Use their handy map tool to easily discover businesses near where you live and get detailed information about their hours and how you can shop their offerings. You can even filter by business type to quickly find everything from a great bar to a hardware shop.

Also be sure to check out Queen City Nerve’s Guide for White Allies, which includes not only reading material and video content to help inform on a broader level, but guides to local organizations like the ones mentioned above and a helpful list of Black-owned restaurants in the city.

Explore your neighborhood

Many of the unique neighborhoods in Charlotte have their own community associations or organizations that offer helpful guides to local businesses, cultural sites and history. A quick online search of your neighborhood will show you what is in your area. For example, you can check out Plaza Midwood Cares, the NoDa Neighborhood and Business Association, or Charlotte Center City and explore some of the city’s most popular neighborhoods.

In my own neighborhood I have discovered Earl’s Grocery, where the staff directed me to delicious sustainably caught fish, local products and their well-curated wine selection. Venturing over to NoDa I found Pure Vida Worldly Art, a shop I cannot wait to take visiting friends to someday, and a set of handmade espresso cups that were just what I was looking for. 

Sisters Bonnie Warford (right) and Tricia Maddrey (left), co-owners of Earl’s Grocery on Elizabeth Avenue. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

It is equally important to get outside of the hipster bubbles of ‘hoods like NoDa and South End if you want to really get to know the city. I look forward to going to the Historic West End, which is home to some of Charlotte’s richest history, and remains a place to check out for spots like Mosaic Village and the surrounding Five Points area next to Johnson C. Smith University. 

On the other side of town, east Charlotte highlights international diversity with countless restaurants serving authentic ethnic cuisines up and down Central Avenue and Albemarle Road.

Become a civically engaged Charlottean

You are now a Charlottean, a Queen City resident — maybe even a first-time Tar Heel. Your new citizenship also comes with a new political landscape of local officials who make important decisions that impact our day-to-day lives. Reading the local news and following local leaders on social media are some of the best ways to stay abreast of current issues and there are many opportunities to get more engaged. 

Charlotte City Council

Following your city council certainly doesn’t sound like the sexiest way to spend your time, but it is actually a lot more interesting than it sounds. The city council makes decisions that impact you and your neighbors directly — things like determining where affordable housing and businesses can be placed and protecting the local environment. 

civic engagement, charlotte newcomer's guide
City council members vote on the city’s housing ordinance in 2019. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

City council meetings are streamed live and you can request to speak at an upcoming meeting to make your voice heard on local governance and zoning decisions. Look up who represents your district and follow along on social media to see what they are voting on and when (usually Monday evenings). 

Learn the Local Issues 

“In general being aware of what is happening in your community and neighborhood” is one of the most important things all of us can do to make a difference, according to Pamela Atwood, director of housing policy at the North Carolina Housing Coalition

“We can look at housing as a foundation for the outcomes of an individual’s lives,” as well as “one of those determinants of the community’s overall health,” Atwood says.

In Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, access to affordable housing, rising evictions, gentrification and housing discrimination are barriers to creating a community where everyone has the opportunity to live with dignity. 

It’s important to know that, in 2013, a Harvard study of America’s 50 largest cities placed Charlotte dead last in terms of economic mobility. Six years later, this study is still referenced in any and all conversations around inequity in Charlotte, so best to be at least vaguely familiar. And while you’re at it, learn about the what Charlotte has done in response to the report

Atwood says regular citizens can make a difference by challenging their own assumptions and examining their own role, paying attention to zoning decisions made by the city council, and getting involved with local housing coalitions and legal-service nonprofits that help people access housing and secure their rights. 

Consider becoming a member of Atwood’s organization if their work excites you. Learn more with their brief snapshot of housing in Mecklenburg county and for a more comprehensive view of inequality, segregation, and barriers to equal opportunity, the compelling 2017 report by the nonprofit Leading on Opportunity is recommended reading. 

Take it from a fellow newcomer, Charlotte is a place full of warmth where the people are more than willing to let you in and share their city. You simply have to meet them with an open heart and an outstretched hand.

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