We have all experienced the collective trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic this year. It’s been challenging, and for the Black community, it’s hit us harder than most as we’ve suffered through disproportionate rates of infection and death due to the virus. There are also many suffering Black businesses, families without food and basic necessities, students without access to the technology needed for virtual schooling, massive job-loss numbers, and so much more. This could be enough to break many people, but if there is one thing that we know about Black people, it’s that we know how to survive. We understand what we need to do in the beautiful moments and the brutal moments: take care of ourselves.
At the center of that care is, and always has been, Black women. Grandmothers and mothers, aunties and daughters, sisters and strangers who hold us up and hold us down. While we could never name all of them or begin to shed the deserved love and light on all the stories of those who have stepped up for our community during this time, we understand that when we speak the stories of one, we pay respect to all.
More than sharing the stories of their projects and programs, we seek to share the truths of their hearts and spirits. It’s so important to understand the people behind the projects. What drives them to serve? What happened in their lives to cause them to give back to others? When we understand their stories, we understand all of the small and huge things that create the people who create change. These are stories of five impactful Black women who have supported and stood in for our community during the time of COVID-19, in their own words.
From Rich Soil: J’Tanya Adams, founder and executive director of Historic West End Partners
I was reared by my family to do right by my gift. I am a native Charlottean. I was born in 1963 to two 18-year-olds. My dad was from a working-class family in Pineville. His father was a gardener for the mayor at the time. My grandparents were older when my mother was born. I had the benefit of having a grandfather who was born around 1902. By the time I came along, he was in his 70s. That means I have some deep old-school training.
Our family is from Steele Creek. It was called the BlackJacks because the soil was rich. It was a rural sharecropping community. There was a lot of richness tied to being from the BlackJacks. It was where a lot of families knew each other, married into each other, and a great lineage between the folks who lived there existed. These people were great friends who came from sharecropping to manufacturing and they insisted that their children be educated.
In our early years, we lived in Brookhill. I’m part of the Brookhill legacy. That’s where, when you left home, you would move and buy your first house and you educated your kids further. I was schooled by people who were daughters and sons of the enslaved. My great-grandfather understood what it was to have land taken from you because someone changed the tax law and took it from you. My uncle knew what it was to have a white man buy a property for you because you couldn’t buy it for yourself. I’m once removed from this and may have been born during part of it. So, I understand the Charlotte way.
There is nothing new under the sun. So I understand the need for good relationships. I understand how to make deals in our community with people who do not subscribe to the Charlotte way because I understand relationship building. When we lived in Steele Creek, the land of milk and honey for Black people was Beatties Ford Road. It was where our people were allowed to be after Brooklyn. In the mid-’60s and ’70s, everyone was trying to get there if they could. They aspired to get to Johnson C. Smith University or Carver College or get their kids to West Charlotte High School.
Anything you could want or desire to be was on Beatties Ford Road. From an early age, I’ve been enamored with the area. I saw the value. When I saw that it might become like Brooklyn, and it was becoming popular to those outside of the Black community, I knew that we needed to act. I was moved to cancel the contract on a home in Quail Hollow and buy a home in the area that I believed in.
Just because we’re in the time of a pandemic the deals haven’t stopped. If anything, it’s been more of the reason for me to continue making sure that businesses can thrive on the West End. I’ve been able to broker deals for a strip mall that was under contract. Our goal at West End Partners was to help the owner get the right tenant blend that could meet the needs and wants of West End stakeholders. The building is now being renovated and we’ve brought folks to the table and that deal was done. COVID doesn’t stop the work. We’ve got a community to continue to grow and nourish.
To Whom Much Is Given: Antriece Mitchell, founder of Breakfast Conversations
I’m a proud Charlottean. I originally started out my baby years in Grier Town [known officially as Grier Heights]. At the time, that area was dealing with a lot of crime and drugs, and my mother wanted something different for us. She moved us to the Charlotte Country Club area. I had the privilege of attending a few different schools in Charlotte. I attended Shamrock [Gardens Elementary] and Oaklawn [Language Academy]. I also went to a private school. But my last couple of years were some of the most impactful.
I went to Garinger High School. While at Garinger, I attended a magnet program for media. That’s where I was truly introduced to television and radio. And I was in pageants. The first pageant that I won was Ms. Junior Teen Charlotte. That introduced me to being on television, but it was in high school that my passion would deepen. And as my career blossomed, and my talent and love for media had me in rooms with everyone from celebrities to community leaders, I never forgot the value of seeking the guidance of being a helper. I know that I have a spirit of helping because there are people who mentored me along the way.
One person that has helped me is Michelle Thomas. She is the VP of Public Citizenship for Microsoft Southeast. She is the epitome of a professional woman. Just being able to sit back and watch her was life-changing. By giving so much of herself to me, giving me so many nuggets of wisdom to apply along with my journey in business, she has been such a powerful mentor.
While I have been blessed to travel many, many miles away from home to do the work that I love, I have never forgotten my roots and I have never lost the desire to build relationships and give back. Communities in Schools and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Charlotte Business Resources and Network Charlotte are just a few organizations that like what I’m doing. They see that I want to be about the people. They see that I want to advocate for our small minority business owners. They have invited me in to speak and provide information and resources for their members.
I like to think that they get that all that I am is rooted in the desire to operate in excellence, loyalty, and integrity. I would love for my legacy to be that I built for us. I created opportunity for us. I want to be the one who changes lives. I want to help others find their path because it was done for me. People have opened doors and created opportunities for me in my journey, and it is incumbent upon me to do the same.
I am only as strong as the people and community I am blessed to serve. This year, I took it upon myself to make sure that other small business owners, just like me, understood that there were opportunities for funding and support for small and minority-owned businesses during the time of COVID. I’ve shared the resources about grants and funding and I’ve watched those business owners win because we’ve got to take care of each other.
On Showing Love: Jewel Hayden, co-founder Project Bolt
I wasn’t shown love in the way that many kids are growing up. My mother was a drug addict. She dealt with addiction my entire life. Thankfully, all was not lost. I had my father in my life, who was able to provide me with love and support and motivation to go to school and complete my education and set goals. If I didn’t have that, who knows where I would have ended up.
Dealing with a parent that had substance abuse issues, my self-esteem was extremely low. It made me feel like she decided to do drugs as opposed to being a mother or provide me with the love and support that I needed. Now that I’m older, I understand that it isn’t that simple, but as a child, you just understand that your mother isn’t there. You know that when you go to the refrigerator to get food, there’s nothing there. And you know instinctively that your parents are supposed to provide food, shelter, and clothing. Your parents are supposed to provide for your basic needs. When that isn’t there, it damages your self-esteem. It damaged my self-esteem.
As the co-founder of Project Bolt, everything that I do is about showing up, meeting needs, and doing right by my community. This year we have focused on addressing the basic needs of the community. We have consistently provided meals for 85 children from March through September every Monday through Friday. One time we went to make a delivery, and I remember the look on the kids’ faces when we pulled up with the food. They looked at us like we were superheroes.
Now, I get to show up on a regular basis. I get to remind these kids that someone cares and that their life is valuable to me. It makes them feel seen, and it makes me feel like I’m bigger than life. The feeling that I have truly made a difference makes me know that all that I have gone through has prepared me to be a difference-maker in the lives of others. Just showing up is enough to make a difference. It’s just showing love. I know what it feels like when people don’t show up for you. I won’t let that happen to our kids on my watch. This is all about showing love and showing up. What could our community be, if all of us would just show up?
What Are You Trying To Say: Makayla Binter, artist, teacher
When I was a child, my grandmother would draw at her painting table. She had all of the nice art supplies. She had the colored pencils and markers and other fancy materials. I was 7. So I had Crayola. Of course, I wanted to try the good stuff. So for the supplies that she didn’t use regularly, she would give those to me to try. That’s how I was introduced to art and the arts stores. I would buy new supplies every chance that I got.
Throughout middle school and high school, I took all of the art classes that I could. But it wasn’t until I went to Davidson College that I realized that this was something I could do. Things really began to change for me internally when my professors started to question me. “What are you trying to say?” They wanted to know what I wanted my message to be through my art, and I didn’t know yet. So I needed to explore and look for the answers. I asked myself over and over again. I realized that being a Black woman artist has a power in and of itself. That intersectionality is super important. It’s unique to me and it’s something that can be seen and ingested by other Black women. At that point, I started noticing the representation and identity in most of my pieces.
For Untitled, the residency/showcase at the Black Lives Matter mural in September, I decided to paint a woman that I had drawn in my sketchbook. A Black woman. My group talked about making our piece about self-love and self-care through hair. I drew a Black woman — from her head to her shoulders — she had on a crown and a ’fro. She was super futuristic and I painted three versions of her. It was a linear timeline of her journey of discovery on three different panels. That alone was a statement. But the biggest statement was made when the people came.
When we were out there, I would see other Black women taking pictures with the panels. The pure joy that filled my heart in those moments was astronomical. It was so intense of how happy I was. To watch these young girls, with no knowledge that they are the ones that I was creating this work for, find so much joy and connection in my pieces … it was unreal. Showcasing our beauty and journey and watching other Black women and girls experience it was really a humbling moment for me, especially when it’s in public places and received by the people that it’s meant to reflect. It was and is a reminder of why I make what I make. Within creating art like this, through every project I define my voice and my point of view and I answer over and over again with clarity who I am and what I am trying to say.
A Hope-Filled Purpose: Adrienne Threatt, co-founder of Hope Vibes
Adrienne before Hope Vibes was dissatisfied. I hadn’t stepped into my purpose yet and I didn’t know what it was. I knew that I wanted to encourage people. I knew I wanted to help people. I didn’t have a full scope of what I was created for. As far as careers went, I definitely wasn’t engaged in something that was meaningful for me.
I came to Charlotte in 2001 for college at UNC Charlotte. I went to school to be a teacher. I knew from the beginning that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but so many people thought I would be good at it, so I went along with it. I taught for four years and I hated it. The fourth year, I quit midway into the school year and then took some time off. From there I worked for the police department for a year. I absolutely hated that too. I then went to UNC Charlotte to work in an administrative role in the research department. It didn’t feel like it fit either, but bills have to be paid. When I fell into starting Hope Vibes with my husband, it changed everything.
I often reflect on one of the initial moments that I knew this was my purpose. The first time we did a serve day was definitely huge. But even before that, I couldn’t wait for the official date of the upcoming serve day. I just felt compelled to be with the people. So one day after Bible Study, I had my husband and a friend accompany me Uptown. I literally had gone in my pantry and got all of my snacks and bottles of water and we went Uptown and distributed items and had conversations with people. I knew in that moment that it felt right. It meant more to me than the work I was doing at the time at UNC Charlotte in their research department. I know that research helps people, but this felt more important for me because it gave me the opportunity to help people on a direct level. I knew this was it.
When I finally started working for Hope Vibes, I realized this is what I was made for. It was like an aha moment. The work that I do is meaningful. It’s purposeful. I gladly work on a few hours of sleep on a regular basis because my work gives me a sense of fulfillment that I’ve always longed for.
I’ve always had a passion for the homeless community. I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s always been there. Even on my first date, my husband and I were walking on the sidewalk in Uptown Charlotte. I stopped in my tracks and began to weep. It was the first date and there I was crying. I was moved to tears looking at the huge, immaculate buildings lining the backdrop of one of our neighbors sleeping on the street. I was overwhelmed with the weight of wanting and needing to do something about it.
This year, our neighbors need us more than ever. Since we are all seeking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we work really hard to make sure that our neighbors have the ability to wash their hands and prevent passing germs with our portable solar sinks. I’ve spent quite a bit of time at the tent camp communities. I’ve been uniquely impacted by the grandmothers. It hurts to see grandmothers living on the street. It breaks my heart. Some might see it as audacious, but I believe that we can end homelessness for all who want a home. It’s a part of my mission, my journey in life. Maybe part of our journey is to walk towards the things that break our hearts. And I’m no martyr. I’m simply a woman who has found her purpose and made the choice to follow the path that has been laid out for me.
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