Feb. 20, 2007
Leeper: Spark change via handful of people
If you want change, don't wait for 500 people: Find 10 like-minded people who believe, and get to work, former Charlotte City Council member Ron Leeper suggested Tuesday.
Reflecting during a Feb. 20 appearance at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum on experiences that began 30 years ago, Leeper ranged widely over how to stimulate change, how to take action, and the importance of making sure that all people have a stake in the community's well-being.
Leeper, an African American who has long run his own construction services company, served on the first council elected following what he called a grassroots movement that forced district representation on a governing body that had been closely controlled by wealthy whites. Despite the acrimony of its birthing, Leeper says he most remembers unified council action across partisan and race lines to move Charlotte forward. Excerpts from Leeper's comments:
How to spark change
"I think we've got to get away from thinking that we've got to have 500 people to do something. If you've got 10 people who say, we're together on this, we believe in this and are willing to work on it, I think you've got to take that and move with it. We've all been to a place where we can see the log in somebody else's eye, they're not doing this and they're not doing that and why don't they do this. We've got to take the toothpick out of OUR eye and say, What can I do? ... Drive a stake in the ground. Get a handful of people. Just take these people and do what these people can do."
How to move public policy
"We figured out how to make coalitions to get six votes to do almost anything we needed to get done.... Sometimes you have to modify some things you want. If I want this big pie, maybe I don't get the big pie today. I may only get half of it today. But it's important at the end of the day that at least our community have a slice of it."
"There's a lot of room for improvement in this community. The time that I spent going to meetings, everybody talking about their ideas but nobody willing to put their hand to the plow, it's just a waste of time to me. If you want to work...."
Helping West Charlotte High School
"I just had a meeting in my office about two weeks ago with about 20 African American business people, including the principal of West Charlotte and the area superintendent, to talk about how we as a community can utilize our businesses, our influence to effect some change.
"There is no one solution. I do think it's a community problem. It's not just a school issue and it can't be solved simply by them. We're sending youngsters from one grade to the next ill-prepared for the future and we've got to fix that early, but that's no excuse for not doing something now. I'm probably letting the cat out of the bag a little bit, but I expect this group to, at some point in time, make some public statement about what we're going to do. We're committed, and we're probably going to adopt West Charlotte as a model, to begin to show how, when the community joins forces with the schools and begin to engage themselves with our children, we can make a difference. And in my opinion that's been the missing link.
"We talk a lot about absentee parents, one parent in the house. As far as I'm concerned those are just excuses. I mean, so what? So what? What does that mean for the rest of us? We have an obligation. All of these children are ours, whether we birthed them or not. And we have an obligation to make our community better in every way -- from a business standpoint, socially, educationally and otherwise...."
"One of the things that concerns me most now about the public bodies is that I see this division. I don't recall a time while I served of anybody saying, 'You know, the Republicans need to get together and come up with their own budget or come up with their own ideas.' Or, 'The Democrats need to get together.' I just don't recall that. We ran as Democrats and they ran as Republicans, but once we got on council, there were folk who were conservative, but I don't think it had anything to do with them being Republican. They just had conservative ideas about things and I had what were considered liberal ideas about things....
"It's alright if you differ. Richard Vinroot and I had some very substantial disagreements on things. Richard Vinroot and I became really very good friends over the course of time.... But we never had these divisions where it was a Republican idea or a Democrat idea. It was just that we philosophically disagreed on this particular idea."
On how bonds get passed
"We know how bond referendums work in this town. There's got to be a group of majority people that thinks it's a good idea, generally progressive people, and generally the African American community joins hands, and we pass a bond referendum. If that doesn't happen, the bond referendum don't pass."
On learning in office, and passing it on
"When I first ran for City Council I said, what they need to do is pick the airport up and move it somewhere, move it to Cabarrus County, anywhere else, we don't need it. You know, another learning experience. (laughter). Thank God for learning.
"When I got on council, the first person who came to meet with me... was (airport director) Josh Birmingham. He said, Ron, let me explain this airport thing, and what it means to Charlotte and how it works.... Over the course of a year and a half we spent a lot of time together. He invited me out to the airport to see what was working and how businesses made their decisions about relocation.... So over the course of time I said, you know, I got this, this makes some sense. But now how to I convince my constituency of this?... [Leeper described how the city was persuaded to own up to its impact on the west side, buying out properties; how the city's original MWBE program expanded economic opportunities at the airport and gave his constituents a stake in its future; and how bus tours gave a broad group of the nonflying public some first-hand exposure to the airport.]
"You learn from your life experiences and you ought to be willing, if you're an elected official, once you get new information, to change your mind. And what you have to do when you change your mind, is you have to go back to your constituency and say to them, you know I've got some additional information now, more than I had before. I want to tell you why this information has changed the way I think now. You can't just set on your public body and just change your mind and make a decision without giving your constituents or the general public the benefit of knowing why you changed your mind, and having them have some dialogue about it."
The common good
"The African American community still lags behind, substantially behind, in the economic well-being of this community. And that's not good for anybody. We've got to continue to work to figure out how to make sure that a broad cross-section of people participate in the economic well-being of this community. People have to have a stake in the community to feel good about it.
"And even though we continue to see these statistics that talk about how this is the best place in the world for African Americans, there's still many who lag behind. We've got to figure how to make sure we don't have this big divide in our community where we have a number of people doing very well, and a number of people doing very poorly. That's not good. It's not healthy for our community and we've got to figure out a way of changing that. Thirty years later, I'm still saying we've got a lot of work to do."
On integration of the Tuesday Forum
"It's good to see even a mixed audience in here today, because that says that the Tuesday Morning Breakfast changed from the time it started to a place now where a lot of people can dialogue and talk about the differences in our community and how we can make it better."
The reward of public service
"It's been a blessing for me and I loved the opportunity. I served in public office, and to have been able to do some to the things I've been able to do, a big part of it has been relationships that I made back some time. And I can still call people because of the relationships that I made."
The Forum welcomes all persons to its meetings beginning at 8 a.m. most Tuesdays of the year
at the West Charlotte Recreation Center, 2222 Kendall Drive, Charlotte, NC
down the hill from West Charlotte High School.