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The Vision of the Poor

“The nonprofit consultants, the philanthropists and the foundations, the visionary leaders and the task forces and the think tanks all run to Habakkuk. ‘Let us help write the vision,’ they say. They want to set up processes and outcomes, vision statements and reports. They always run to the front. Even without getting close to the poor and broken-hearted, they are ready to pitch their programs and studies.

Do not listen to them. Do not listen to them. We need the vision of the poor, not of the donor class and their enablers.” — Greg Jarrell from his sermon, “The Tearing Down Is The Point”

On a Thursday evening in late June, the City of Raleigh hosted a panel discussion entitled Connect Raleigh: Community Voices on Gentrification. The moderator was acclaimed urban planner and host of The Black Urbanist podcast, Kristen Jeffers. The diverse panel included the following:

  1. Pamela Wideman – Housing & Neighborhood Services Director, City of Charlotte

  2. Kia Baker – Executive Director, Southeast Raleigh Promise

  3. Yvette Holmes – Vice President for Resource Development & Partnership, DHIC, Inc.

  4. Asa Fleming – President, NC Association of Realtors & Realtor, Allen Tate Realtors

  5. Paul Kane – Executive Vice President/CEO, Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County

The goal of the night was simply to have a conversation, but it seems that it did not intend to include the community. When you walked into the doors of the beautiful A.J. Fletcher building, you were asked to write your question or questions down on a piece of paper, meaning they would not be taking questions directly from the audience. Frankly, I would not have thought anything about this arrangement if it had not been for legendary community organizer Octavia Rainey. I arrived at the event late, but when I spotted her in the lobby, I knew I had to go to her first.

“Ms. Rainey! How are you doing?” I asked.

“Honestly,” she replied, “I’m pissed.”

She went on to explain to me how the very structure of the Connect Raleigh discussion was exclusionary and sent a loud-and-clear message to the community. “Why is there no one signing during this event? Why must we write our questions down first? What if you are unable to read or write? What if English was not your first language?  What about if you are disabled? Why are access points not clearly marked? This is not right.” Leave it to a seasoned organizer to instantly see these things. “And why is this on a Thursday night? What about those who work two and three jobs? Why wasn’t this event on a weekend?” To Ms. Rainey, her attendance and ability to access this event wasn’t enough. There were other community members and leaders standing with her nodding emphatically and adding their own lamentations. “Why are there no county or city politicians on the panel? There is no one up there representing Raleigh or Wake County government! How can we get clear answers about what is happening in our community if no one up there is equipped to give those answers?” “What about the community members themselves? Why are they not on this panel?” By the end of the event, the energy in the lobby was tense.  Some were shaking their heads, or walking with faces full of exhaustion or frustration. The Black folx were tired. They came out thinking this time would be different, but were disappointed yet again.

I did not only empathize with the organizers of Connect Raleigh, but I related to their struggle.  In March, I organized and moderated a conversation about our housing crisis.  I chose the people I thought understood what was happening and believed would speak truth to power as well as communicate solutions to the issues we were facing. But, like Connect Raleigh, I fell for an ancient trap. I did not invite the “poor” to speak on their own behalf.  I believed in the “donor class”, as Rev. Jarrell called them, to be the ones with the proper perspective. I was trying to impress attendees with the pedigree of the people I could convince to be a part of my event. Despite my best efforts and intentions, I still fell for the elitist lie that the “poor” were not equiped to tell their own story and create their own solutions.

The reason why I keep putting the word “poor” in quotations is because the only thing many of the community members I met lacked was status. In the book How We Fight White Supremacy, an activist from Ferguson says,

“[Local community organizing is] so important because, when you look at history, its really the most effective. When street gangs organize a truce, that’s local organizing. Single mothers leaning on each other for resources is local organizing. All too often, we expect organizing to be this grand type of thing. The ‘we’ in this scenario is the more academic, financially stable people that run the nonprofit sector. They intellectualize the issues and have grown into the face of the movement, and that would include myself sometimes. There is a disconnect between the people that do this professionally and the people who do this to live.

I’m not against the nonprofit sector. But I’m thinking of what its actually going to take to liberate Black folks in America. We use the word ‘revolution’ all the time, but the fulfillment isn’t going to come through the nonprofit sector. It hasn’t for the last thirty to forty years. It’s like, when somebody gets killed by the police. We see mass mobilizations that come through the nonprofit sector that are actually more docile and less about a long term stance of revolutionary conflict with the people we deem as our enemies. There has to be a space for more radical voices. We also have to trust the creativity of poor people.”

So when you have a panelist in the room saying, “You need to know the value of your home!” and “You need to understand the dilemma of the developer,” its no wonder people walked out. The decisions, on all sides, have already been made. Black and Brown people want to keep their community, the rich and powerful want to take it away, and the rest don’t care so long as it doesn’t effect their backyards or bottom lines.

Yvette Holmes said what I felt were the most important words of the night, “We (Raleigh) must ask ourself how far are we willing to go to achieve equity?” This statement speaks volumes, if you’re actually listening between the lines. (By the way, when Black people are speaking at an event before a mixed audience, it is vital that you listen between the lines.) What I took away from this statement is this: Raleigh has never fully wanted equity. After studying a bit about the history of Raleigh (See “Suburbanizing Jim Crow; The Impact of School Policy on Residential Segregation in Raleigh” by Karen Benjamin from Journal of Urban History) it is very clear that Raleigh was built for elite white people and that everyone else needed to be just close enough to serve them but far enough so that they never have to interact outside the bounds of servitude.  There were moments of what seemed like true integration (during the late 19th century in the neighborhoods surrounding St. Augustine and Shaw Universities), but, like the rest of the South, they were fleeting in the larger history of the city. If you know anything about the history of Raleigh (and North Carolina proper) you know that it is an expert at displacing Black and Brown people. It has been done through school placement, zoning, business regulations, lack of public transportation, road construction, deregulating HOAs, etc.  Exclusion and elitism are deeply embedded in Raleigh’s culture. So when we are asked “What are we willing to do?” I believe this is a call to repentance. It is time for Raleigh to turn from its NIMBYist, protectionist past and embrace equity. It is time to see the incredible value in all of our residences flourishing, especially our most vulnerable.

So what now? Well, as tired as we all are of having conversations, they still need to happen. But Raleigh’s leadership must go to the ones most affected by our housing crisis. Not the lucky individuals who have made it out of the neighborhood, but the folx still there and hanging on by their fingernails. And we need to go to where they are, the churches and community centers and schools in their neighborhoods.  Let’s stop making the environment comfortable for the developers and the privileged. Let’s make them drive 30 minutes to the side of Raleigh beyond Garner (!) and have the conversation in a school that can’t get the proper funding to repair the leaking roof. Let’s go the to last standing Black church in area that was once a thriving community of homeowners, professionals, and business-owners of color. Then, when we get there, lets leave the script at home.  Let’s sit and listen to these folks pour their hearts out about the anguish of receiving threatening letters from developers about their homes, or the folks who have seen their rent go up 50% and they can’t bear to have their children switch schools again so they are contemplating living in their cars.  Then, after all of this, we must act aggressively. End exclusive single-family zoning. Fine predatory developers and give the money to the offended homeowners. Bolster organizations who help homeowners bring their homes to code and do repairs. Implement community land trusts and Public Budget initiatives. Organize classes and folx who go door-to-door to educate people on understanding the value of their properties. Make capital more accessible to Black and Brown business-owners in these communities. As we begin to tackle these issues, the list of things that need to be addressed will grow. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now.

This article was updated to include a hyperlink to Rev. Greg Jarrell's complete sermon

Courtney Napier is a Raleigh native, community activist, and co-host of Mothering on the Margins podcast.

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