GREENSBORO — With fewer than 50% of its residents classified as white by the U.S. Census Bureau, Greensboro is a "majority minority" city.
And while that's a source of pride for many communities, it's also a figure that makes some wonder if city government is doing enough to represent minorities on its public boards and commissions — the appointed bodies that govern everything from zoning policy to women's rights issues.
Judging by Greensboro's demographic makeup, figures released recently suggest that the city is doing well on some boards but lacking diversity on many others — especially those that directly impact minorities.
Of 16 boards and commissions appointed by the City Council, six have more than 50% minority membership. That leaves 10 boards and commissions with fewer minority members than the city's demographic makeup.
Even if you set a lower bar, 12 of those boards have at least 40% minority members. But that leaves four city boards with less than 40% minority membership.
For example, the Minimum Housing Standards Commission, which works with property owners on housing-code violations, has two Black members among eight. That became a flash point in August when Black member Quentin Brown was nominated for chairman but didn't receive enough votes to replace Peter Isakoff.
Brown and other members engaged in a long and contentious discussion about the impact of race on the board, Brown's role and how diversity could change the way the commission deals with landlords and tenants over housing violations.
Brown, who works in his family's plumbing business, became passionate if not angry during the virtual meeting. He said that without enough minority viewpoints, the commission is often tougher on poor, Black property owners than it is on whites.
He said in an interview that the City Council needs to take deliberate steps to improve percentages by evaluating each group and replacing white members with minority ones.
That's what happened on another board that has Brown as a member — the two-year-old Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission. Members were chosen specifically for their community engagement and diversity.
The result is a group where Black members comprise 56% of membership.
"The numbers need to change," Brown said.
Nearly 180 residents across the city are appointed by the City Council to serve on boards and commissions.
The council directly controls the full makeup of all 16 boards and commissions, some which deal with issues affecting minority residents more than others.
Of the 179 people appointed by the council, 43% are Black, Asian or Hispanic, and 45% are women.
But board-by-board, the picture varies widely and sometimes with no apparent pattern that takes into consideration the work a board or commission does.
For example, there's Brown's group — the Minimum Housing Standards Commission — that has an overwhelming white membership at 71%. Yet the commission deals disproportionately, some critics say, with issues affecting poor, racially diverse residents who live in substandard housing.
By comparison, the Greensboro Housing Authority, which governs policies affecting public housing in the city, has five Black members among seven.
Other boards can often be unbalanced compared with city demographics.
The Historic Preservation Committee, for example, has only one Black member among eight.
And the Library Board of Trustees has five Black members among 13.
Some boards more closely mirror the city's racial diversity like the Solid Waste Management Commission, which has five Black members among nine.
And the Greensboro Zoning Commission, which makes decisions that can sometimes completely redirect the future of development and growth in the city, has five Black members and one Hispanic member on a board of nine.
Bishop Woodrow H. Dawkins Jr. is a Black member on the Greensboro Housing Authority board. He's also the only member who lives in public housing.
Dawkins said diversity on boards is crucial, but finding Black people and people of other backgrounds shouldn't be the only factor, especially if those people aren't qualified.
He wouldn't feel comfortable, he said, if he knew that he was a member because of his race.
He said he works hard to understand issues and forge partnerships and understanding with other board members.
The city should always aspire to greater minority representation on its boards, Dawkins said.
"I feel like it is so vital and so important," he said, "but they must be legitimate people. You just don’t bring people to the table just to say they're on the board."
Building a diverse board or commission, say those who've done it, is not as simple as finding people who fit the right demographic if they're not passionate and qualified for those positions.
James Waddell is one of two Black members on the nine-member Greensboro Board of Adjustment, which handles cases involving appeals, variances and other highly-technical details of the city's zoning ordinance.
He doesn't feel that race is really a factor on his board or that he is marginalized as a minority member. He said the board conducts its business equitably and with adherence to regulations.
But Waddell, a Greensboro native and N.C. A&T graduate, said more qualified Black people and other minorities might be interested in serving on boards and commissions if they only knew opportunities exist.
David Sevier, a white Greensboro resident, was one of the people three years ago who set out to find members for a new board that needed to be dedicated and diverse.
The board had to reflect the makeup of the city because it affected policies and evaluated cases for a subject that disproportionately involves Black residents: criminal justice.
Sevier was one of a group who, chartered by the City Council, would begin in 2017 building a commission from scratch to rethink the way the city handles complaints against police.
The product of that work, the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission, has five Black members among its nine members.
Although Sevier ultimately left the commission because of work demands, he believes it was organized in a way that reflects the city it serves.
"The commission had and has credibility because of the makeup and the diversity of its membership," he said. "All boards and commissions ought to reflect a reasonable diversity that would be a mirror of what’s in the city."
Credibility and commitment to the work, Sevier said, was just as important for the people who serve on the board as their race.
Those are key reasons that the group recommended Brown to also serve on the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission. Brown isn't afraid to step out and be impolite if an issue needs addressing, as he made clear in that meeting of the Minimum Housing Standards Commission.
"We really strove to find people who were able to look at things from a unique perspective and were really willing to address the serious concerns we had to focus on," Sevier explained. "That was equally and more important than just the racial makeup."
The City Council is key to bringing more diversity to its boards and commissions if its members so choose.
But district members represent parts of the city that have their own makeup. Some, like Goldie Wells of District 2 and Sharon Hightower of District 1, have been more likely to appoint Black members to boards because they represent communities with higher numbers of minority residents.
It could be more difficult for representatives of more affluent or white districts or council members who serve at-large, said Hightower, who is council's most vocal critic about the lack of diversity on city boards and commissions.
And council is under no mandate or resolution that compels it to appoint racially diverse boards.
When Hightower raised the issue at an August meeting after the contentious Minimum Housing Standards Commission meeting, she suggested council should take some kind of action in the coming months.
Since then, city staff has created a detailed database of each board with their racial and gender breakdown so council members can have a more complete picture.
But membership isn't enough, critics say. Attaining leadership positions is crucial.
Case in point: Brown failed in his bid to become the chairman of the Minimum Housing Standards Commission.
In the difficult discussion that followed the vote, Chairman Peter Isakoff struggled at times to keep the tone civil while Brown criticized what he sees as a racial slant to the board's voting record.
"I believe having a working session to specifically address these issues would be a good next step," Isakoff said. "That conversation sparked something that needs to continue being discussed."
Brown said in a recent interview that poor Black property owners often come before that commission after being cited for housing code violations they often can't afford to fix. And he believes the commission needs to be more lenient about those cases, taking into consideration the difficulties some homeowners have in paying for repairs and helping them to find the resources.
A plumber by trade, Brown said he sees every day the difficulties of paying for crucial home repairs.
By comparison, he said that big landlords with scores of building code violations are often the people who are least affected by the commission's decisions.
"These other people ... they can manipulate the codes," Brown said. "The little old lady that has cancer … she’s hit with a ton of bricks. By having minorities on the board you have a realism and understanding."
Brown said he wanted to be chairman because that person often steers the direction of the meeting and actions of the commission.
He said when he feels strongly about an issue, he will do his best to redirect the meeting.
"I hate to do that because I look like the bad guy," Brown said.
Hightower said Brown can be misunderstood as annoying — or even hostile — in his views.
"Quentin is one of those .. who sometimes is taken the wrong way, who has seen disparities," Hightower said.
She added that he "makes people uneasy. But his value is beyond measure."
Hightower said recently that "we have to make the appointments. We are the representatives of the people in the city. Each council member has to be cognizant of the makeup in the city."
But it's not going to be easy because there are eight other council members who will need to be diligent about following her lead.
"Oftentimes we want people who just go along to get along and make us feel comfortable and sometimes you’ve got to be pushed out of your comfort zone," she said.
Council members who represent majority white districts or districts with more affluent residents will need to challenge themselves, Hightower said.
"I know people want to say 'I'm fair,'" she said. "You’ve got to open yourself up to be uncomfortable."
Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann, who represents the affluent District 4 in northwest Greensboro, said council members must make their intentions clear when searching for and appointing members for boards and commissions.
She said she looks at gender, race and generation when appointing people and she sometimes interviews them as she would a job candidate because, Hoffmann explained, most of the city's work gets done by boards and commissions.
"When you really look at the makeup of boards and commissions, at this point I think they’ve improved," Hoffmann said. "I think we can look at where we are right now and feel proud of ourselves, in some ways, that we’ve achieved to this level. Can we do better? We can always do better."
Councilwoman Tammi Thurm represents the diverse District 5 in southwest Greensboro.
She said, as Hightower has suggested, City Council can do a better job of considering diversity when it appoints members, but she believes it must be an ongoing process.
"I don’t see taking people off a commission who currently are working hard just to build diversity — this is not a quick fix," she said.
Thurm noted that sometimes a board's scheduled meeting time is all it takes to discourage a wider range of people from wanting to serve. The Minimum Housing Standards Commission meets during the day, for example, something Brown said is inconvenient to most working people.
Diversity also includes geography, Thurm said.
"There are some boards that have gotten heavily weighted to one district or another and we need to make sure we’re pulling across all districts, too," Thurm said.
Hightower said that even though most of the residents she represents in District 1 are Black or other minorities, there are predominantly white neighborhoods there.
And she doesn't forget about them either, she stressed.
"I would make it my goal to go in those communities that I don’t know anything about," Hightower said.
Overall, Hightower said, she is optimistic that the city and its council representatives have a growing desire to take action and change the makeup of boards and commissions to better reflect the city.
"We’re in a heightened awareness time of diversity since the George Floyd incident," Hightower said. "I think more ears are listening about these concerns and they're being more open. There is more opportunity now than ever before to not only be open to the discussions on racial diversity but to make it happen.
"I'm very optimistic about this."
Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.