‘One Chatham’ Q&A event focuses on inequality, solutions

Posted 5/10/19

The dividing line between Chatham County’s “east” and “west” may not be an official boundary drawn on a map, but the socioeconomic differences between the two halves are anything but …

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‘One Chatham’ Q&A event focuses on inequality, solutions

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The dividing line between Chatham County’s “east” and “west” may not be an official boundary drawn on a map, but the socioeconomic differences between the two halves are anything but imaginary.

The county’s 2018 Community Assessment shows that those living in the more affluent “east” are:

• much more likely to own homes (52.4 percent, vs. 39.5 percent in the west) than rent (7.9 percent in the east, 22.4 percent in the west.)

• better-educated, with 92.5 percent of those living in Pittsboro with high school or higher degrees, compared to just 66.4 percent in Siler City

• three times as likely to describe their health status as “excellent,” and half as likely to need support for daily living activities

• earning about twice as much — with household incomes in the east roughly double or more than average income in households in the west

Those living in the less affluent “west” are up to 10 times more likely to live below the poverty line, particularly if they’re a child or a senior citizen.

Those stark differences will be the subject of an event called “One Chatham,” a community conversation sponsored by Our Chatham and the News + Record, on May 15. It’s free to attend and the public is invited.

At the town hall-type event, which begins at 6 p.m. at the Holmes Room of the Chatham Community Library, five local panelists will talk about the socioeconomic differences and field questions from the audience.

“We know Chatham County is growing, but if we’re not addressing inequality and inequity, we don’t have a strong foundation for that growth,” said Alyssa Byrd, the president of the Chatham Economic Development Corporation and one of the event’s panelists.

“Our hope through Our Chatham is to create a real dialogue with such a diverse community, no matter if that diversity is color, religion, economic or social status,” said Eric Ferkenhoff, a lecturer at UNC and a journalist with 27 years’ worth of experience who oversees the Our Chatham project. “There are gaps in understanding between people of different groups, neighborhoods and sides of the county.”

One Chatham is Our Chatham’s first foray into taking the dialogue into a live public forum.

“With One Chatham, we’re firming up this commitment by partnering with the News + Record and bringing the stakeholders in this vast area together,” Ferkenhoff said. “We are strongly hoping that May 15 is not a one-time deal. We want to continue the conversation, online, in person and through such events well into the future on a range of issues that are important not to us, but to the community.”

Alexis Allston, Our Chatham’s project manager, has organized the One Chatham event. She’s graduating this month from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in reporting, as well as a second major in political science, and will start her professional career with the Texas Tribune this summer.

“We’ve heard from many of our readers that economic inequality between east and west Chatham County has continued to grow,” she said. “The issue is more relevant than ever with the upcoming construction of Chatham Park, a development sure to bring affluent newcomers to east Chatham. Economic disparity in Chatham County affects the availability of affordable housing, the quality of schools, and drives up the cost of living in west Chatham and Siler City due to the presence of wealth in east Chatham.”

Tami Schwerin, the executive director of Abundance NC, based in Pittsboro, will be one of the five panelists. She said community perspective was vital in the conversation.

“In order to have solutions, we need perspectives from all corners,” she said. “I would love to see all the weavers, the local politicians, municipalities, the non-profits and the small businesses at the table to bring everyone together. The more diverse the better. Change is coming. That is the only thing we can be sure of and as Chatham hits this growth, we have an opportunity to create something exceptional. Let’s make it beautiful and equitable.”

News + Record Publisher and Editor Bill Horner III, who will help moderate One Chatham, said the event’s goals are to help people in Chatham County understand what the problem is, how it impacts the county as a whole and to begin dialogue about specific ways to address the challenges created by socioeconomic inequality.

“We’re calling it ‘One Chatham’ because even though Chatham residents on either end of the socioeconomic scale have a difficult time relating to those on the opposite end, we’re still a part of one Chatham County,” he said. “We’re looking to provide a forum to help the community as a whole create a shared vision for what Chatham could be.”

Ferkenhoff said Chatham’s diverse population should be celebrated, as should the opportunity to use education as an equalizer.

“We hope this forum helps to open eyes and bring a new level of understanding to the problems — but just as important, the solutions — that are there,” he said.

“We hope to see as many people as possible at the One Chatham community discussion,” Allston said. “A diverse set of voices will provide the best chance to brainstorm tangible solutions to the economic disparity issues that Chatham County is facing right now.”

Schwerin agrees, saying community resilience is at stake.

“We are only as secure as our least secure residents and community members,” she said. “In order to have truly resilient communities, we must look at everyone’s socio economic situation. We are all connected. I believe the answer is in addressing scarcity and working towards abundance. Abundance of time, money and resources and love.”

Byrd encouraged those interested in Chatham’s future to attend.

“Personally, I’m looking forward to the event and learning more from panelists,” she said. “Chatham County is a bedroom community — more than half of our local workforce commutes out of the county for work each day — and that changes how people interact and participate within their community. I would really encourage those residents to join us — be part of the conversation and see the work that happens here each day to strengthen our present and future.”

Our Chatham is a project at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Reese News Lab in the School of Media and Journalism. It’s funded by the school’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, which was created with a grant from the Knight Foundation.

The News + Record has chosen Our Chatham as one of its strategic community partners in working to expand the newspaper’s reach in the community.

IF YOU’RE GOING

What: One Chatham, a town hall-type community conversation featuring five panelists, an audience Q&A session and a discussion about socioeconomic inequality in Chatham County

Sponsored by: Our Chatham, a project of the UNC School of Media and Journalism, and the Chatham News + Record

When: 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15

Where: The Holmes Room of Chatham Community Library, 179 Hwy. 87 N. in Pittsboro

Who: Featuring a panel of speakers including Alyssa Byrd, president of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation; Paul Cuadros, an award-winning investigative reporter and executive director of the UNC Scholars’ Latino Initiative; Susan Levy of the Chatham County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee; Tami Schwerin, the executive director for Abundance NC; and Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, a policy analyst for Chatham County

The public is invited. Seating is limited. Light refreshments will be served.

For more: see the event’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/events/835249176845161/

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