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The Pursuit of Happyness

by Decker Ngongang

January 6,2007

Last week I treated my mother and my sister to the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The movie describes the true story of Chris Gardner, a single father who is seemingly at the end of life’s rope and strives to create a better world for himself and his son. I found the movie insightful, and that was amplified when I saw an interview with the real life Chris Gardner on PBS, who in the interview made quite a profound statement:

“The biggest thing that I’ve had to deal with in getting into this business was placism—not racism. What do I mean by that? I had never gone to college. I was not from a politically-connected family. I had no money of my own. Who’s going to do business with you? That’s placism, that’s not racism.”

As someone who is equally infatuated and critical of the growth of the city of Charlotte, I cast his comments onto the landscape of our continued evolution as a city. Important in our many conversations, forums, town halls, and community events is a need to be critical thinkers about who we are and where we are going. That’s where Chris Gardner’s quote hit me like a ton of bricks. We live in city where much of one’s success is tethered to the rope of a small circle called social capital and as much as it is a barrier to entry, it is the support system by which many of us operate.

The story of Chris Gardner touched me in a deep way. I saw so much of not only my story, but the story of many people in our community. Our city is growing by the minute, yet we all recognize that the sphere of influence is conceivably the size of a basketball. From the Charlotte Chamber, to the leadership organizations and civic boards many of us belong to, these are the networks that carry information, opportunity and methods to success yet are largely far from the reality of people struggling throughout our city.

This past weekend I attended the Charlotte Mecklenburg African American Agenda, a town hall meeting organized by State Senator Malcolm Graham to address the stark racial disparities within the African American community. Over 1200 people turned out for the two day event, and within most was a sincere purpose to find an answer to the many problems in our community from gang violence to the incredible educational gap between blacks and whites.

I left the two day town hall with a feeling of purpose, but also a renewed understanding of the placism Chris Gardner alluded to in his movie. Listening to the many citizens voice their concerns and their everyday problems, I realized that there is so much many of us don’t know.

Just as valuable as our tax deductible contributions to our favorite non-profit is our collective ability to increase access to the many circles, institutions and services that make our community function.

Chris Gardner strived to gain access to a world that seemed a fairy tale, though it existed as a place dominated by the politically connected and well-to-do. In Charlotte, from the banks to the non profit board rooms, we must strive to find ways to open the doors to outsiders, letting our collective purpose meet those who need it; actively seeking to serve our community by expanding the boundaries of their world.

Equally important, the same people who came out to the town hall meeting must be diligent in seeking to break into the decision-making bodies across this city. It is one thing to come out on a Friday and Saturday and nod your head up and down, but it is transformative to email, call and demand a voice on the decision-making bodies across the city.

Chris Gardner didn’t settle with the status quo of his place. He sought to break down the wall of his situation. In order to fulfill the Charlotte Mecklenburg African American Agenda, everyone in attendance has to decide that enough is enough and work to improve our situation and the situation of our community. Without this understanding, the purpose of this agenda will be lost, and more than that the real growth of our community will be stunted.

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