At the February 27th Charlotte City Council meeting, Charlotte School of Law Civil Rights Clinic students, along with over a hundred community members and representatives from local organizations and businesses including Changed Choices, Pasta Provisions, Democracy NC, Action NC, Charlotte Community Justice Coalition, and Center for Community Transitions rallied, spoke, and displayed signs while donning the Ban the Box movement’s symbolic red in order to persuade the Council to send the Ban the Box initiative to Committee for further review—which it did by a six to four vote. The vote represented a small first step in favor of the Coalition’s more than four year effort to convince the City to reform its hiring practices concerning individuals with conviction histories. While the City does have a non-discrimination policy concerning conviction histories, its job applications still have the “box” requiring that an applicant disclose a conviction history before the City makes a determination that the individual is qualified for the job. The key provisions of the Coalition’s proposed ordinance (drafted by students from the Civil Rights Clinic), removes the conviction history question from the initial job application, and permits a background check only after the city makes a conditional offer of employment; if the City determines the conviction disqualifies the applicant, the applicant will have a chance to explain why their conviction history shouldn’t disqualify them
The Signs of Our Times
The meeting itself was a model of grassroots organizing. Prior to it, hundreds gathered in the Government Center’s lobby. The excitement and tension in the air was palpable. Clinic students Cleat Walters III, Hailey Strobel, Emily Ray, Lindsey Engels, Katie Webb, Isabel Carson, Brandy Hagler, Daniel Melo, and Professor Jason Huber helped rally the Coalition and distribute signs. At 6:15 security opened Council Chambers’ doors and Coalition members filed in, overflowing into the balcony areas. During the opening convocation, Mayor Anthony Foxx played excerpts from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Foxx also read two ceremonial resolutions before he moved to the Citizen’s Forum portion of the meeting. The Coalition reserved six speaker spots through the efforts of Clinic student Cleat Walters III, who was also one of the primary organizers and leaders of the Coalition.
Speaking in a Sea of Red
Isaac Sturgill, a former Clinic student, who four years ago began to tackle this issue and who is currently a Legal Aid of North Carolina attorney, was the first to speak. He began by asking all Ban the Box supporters to stand—almost everyone in the room rose to their feet in a sea of red, holding their signs in silent solidarity. Mr. Sturgill then went on to explain how Ban the Box will benefit the community by reducing recidivism and encouraging persons with conviction histories to obtain employment.
Mia Hines, the Vice-President of Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont, followed Mr. Sturgill. Ms. Hines discussed the hiring practices of Goodwill and the make-up of their workforce. She stated that Goodwill practices the highest level of due diligence in their hiring practices, but emphasized that it does not use conviction histories to screen out applicants. To emphasize this fact, she recounted that individuals with conviction histories compose 30 percent of Goodwill’s workforce. She also explained to Council that Goodwill’s hiring practices mirror the proposed hiring practices of Ban the Box.
Eric Ortega, program director for Charlotte’s Center for Community Transitions, spoke next discussing the 450 individuals with prior convictions that have participated in the Center’s rehabilitation program in the last six months. He said that these individuals seek to better themselves, redefine who they are, and move forward. He expressed the reasonable concern and fear felt by many when faced with the Box—that employers will toss those applications with the Box checked aside, automatically filtering them out. According to Ortega, last year the Center tracked 200 people for a year and found, after obtaining employment with the Center’s assistance, that 190 of the 200 were still employed and had not been rearrested. He emphasized the significance of 190 people paying taxes and contributing to their families and Charlotte’s economy.
Empowering through Employment
Tommy George followed Mr. Ortega to podium. Mr. George is the owner of a local business called Pasta Provisions, which regularly employs people with conviction histories dedicated to making themselves better. He expressed how the Box gives fear to some and anxiety to others. He stated that employers should ask about convictions during the interview process, allowing applicants to explain about their past discretions. Mr. George acknowledged that the City of Charlotte is an Equal Opportunity Employer, committed to fairness, but noted that the Box is “redundant” and asked that the City take a step forward to solidify its commitment to equality by Banning the Box.
Monique Maddox, Catering Manager with Second Helping, who has a conviction history, introduced herself from behind a Ban the Box sign, covering her face to symbolically demonstrate the barrier put between individuals with conviction histories and employers because of the Box. She went on to explain that this barrier prevents employers from seeing the person behind the Box. She requested that the City take the lead on implementing this policy so deserving people have an opportunity at a second chance.
The final speaker, Henderson Hill, the current Executive Director of the Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina, a member of the Charlotte Community Justice Coalition, and a 32-year Charlottean civil rights attorney and activist, asked the Council to look at individuals as returning citizens, rather than inmates, felons, and convicts. Mr. Hill, drawing on his extensive experience working with individuals with conviction histories, and citing the excerpts of Dr. King’s speech from earlier in the meeting, called on the Council to judge people by the “content of their character.” Mr. Hill went on to say that through this proposal, the City can use its posture as an employer of over 6,500 people, to affirmatively express that looking at the content of someone’s character and evidence of rehabilitation is more important than a box on an application. Mr. Hill closed by saying that mass incarcerations, which are connected to national and state policies and not of the City Council’s doing, have a very real effect on the community and Ban the Box is one way to address this effect.
A Motion to Move Forward
After the speakers finished, Councilperson Lawana Mayfield motioned to have Ban the Box studied by the Economic and Development Committee. Councilperson John Autry seconded the motion.
The Council then proceeded to discuss the motion. Councilperson Warren Cooksey expressed concerns about hiring for certain jobs, that the City already had an anti-discrimination policy in place, and that the initiative was “a solution in search of a problem.” Councilperson Michael Barnes voiced his opposition to the motion by saying that before adopting Ban the Box, the state legislature should pass a bill providing immunity to municipalities which adopt Ban the Box. At the request of Councilperson Barnes, City Attorney Robert Hagemann briefly discussed a previously circulated Human Resources on the issue, and went on to say that immunity is only one concern and reiterated that Ban the Box implicates several issues. Councilperson Claire Green Fallon commented that maybe the ordinance’s focus should be on the smaller demographic of individuals convicted of marijuana possession.
Next, Councilperson Andy Dulin began by discussing how he provided job opportunities to people with conviction histories when he was a private business owner. However, Mr. Dulin stated that he believed that his responsibilities to his constituency required him to oppose the motion. Councilperson Beth Pickering was the first to speak in favor of Ban the Box. She expressed that her primary objective is to see that everyone has the opportunity to work. Ms. Pickering expressed the desire to explore Ban the Box more and supported the motion to go to committee which fomented a small eruption of applause from the Coalition.
Finally, Councilperson Mayfield, a Ban the Box supporter long before her City Council election, spoke passionately in favor of Committee referral. Noting, in response to Councilpersons Cooksey, Barnes, and Dulin, that the ordinance does not prohibit background checks, nor does it require the city to hire individuals with conviction histories. Rather, she said, it simply gives all applicants a fair chance. She recognized the City’s existing non-discrimination policy, and expressed her belief that studying and adopting the proposed ordinance would further support that policy. She also discussed how cities like Durham, North Carolina amongst others have successfully adopted similar Ban the Box ordinances and expressed her desire to keep Charlotte a “first-class city.”
A Kick for the Win
Mayor Foxx then requested that all those in favor of the motion raise their hands, and the room fell quiet. Councilpersons Autry, Mayfield, Mitchell, Fallon, Howard, and Pickering raised their hands. One could feel every mind in the room counting and re-counting. Six votes in favor.
No one moved or made a sound.
Councilpersons Cooksey, Barnes, Kinsey, and Dulin raised their hands. Four votes.
Mayor Foxx the declared the motion referred to committee for further study. The audience, before filing out, cheered and applauded Council for their decision. The enthusiasm was so energetic in the lobby that security politely asked the exiting crowd to quiet down. There was an abundance of smiles, hugs, handshakes and congratulations to all for a small but significant victory. Ban the Box will undergo study in the Economic and Development Committee. Throughout this process, the Coalition will continue to raise support and awareness, Clinic members will attend the Committee meetings, and the Coalition encourages everyone to continue to support and educate the community about Ban the Box.
If you are interested in working with the Coalition or have any questions please contact Cleat Walters III at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Charlotte School of Law Civil Rights Clinic at email@example.com
Mr. George, who eloquently quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson during his address to City Council, provides an appropriate final thought:
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
By: Daniel Melo, Brandy Hagler, and Cleat Walters III