Life Lessons: Dianne English
Longtime community organization leader retires with work done and undone, and hard truths absorbed
Dianne English announced her retirement as executive director of Community Building Initiative in November, effective at the end of 2021. She helped found the organization in 1997 after a series of police shootings of unarmed Black people, and it’s since established programs designed, CBI says, “to equip people and organizations with the knowledge, skills, and courage to fight bias, remove barriers to opportunity, and build a more equitable and just Charlotte-Mecklenburg.”
Those are difficult things to measure, and English admits that the good CBI has done in Charlotte over the past 25 years has run up against a national backlash to social and racial progress. No city is an island, and continuing episodes of police violence against racial minorities, anti-immigrant policies, and resistance to basic COVID protections impair community relations work as surely here as anywhere else. “Something has cracked in this country that has bled out some really nasty, dangerous, toxic stuff,” English tells me in December, “and it’s deeper inside of people and areas than maybe we thought.”
English, 78, grew up in Maryland, New York, and the Chicago area after her parents immigrated from outside Toronto in the early 1940s, and she moved to Charlotte with her first husband in 1973. She didn’t begin community relations work, though, until the late ’80s, when she attended the funeral of education activist Bruce Irons and realized he’d befriended people across racial and economic barriers. English vowed to do the same, and she committed to both her work and her husband Roger English, who died in 2015 after a long battle with primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), a degenerative motor neuron disease.
English led the interfaith community organization Mecklenburg Ministries from 1990 until she co-founded CBI, which as of this writing has appointed a committee to search for her successor. She says people should understand that she and the organization are not synonymous: “There’s real value in letting something go so that you’re not perceived as it.” Her words are her own and have been edited for length and clarity.
It’s time for me (to retire), and I think it’s a great time for the organization. Frankly, I’m curious about if I have a third act, what it might be, and, well, my brain and my parts are still in place.
CBI is 24 years old. It is, I think, stronger than it’s ever been, and I think the work is as relevant, or more relevant, than ever. It has become a trusted resource. I think we have defined a role of equipping people with information, knowledge, skills, and courage. I also think it’s a good time for new energy, new legs, new brainpower, new ways of looking at things.
(On whether Charlotte is more or less equitable than in 1997)
I think it’s just changed. I think—how do I say this?—the last several years have been a blow in terms of when the lid was taken off the can with Trump, with that election. … From the get-go, this country was designed to advantage some and disadvantage others. It’s baked into our social structure, into our economic structure, everything. So our understanding of equity in CBI has evolved to say, “If you want to work for change, you acknowledge, you analyze, and you strategize to act. You don’t start by trying to fix it.”
I think it was the accumulation of things, and then the pandemic just locks it in: OK, if you cannot work at home, why is the burden falling so disproportionately on certain people, on certain sectors?
It’s like toxic waste. It’s not a problem until it’s stirred up again. People say, “Why are they so angry?” Then the other side is saying, “Why are they so clueless?” We want to believe we fixed it, or we papered it over, or it’s the past. But something else comes along, and it comes back up. It shouldn’t have surprised us that everything that was revealed through the pandemic was there. The idea of going back to normal is not a sufficient response. Normal wasn’t so hot for a whole lot of people.
We can’t burden our children with the stuff that we’re not willing to confront.
Most of us understand that the philanthropic community or, for a while, we thought, the faith community should be handling this … But nothing equates to the power of the public sector to invest in the things that need changing. So I think a lot of it depends on what you’re directing your philanthropy or your investment toward, and what I think we haven’t done a good job of—and I think we’ve got it on the table right now—is to look at the systems. If you’re looking at the evidence of disparity or discrimination by the needs people have, the systems are working exactly as they were designed to work and producing outcomes that are inevitable.
In-the-ground inequities produce these outcomes that we try to mitigate through money and investment or, you know, blaming the people and not the systems, and trying to fix the people. That doesn’t mitigate personal responsibility, doesn’t mitigate bad choices. But there’s just too much evidence of inequity, and the people bear the burden. Now you can’t turn right or left without hearing the word “equity.” Using the word and understanding the word are two different things.
About 10 years ago, we started looking at whether we were an organization focused on inclusion and equity. We were doing a fairly good job of working on the inclusion piece, and we were kind of leaning into equity a little bit, but nothing intentionally. So the idea was, either we take it out of the mission statement or we do something about it by learning. We took our board through an exploration, with the help of some really talented people, and really tried to educate ourselves so that we would have language for talking about equity, and then deepen our understanding.
Of late, I’ve been made more aware of the through line of the disregard and the capacity we’ve had to abuse the Black body because we don’t think it’s worthy, or the culture has said, “This is not a full human being. It’s a disposable commodity.” I quite honestly don’t understand the courage it takes to occupy a Black body.
It’s part of the evolution of awareness and acknowledgement. Some people have always known that; those of us who’ve had the privilege of not knowing or not acknowledging are slower to understand it. I mean, it wasn’t until, I’d say, within the last five or 10 years that I’ve really understood that my father, coming here from Canada, had access to more capital, homeownership, the perks and benefits of this country, than a man of color who served in the Second World War. There’s something inherently wrong with that.
At the end of the day, say we fed 400 hungry people, and people say, “That’s wonderful.” And I’ve done that. But who’s asking, “Why are they hungry?” Somebody has to be asking those questions.
I made a commitment long ago that if I were to retire, I would lie fallow for six months. My husband had a motor neuron disease. So, you know, Charlotte has provided me with a space and place to honor the commitment I made to him and to my family, and yet to find a space for myself to invest and be engaged. I am very grateful for that. I feel investment in that, and I have children here, and I don’t have a desire or need to be anyplace else right now.
What I have appreciated about CBI: How do you hold the collective as essential and then support people in their variety of ways of living it out? And so with Leaders Under 40 (a CBI program), at my last session with them today—people will say, “Well, what’s the outcome?” I don’t know what the outcome is. But I’ll bet on Troy Leo. I’ll bet on Spencer Merriweather. They’re going to do great things. And our responsibility is to equip and support them.
I’ve had a great run. I really have. It’s the relationships, the people, the capacity of people to be vulnerable, to be courageous, to be wrong. There are days when I’m very hopeful, because that’s my nature. I think it goes back to the Cornel West thing, you know, being a prisoner of hope because you don’t know the rest of the story.
I think I have been gifted with an innate curiosity, a creative streak, a willingness to take a chance. In our leadership development program, people will say, “Oh, I’m having the best time.” And I can honestly say, “Well, you’ll get over that,” and mean it for all the right reasons. Because you want to be at the edge of discomfort. So, you know, I think I’ve been helpful or willing to back some of that and take some chances.
I haven’t been out on the median with the picket sign. But I think what I’ve been able to do is to create containers in which people can connect and hopefully be encouraged to wrestle with stuff. It is a collective responsibility, and we each need to find our space and place, and we need to assume that if we want to move forward together, we’ve got to each take a piece of this and, every day, focus on it.