Greensboro, NC, is a city that is stalled at the famous fork in the road. As one person put it, "Greensboro is sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, watching opportunities pass by on the train." No matter which analogy you use, the message is the same. Greensboro is poised to take its position as a thriving urban-rural community, and yet it hasn't tapped into all of the available resources necessary to go to its new destination.
To understand Greensboro, one must be aware of its rich history. Since 1891, Greensboro has been known as the "Gate City," where railroad lines linked several cities and states in the southeast. Since 1830, Greensboro has been an educational hub, home of five colleges and universities and one community college that nurture the educational and cultural pursuits of students from around the state, country and world. It's also known as the city that sparked the Sit-In Movement during the 1960s, when four North Carolina A & T University students sat at the segregated Woolworth's lunch counter. Many would say that the city is beautiful and lush with parks and greenways. The thriving arts community and locally owned restaurants offer residents several social outlets. The intellectual capital at our six institutions of higher learning is enough to spark the creative and entrepreneurial energy for any major city. The growing ethnic and cultural community is full of potential talent for years to come. In short, Greensboro does have a lot going for itself, and is blessed with many of the resources that Richard Florida defines as diversity, technology and talent.
Greensboro as a Cross-Cultural Hub
Recently, Greensboro has evolved as a cross-cultural hub as more people of color and immigrants join this community. For example, the University at North Carolina-Greensboro's Center for New North Carolinians has cited the following demographic changes in our immigrant community:
- The "new" North Carolinians population (estimated 30,000-40,000) includes documented and undocumented immigrants as well as refugees.
- There are 82 languages represented in the Guilford County School System.
- Greensboro has had a long history of resettling Montagnards into our community, and Guilford County is also home to the largest Montagnard community outside of Southeast Asia.
- 10,000 African people from 54 different countries have made Greensboro their home. Each country is rich with its own heritage, faith system and customs.
- People from Bosnia, Kosovo and Russia have resettled here since 1994.
In short, Greensboro is fast emerging as a new center for cultural and ethnic diversity. Some people would say that the new immigrants ought to shed their ethnic and cultural histories and join the melting pot of America. While that topic is debatable, how can the City of Greensboro capitalize on the talent from these people to develop new jobs for the community? These people are not blank tablets. They bring work and professional experience, culture-specific knowledge and a willingness to contribute to the growth of our community. Can we, the citizens of Greensboro, shed our fear of the unknown and see this as an opportunity to develop multi-ethnic and multilingual talent?
Strategic Access to the Internet
Greensboro is distinct in offering direct ties to the Tier 1 Internet backbone, redundant power grids, a dominant array of data communications and hosting Internet service providers. And yet, these assets have not been packaged to attract or retain businesses of all sizes seeking a full range of carrier and corporate network solutions. Historically, Greensboro has relied on the manufacturing and textile industries as major employers. Unfortunately, both of these industries have been in significant decline in terms of available jobs for people in our community. Right now, the lack of diverse industries has steered Greensboro into dire economic straits as more and more people are being laid off, or are forced to relocate to other cities to find jobs.
Wealth of Available Talent
In addition to the growing ethnic and cultural groups, Greensboro experiences another phenomenon called the "annual brain drain." Imagine a city that brings in an estimated 30-50,000 college students every year. Now, how many of those students stay here? Not many. In fact, during the 1990s, Greensboro lost 1.4% of its people aged 18-34 years old, while Charlotte gained 1%, and Raleigh-Durham gained 2.5% of this same population (McKinsey Report, 2001). Given the current economic decline in Greensboro, this percentage will likely increase during the next few years. Why does this happen? There are at least three reasons. First, Greensboro does not market itself as a place for folks in the 18- to 39-year-old category. Citizens of Greensboro often refer to the city as a "family" town, and offer activities for this population. Now, that is an odd and unwelcoming descriptor when you have so many students who live and learn here every single year. Second, it does not offer the career opportunities that would attract college graduates. The lack of diverse employers has hampered the city's ability to attract and retain this demographic. Third, the social scene is lacking in comparison to other cities. Students often trek home or to other cities on the weekend or are stranded on their campus due to the lack of an integrated transportation system. College students are rarely involved in the larger community. By not tapping into this diverse wealth of talent, Greensboro will forever lag behind its neighbors in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, who seem to attract this group by the droves.
Greensboro Needs to Tap Into Resources to Receive Its Blessings
Now, why would a city blessed with all of these resources stall at the fork in the road? It is certainly not hurting for intellectual talent from the local institutions of higher learning. Does it lack diversity? No, because there is a significant number of ethnic and cultural groups in the community. Does it lack technology? No, Greensboro is directly connected to the Internet backbone and is the home of North Carolina A&T University, an internationally known technical institution. Simply, Greensboro needs to tap into the diversity that exists in its talents and resources.
Diversity is not just about race and gender; it includes and transcends that notion. The true essence of diversity includes different people, industries, ideas, cultures and leadership (just to name a few). Greensboro needs to tap into its diverse resources to create collaborative relationships within the community. Currently, Greensboro is a city of silos. For example, the area institutions of higher learning do not have a unified presence in the community. There are no research parks that bridge the intellectual talents with the local businesses. Many of the people of color live on the east side of town, while most of the resources and living amenities are overcrowded on the west side of town where many of the white residents live. The growing immigrant community is left stranded on the cusp of both communities, with limited economic or political power. While there are a few companies here, their presence feels absent in the larger community. A recent debacle among our county commissioners reminds us of the old, segregated South, an image that many people would prefer to shed.
Greensboro is very much a Southern town that is led by the traditional, older, white male leaders. Many of these leaders have not expanded their lens and looked in new and unfamiliar places to include the talent and resources found in women, people of color, the growing ethnic communities and young professionals. When leaders fail to engage and utilize all of a community's resources, their vision fails. For example, there are several Fortune 500 companies that have created diversity programs to either build talent or to reach new markets. Those companies that invest in diversity thrive and surpass their competitors. A similar model is necessary for Greensboro. This inability to embrace the rich diversity that exists within the community will prevent us from fully realizing our potential like cities such as Charlotte, Austin and San Francisco.
Greensboro must break this cycle of using "what's tried and true" and step out on faith, and see what else is possible. If we keep tapping the same well, then we'll always get the same results. Blessings are rare and must be cherished for the gifts that they bring. Greensboro is blessed with many resources, and it would be a shame if they are not utilized to revitalize this community. Greensboro needs to flip the script and think outside the paradigm if it wishes to prosper in the future. Otherwise, it won't need to worry about being at the fork in the road, because the road will be covered with the dust and tumbleweeds blowing in the wind.
Anadri J. Chisolm-Noel is the outgoing President of the Greensboro Young Professionals. She and her husband Terry own ICUNMe, LLC and currently reside in Greensboro, North Carolina.