Charlene Green is set to step into her new role as deputy director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance. Here path there led through several roles in the Charlottesville area, including the city of Charlottesville’s Office of Human Rights, where she has served as manager since 2015.
Before her job transition, Green sat down with Charlottesville Tomorrow for a Q&A. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What was the path leading you to Charlottesville?
A: I’m originally from Cincinnati, and I came here to go to grad school. I was a graduate student in the [University of Virginia] Curry School of Education. I got involved in … [what] became the Multicultural Committee. That sort of sparked my involvement in helping one of my professors create a course called Multicultural Education for Teachers, and some remnants of it is still being taught today over in the Curry School.
It was through that work that I started to do a lot of workshops and around social justice and antiracism work and it just sort of ballooned from there because, when I became an assistant professor at Millersville University, … one of the reasons why they hired me was because of my focus and diversity education. I was able to continue that work in Pennsylvania and then, while I was there, [Albemarle County Public Schools] started a superintendent’s equity and diversity committee that created a position, the program coordinator for equity and diversity, that I was getting phone calls to apply for because people wanted me to come back to Charlottesville. So, I applied and got the job, and that’s what brought me back to Charlottesville in 2000. I worked as the for the Albemarle County schools as the central office administrator for equity and diversity for seven years in that department. In that position, [I was] working with teachers and their professional development working and with students and teaching them how to be facilitators of conversations around diversity. We had CARE clubs in the high schools — CARE was an acronym for Creating Awareness Regarding Equity —and we had some amazing students participate in those clubs and all in the high schools. I got to take them to conferences across the country where they talked about the diversity work that they did for the county schools the Albemarle County Schools. …
While was working for the county schools, [former City Manager] Maurice Jones and [former Councilor] Holly Edwards were starting to have a conversation about the city taking on the responsibility of having a Dialogue on Race. And Maurice approached me asking me what I thought about what that could look like, and so, in 2010, I was hired as the program coordinator for the Dialogue on Race and I was in that position until 2014. Then the Office of Human Rights, which came out of the Dialogue on Race, was created and then I was hired as the community outreach specialist in 2014. And then in 2015 I was hired as the manager when the first manager left.
Probably the most important thing that I've learned is that it's important to build relationships with people and that takes time. You can't just go into a neighborhood or reach out to folks and expect them to just take your hand and do the work.
Q: And the Human Rights Commission also came out of that?
A: The Human Rights Commission started in 2013. … There was a lot that came out of the Dialogue on Race, and so, as you’re talking about the evolution of my work, then you get into the specific work of the city’s Dialogue on Race, which began in 2009. Maurice Jones was able to get some money to start organizing a conversation around that, and they hired … a consultant … that allowed them to sort of map out where they wanted to go. Then that’s when they realized they needed a staff person, and they hired me in 2010. And so, then we had engaged close to 700 people in the community, a hundred of those were Charlottesville High School students, and several priorities came out of that.
It was the community’s desire to see some focus on an office that deals with discrimination, and that’s how the Office of Human Rights was created. They wanted a body of people to help advise that office and advise the City Council, and that’s how the Human Rights Commission got started.
You also had the City of Promise come out of the Dialogue on Race; you also had the [Regional Chamber of Commerce’s] Diversity Business Council come out of the Dialogue on Race; there were some [inmate] re-entry efforts that came out of the Dialogue on Race that supported the work of the Believers and Achievers because that was important to Holly Edwards.
We also had some indirect influence over the CIC, the Community Investment Collaborative, because we held a lot of those initial conversations over at C’ville Coffee, and Toan Nguyen was the founder of CIC. So, we had a number of different initiatives that still continue today that came out of the Dialogue on the Race and probably the most important that, I think, has the has had some significant impact on the city is the Office of Human Rights and the Human Rights Commission. And even with starting out with one to two staff persons since its inception, we’ve had the amazing opportunity with our collaboration with different groups across the city and different collaboration efforts through different city departments. We’ve been able to get a lot of work done.
Q: What do you feel was the greatest thing you learned from your time in the Office of Human Rights?
A: Probably the most important thing that I’ve learned is that it’s important to build relationships with people and that takes time. You can’t just go into a neighborhood or reach out to folks and expect them to just take your hand and do the work. You need to have an established relationship with folks, and I think that’s what has led to my success in work with the city. … I’ve been here long enough to have established lots of different relationships with not just organizations, but definitely with different people across the community and because it’s through their assistance that I’ve been able to get work done.
Q: What do you think are some of the challenges and opportunities the city’s facing currently?
A: I believe that probably the biggest challenge is the city gaining the trust of the community. You know, it’s always been difficult for individuals to trust institutions that run things, whether it’s education or criminal justice system or government, and so I think the challenge for the city is for as much as the we have people whether they’re elected officials, or we’re city employees that want to make sure the right thing is done, you have to have the trust of the community in order to help make that happen. And, I think, it’s always important to have a healthy notion of cynicism with any institution that you’re dealing with because you want to be able to ask questions. And so because of that it’s really important for an institution like city government to be as transparent as possible, to ask the community what the community wants and needs and do their best to make that happen.
Right. There’s been so many times in history where the government says, ‘We’re here to help,’ and the complete opposite happens.
Exactly. I would say it’s never had the complete trust of a community ever, and so there’s always work to be done in ensuring a community that you’re there for their for their needs. I think that’s the biggest challenge for any community is to ensure the trust of the residents.
Q: What do you think are some of the opportunities for the Human Rights Commission and Office of Human Rights moving forward?
A: I think they are lots of different organizations having equity conversations right now, and so, I think this is a great opportunity for the commission and the city of Charlottesville to make sure that they have someone at the table of those equity conversations so that we’re not operating in silos. We want to make sure that if equity and social justice is an important aspect of anyone’s mission, that you’ve worked together with other groups to make it happen so that you’re not wasting all that energy that needs to go into the relationship-building, the creating strategies to make things happen.
I think if there’s an opportunity for collaboration with other groups that are also focused on equity, then, I think, that would be a great use of energy and time on the commission’s part and on city government’s part.
Q: What are you looking forward to in your new role and do you see this continuation of your work here?
I’m very excited about my new role with Piedmont Housing Alliance. I get to continue my community related work with a focus on housing and social justice and that’s very exciting to me. It takes that broad picture of all the things that I’ve been focused on with the Office of Human Rights and it narrows it a little bit with an emphasis on housing. But even with housing you’ve got the intersection of race and people with disabilities and people with criminal history that may have an impact on them trying to get access to housing. Poverty is included in that when you talk about the discrimination that occurs with people who may be paying for their rent with vouchers, and so there’s still a whole lot of opportunity to do social justice-related work in my new position and I’m very, very excited about that. I get to maintain. A number of my long-time relationships and I get to work on some new ones in ways that I may not have had the opportunity to.
Q: Will you still be involved in coordinating things for Unity Days?
A: No. I’m very proud of how Unity Days happened and all the work that went into that. There were 85 different events that happened under the Unity Days banner, some of them would have happened whether Unity Days happened or not, but we also helped organize large number of events in an attempt to help our community move forward from 2017 and the time before that. I’m very proud of that work but my new position will not allow me to be as involved as I was as a city employee.