Community Building Initiative CEO Advocates for More Opportunity, Equity and Justice in Charlotte

By Ryan Kouame

Intersectional educator, facilitator, nonprofit leader and fierce advocate for justice, Janeen Bryant, is helping build and advocate for more opportunity, equity and justice through her work as executive director of Community Building Initiative (CBI) in Charlotte. A tireless advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion, Bryant has a wealth of experience, spanning more than 20 years, five countries, two degrees, and several  areas of expertise that help her lead CBI with diligence, insight and compassion.

Bryant was hired in 2022 after an extensive six-month search succeeding the founding and previous executive director, Dianne English, making her the first Black woman to run the organization.

“CBI’s mission and values align perfectly with mine,” Bryant said.  She said she wants to see a human-centered society in which “we see all individuals as valuable and move closer to our goal of community equity.” She added, “My intention is to both preserve the legacy of CBI, and to guide it onward as it evolves to meet the ever-changing needs of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.”

Most recently, Bryant served as the founder and principal consultant for Facilitate Movement, LLC., where she and her team specialized in crafting proactive strategies that guide institutions to address shifting demographics with responsive leadership that strengthen long-term vision, cultural competency and empathy. She was previously a liaison and community catalyst coach for 12 communities in the Southeast through her work with the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative of the Obama Foundation, and she’s also a 2021 Black Voices for Black Justice Award recipient.

Formerly the Vice President of Education at Levine Museum of the New South, Bryant is known for working and leading in Charlotte around topics including educational equity, lynching in America, LGBTQ perspectives and immigration. In her new role with CBI, she’ll be helping the organization develop deeper relationships with existing partners through new leadership development programs, sharing learning through fellowships targeting under-resourced communities, and convening cross-sector partners to address underlying equity issues.

What is the Community Building Initiative?

The Community Building Initiative (CBI) is a nonprofit organization that engages nearly 2,500 people each year through a range of programs designed to equip individuals and organizations with the knowledge, skills and courage to fight bias, remove barriers to opportunity and build a more just and equitable Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

CBI was started in the late nineties, after a police-involved shooting, to address and remediate the multi-layered issues the community was facing surrounding racial equity, police brutality, and economic mobility. Through this, several signature programs were developed like the Leadership Development Initiative (LDI) and Leaders Under 40 (LU40) to gather leaders together to discuss leadership capacity, different ways to connect, and how to go about real change-making.

CBI recently celebrated its 25th anniversary where they hosted their inaugural CBI Family Reunion, Community Builder’s Breakfast and Anniversary Bus Tour to engage and reflect on their journey of relationship-building and collaborative growth within the community.

The impact of a new leader

Harnessing her many years of experience in community building and civic dialogue across lines of difference, Bryant is working to build on the foundations created by her predecessors to maximize civic engagement, social change, and community impact throughout the city. 

Her focus is on building organizational capacity and creating programs that promote community engagement, inclusive ecosystems, and equitable futures. Dealing with these issues in a city booming with growth and facing lots of changing systems, Bryant plans to actively search out and create spaces that require diversity of thought, mind, and opinion. Spaces that can only be found when doing the hands-on groundwork and engaging with organizations with values similar to CBI.

A native of Greenville, South Carolina, Bryant remembers sitting around the dinner table where she and her siblings were encouraged to express their emotions with their mother to teach them ways to advocate for themselves. Being an International Baccalaureate (IB) graduate and studying abroad in different countries while attending Davidson College, Bryant was afforded the opportunity to not only understand the experiences of different cultures, but to also appreciate and celebrate the different facets of cultural connection as the building blocks on which we can build inclusive communities and advocate for equity. 

She now gets to present across the country on topics like community building and the role empathy plays in establishing effective leadership to cross-cultural and intersectional audiences.

Overcoming obstacles

Throughout the last century, Mecklenburg County has experienced continuous, sustainable growth with Charlotte being ranked the 15th most populous and the 7th fastest-growing metro area in the United States. Although the city’s growth has come with lots of opportunities, CBI recognizes the disadvantages, displacement, disproportionate opportunities, and barriers to access that come as the city grows, further perpetuating systemic inequities established by both historical and contemporary power structures.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Bryant said CBI faced challenges around participation. “In collaboration with CBI’s board, team and community, we understood and responded to this by redefining and reframing what it means to be in community in a world that is becoming increasingly virtual, disconnected and polarized. Through programs like the inaugural family reunion, we’ve reconnected CBI’s alumni base back to each other, the mission and the work,” she said.

Now, CBI is shifting its success metrics to include new measurements like trust, compassion for each other, and overall community well-being,” said Bryant “We see this working as we bring compassion and understanding to meet the needs of the communities we serve.”

Sustainable steps for the future

CBI envisions a future where everyone has the knowledge and power to interrupt the systems causing widespread, nuanced discrimination and eradicate the injustices that many face daily in their pursuit of equal rights, access, equity and opportunity. 

“I believe that Charlotte can lead and be a national model for what an equitable community looks like, feels like, and truly is. I am committed to working alongside courageous Charlotteans to make this vision a reality,” said Bryant.