By Angela Lindsay
The current leadership slate in Charlotte is likely the most diverse it has ever been, with minorities and women holding prominent positions, from the mayor to the district attorney to the fire chief to the chief of police and sheriff, as well as the city planner, school board chair, transportation CEO and the chair of the board of county commissioners. The Charlotte metro area is also home to 230,000 foreign-born people, making the city itself more diverse than ever. Five countries account for 47 percent of the foreign-born population in the area, including Mexico, Vietnam, El Salvador, Honduras and India. According to the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, Charlotte’s international business relationships are continuing to grow, as well, with more than 1,000 firms from 45 countries represented. This diverse population also has made its mark on the Queen City by assuming visible positions in the community to ensure that all their voices are heard, and that everyone’s interests are well-represented. We invite you to meet a few of the new leaders:
(In alphabetical order)
Dimple Ajmera, 31, Charlotte City Council member at-large
Councilwoman Ajmera is widely known for her leadership in bringing new life and opportunities to the 69-acre former site of Eastland Mall, taking on this daunting task with a sustainable vision and fortitude. The native of Rancho Cucamonga, California, is a passionate advocate for affordable housing. She played an integral part in securing the funding and neighborhood’s support for the affordable housing development, St. John’s Place, which serves some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
“One of the most important responsibilities in my role is to deliver on my promise of creating a sustainable, equitable and safe Charlotte,” she says.
While she feels diversity is adequately represented in Charlotte’s leadership more than ever before, she says, “We must continue to improve on recruiting and supporting more women of color to run for a public office.”
Dr. John C. Chen, chairman of the Carolinas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce
Chen is dedicated to devising creative methods to engage at-risk youth. He has started several tutoring initiatives at local high schools to help Asian students, particularly Hmongs. These students’ parents often don’t speak English and lack a formal education. Chen has worked to assess the needs of the students, and convinced others to join his efforts and to help out by tutoring. His community involvement has included Crossroads Charlotte, the FBI Multicultural Advisory Council and Charlotte E.A.S.T. A contributing columnist for the Asian Herald newspaper in Charlotte, he also serves as a member of the United Way of Central Carolina and is the founder and chair of the Charlotte Dragon Boat Club. Over the years, Chen worked tirelessly to build bridges between Asians and their Charlotte neighbors, by identifying common concerns and bringing programs to Charlotte to increase diversity and improve the quality of life. In 2012, then-mayor Anthony Foxx recognized Chen as the first Global Leader Award winner at the Mayor’s International Community Awards.
One of the most important roles that Nigerian-born Ekwonu fulfills is “to promote and support access to affordable health care to the underserved members of the community, through education and access to available resources in the community.” When he is not serving his patients, he is serving the community in a variety of ways, including supporting the annual YMCA Martin Luther King Day Prayer Breakfast, fund-raising to support the HeartBright Foundation through a yearly Golf Tournament and Symposium ($150,000 donated this year), supporting the United Negro College Fund through the Maya Angelou Women Who Lead luncheon and mentoring high school students interested in a career in medicine through the Wake Forest University mentoring program. He also supports the Harvey Gantt Center Jazzy Night events and hosts/sponsors health fairs. While he feels it is a step in the right direction that Charlotte in 2018 has seen African Americans in leadership positions unlike anything achieved ever before, it is still a work in progress.
“We will continue to need progressive and diverse leaders to address the desperate need for affordable housing, upward mobility for the poor and disparities in the CMS school system,” he says.
Rocio Gonzalez-Zornosa, 52, executive director of the Latin American Chamber of
Commerce of Charlotte (LACCC)
“I feel my role in (the LACCC) is to be a bridge between cultures,” says Gonzalez-Zornosa, who born in New York and raised in Bogota, Colombia. “We identify gaps to find solutions. The Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte is involved in many committees with the city, other organizations, in many different industries. We collect information and share these opportunities with our membership and with our community at large. We offer connections, access, mentoring and educational programs. We are an organization open to all, because we believe by supporting each other, we will continue to strengthen our economy and our relationships.”
She and her team have made a difference in the lives of many small business owners who, from their educational programs and contacts, have broken the barrier of closing over $1 million in annual production—increasing employment opportunities, positive economic impact, more civic involvement, more positive impact in the community and giving back to the city of Charlotte. It is her wish, she says, to continue to connect many Latino and non-Latino businesses, professionals and corporations and to foster success through unity.
“The city of Charlotte has improved and embraced diversity; I feel we can still work on being more inclusive. I would like to see members of the Latino and Asian communities have a higher number of representatives in the decision-making, positions to have the whole community’s voice at the table. I call upon those members of our city of Charlotte to follow their hearts and step forward to be our voice and make a difference!”
Esther Ramirez-Pevney, 52, president of the Puerto Rican Cultural Society of Charlotte (PRCSC)
In her more than 10 years as president of the PRCSC, Ramirez-Pevney has been instrumental in the expansion and recognition of the organization over the last four years, including its Puerto Rican Festival at Symphony Park.
“I think the most important responsibility in any leadership role is to educate and bring people together,” says the Manhattan native. “In the case of my role at PRCSC, it’s not only what I think, it’s actually part of our mission.”
Another notable accomplishment was the joint effort between PRCSC and other groups and individuals to provide relief efforts after hurricane Maria. The effort lasted more than seven weeks and resulted in sending over 300 tons of food and supplies to Puerto Rico.
“If I think of my role in civic engagement, I would honestly state that there is very little representation of diversity. I just spent weeks working with groups, trying to get the word out about voting in primaries. It was very noticeable that there were almost none, if any, Hispanics/Latinos running. I would imagine that the same is true about representation from the LGBT community. However, if I look at my role within the organization I chair, I would say that the diversity is widely represented in those who have been part of our board, our memberships and those who participate in and those who attend our events.
“On a more personal note, I grew up in a truly diverse environment, and when I made a choice to relocate, it was very important to me that I not be separated from an open and inclusive society. I don’t think that Charlotte is that far from it. Yes, there is still what I consider ignorance and intolerance from some, but for the most part, I have found a great deal of diverse culture here in this town. It’s not perfect, especially in local government, but I think the opportunity is there for improvement.”