by Eric Ginsburg
Greensboro City Council’s youngest member faces a grassroots challenger who says he hasn’t done enough to listen to his constituents and address dire needs.
Thessa Pickett didn’t want to run for city council. At least not yet.
Pickett, an advocate and community organizer who runs her own consulting company, had considered running for Greensboro City Council in four years.
“The community approached me,” she said, explaining that she met people through her involvement in Black Lives Matter and other grassroots initiatives that asked her to run. Her opponent in the District 2 race, 27-year-old incumbent Jamal Fox, hasn’t made the bold statements necessary when community members have raised African-American issues before council, she charged.
The city hasn’t made enough progress on the issues that matter most to the residents of the majority black District 2, Pickett said, including food deserts, transportation and economic development. And the positive changes council has made can’t only be credited to the goodwill and leadership of city council, she said — Pickett argued those changes arose because grassroots community groups organized around various causes and council responded.
But those are some of the very issues that one-term incumbent Jamal Fox prides himself for contributing to or spearheading.
Take food deserts and food insecurity. When he first ran two years ago, Fox said he pushed for a fresh-food retail initiative, but it hit a wall once he took office. Yet in less than two years, he’s helped push a citywide fresh-food access plan, and the plan includes the retail component he originally advocated, so it’s come full circle, he said. Council has changed zoning to allow more vacant lots to be used for gardening, and he championed a community food task force with key leaders from across the city, Fox said.
There is still a great need, Fox said, but he is proud of how much he’s been able to accomplish in less than two years.
Pickett said that it isn’t enough, and that people she talks to in District 2 agree.
“His presence is lacking and a lot of people have come to me and said he hasn’t been present,” she said, referring to community meetings and neighborhood organizations.
Fox’s narrative of his leadership contradicts her.
He encouraged neighborhood organizations to attend each other’s meetings from time to time so that various parts of the district can better understand each other’s issues and ideally come together to address common challenges. Fox would like to see that happen frequently enough that neighborhoods are networked sufficiently for the district to speak with one voice.
Pickett grew up in Greensboro off and on but has lived here consistently for the last 14 years, most of that in the majority-minority areas of District 1 and 2, she said. She came to the Gate City with her mother who was fleeing domestic violence, and subsequently experienced homelessness and tenuous housing situations. That later spurred her to work actively with the chronically homeless; she used to work as a case manager for the Housing First team at the Servant Center.
Pickett has served on various boards and committees, including the YWCA and the city’s subcommittee for the Commission on the Status of Women, among others. More recently, she’s joined the organizing efforts of the Queer People of Color Collective and Black Lives Matter, and is part of blogger Billy Jones’ Bessemer Aquaponics Committee, she said.
There are several issues close to Pickett’s heart, but she emphasizes that she would take her direction as a council member from the grassroots. It’s about the people, Pickett said, and not her.
That’s part of the reason why she reversed her position on a state law that would’ve redistricted the Greensboro City Council. Before she planned to run she supported it because she believed it would increase minority representation, Pickett said, but after hearing from her would-be constituents and deciding to run for office, Pickett sublimated her own stance.
Both candidates talk about deep needs of their neighbors, but Fox isn’t reluctant to jump out with an idea of his own. He’d like to consider combining recreation centers and libraries into larger complexes to save money, and coordinate with the county to put police substations, fire stations and EMS together. And in his office at the Melvin Municipal Office Building, he has maps of plans for engineering an entertainment and retail complex at Reedy Fork Parkway and Summit Avenue. Fox envisions a bowling alley, Cheesecake Factory and Starbucks as potential tenants, and said the area might even be able to support a hotel.
He’s actively working towards those cost saving and economic development concepts, Fox said, as well as pushing various other initiatives. Among them: Supporting a minimum wage increase for city employees as part of a larger effort to increase household income that will incorporate an ex-offenders job-training program and a job fair.
Fox is also concerned about homeless veterans — an issue that hits close to home considering his mother is a veteran and his brother just returned from a tour in Afghanistan, he said — and he recently talked with someone from the VA about how the city can help address the crisis.
Fox said people are happy with his leadership, but the unconverted will be convinced once things like sidewalk construction that is scheduled for this month kicks off and the redevelopment of Revolution Mill advances.
“Are you not better off than you were two years ago?” he asked.
To Pickett, the answer is a resounding “no.” While she will take her lead from grassroots activists and community members, Pickett still offered several issues that concern her. The city needs to do more to address racial profiling by the police department, she said, and council should be doing everything it can to prevent the planned closure of the Bessemer Curb Market, which will create a dire need for food access. District 2 needs more temp agencies — too many residents struggle with transportation from the district to employment agencies across the city, she said.
Council could also improve the racial disparity in who receives city contracts, do more to attract jobs that don’t require highly educated workers or should support appropriate training programs so that new jobs are filled by unemployed locals.
Many of the problems facing District 2 residents overlap, she said, such as jobs, crime, homelessness and health disparities. Even if she isn’t elected, Pickett said, she’ll be active in fighting to improve conditions.
“Ultimately I would like to create a holistic community that cares for every person,” she said, “and then to see that supported by a council that cares, deeply. It’s going to take more than just me.”