August 16, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

A Black artist’s new show aims to build bridges across difference

8 min read

On one side of the table is Hugh McColl, a white 86-year-old banking legend who grew up in a rural cotton community in South Carolina in the 1930s and 40s.

On the other side is David “Dae-Lee” Arrington, a Black 39-year-old artist and entrepreneur who grew up in a nearly all-Black neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia, in the 1990s.

They’re talking about how they’re not the same. McColl, the former Bank of America president and CEO, starts a story of what it was like to be a teenager driving a bus with mostly Black laborers to and from farms.

  • “I was the worst kind of racist, in that I didn’t question it,” McColl says as Arrington nods and leans toward him. “I just thought that’s the way things are.

What’s happening: The conversation is the first of Arrington’s new series, Bridge Builders, which premieres today on YouTube.

The series, sponsored by Bank of America and Urban Outfitters, includes nine conversations with some of Charlotte’s most interesting and influential people, in which Arrington deliberately steers the conversation toward differences.

  • “You’re white; I’m Black, if you didn’t know,” is how Arrington started the conversation with McColl.
  • “Well, I’ve also got about 60 years on you,” McColl interjects. (46, to be exact.)

Why it matters: Charlotte is full of initiatives centered on race and equity. But Arrington, after years of being asked to consult on diversity and inclusion efforts, hopes his series serves as a model for how meaningful conversations happen when people address their differences directly.

  • Arrington calls it “overstanding” each other.
  • “I believe policy change is very important,” he says often, “but without people change, any policy change will be shallow and short-lived.”

The interviews are warm and comfortable, cutting through the world of wit and cynicism.

  • They include conversations with: Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first Black mayor; Michael Marsicano, the president and CEO of the Foundation For the Carolinas; and Veronica Calderon, the senior VP of diversity for Truliant and a member of the Latin American Chamber.

I previewed raw versions of a couple of the episodes, and sat in on the McColl interview. Many of the guests are people I’ve known for several years, and still I learned plenty new.

  • McColl, for instance, tells the story of how a Black sergeant saved his life when he was a U.S. Marine Corps officer in Korea.
  • And Marsicano tells the story of how his parents named him Michael as a way to restore a connection with his grandfather, who didn’t approve of their marriage. [“My grandfather melted,” Marsicano says.]
Harvey Gantt and Dae-Lee Arrington

Harvey Gantt during his Bridge Builders interview. Photo: Harris Jeter/Courtesy of Bridge Builders Conversations

Marsicano now oversees the sixth-largest community foundation in the country with $3.5 billion in charitable assets. In 2017 Charlotte magazine named him the city’s most powerful person.

But in his Bridge Builders interview, he goes back to when he first moved here to lead the Arts & Science Council in 1989.

  • “In 1990 — 1990,” he says, adding emphasis, “nineteen-ninety, Charlotte’s country clubs were segregated. I came here and Discovery Place was holding an antebellum fundraiser at one of the segregated country clubs.”
  • Marsicano took that to the ASC board with an idea: They wouldn’t fund cultural institutions that held events at segregated country clubs.
  • It caused an uproar, but soon the country clubs desegregated.

That story and many others have been lost to time or memory as Charlotte’s doubled in size in the 30 years since.

And in recent years Marsicano has found himself the subject of criticism from activists and others who wonder whether a white man is best suited to run an organization that funds nonprofits that serve communities of color.

  • And the question lingers: For all his ability to raise money to do good, is someone who makes in the neighborhood of $600,000 in base salary the most likely to solve Charlotte’s economic mobility gaps?

They’re uncomfortable questions with no easy answers, and most folks would shy away from them. But Arrington addresses them directly.

“Do you feel as a white man you are well-equipped to understand the work that’s needed in these communities, amongst these people, in which the majority of your funding supports?”

  • “Very provocative question: I might have thought at one time that I was well-equipped, but I think I’ve had some recent experiences that suggest I’m not as well-equipped as I should be. And that’s just an honest answer. I know all the nonprofits that are serving the populations that we’re talking about, but I don’t know how much I really know those populations.”

So what equips Arrington with the instinct to ask these questions?

His life story.

Dae-Lee Arrington

Dae-Lee Arrington. Photo by Harris Jeter/Courtesy of Bridge Builder Conversations

“From the corner to the cul-de-sac,” is how Arrington describes his journey.

Growing up in the Huntersville neighborhood of Norfolk, he remembers piling into a station wagon with his family for church on Sundays, loving backyard basketball and being enchanted by music.

He says he had a decent but strained relationship with his father.

  • During his senior year at Granby High, 2000, he helped the basketball team to a state title. While still in the arena, his dad came up to him and said he was proud of him.
  • “That’s one of the only times I remember him telling me that,” Arrington says. “The fact that he would choose that moment to say he was proud of me … because of basketball?

He shakes his head as if he’s still toiling over it. At any rate, it frustrated him so much that he decided to leave Norfolk after graduation.

His uncle lived in Ballantyne and had a car-detailing business. Arrington enrolled in the Art Institute of Charlotte and moved from Norfolk (the corner) to south Charlotte (the cul-de-sac).

  • Throughout his life, Arrington had played a game with friends called “that’s my car,” in which they’d see a nice car and claim it as the one they planned to buy one day — whenever they got rich, of course.
  • Now Arrington was working for his uncle’s car detailing business, wiping down the hood on the same high-end vehicles he’d wished for.

It was just the first of many observations he’d make about the distance between the neighborhood he grew up in, and the one where he was spending his young adult years.

He attended a south Charlotte church with his uncle’s family, sat in the second row, front left every Sunday. Soon he noticed that they were the only Black family there.

  • “Everyone was extremely welcoming, great people,” Arrington says. “But what I started noticing after being there for [several] years, there’s a difference between ‘welcoming’ me and ‘valuing’ me.”

Arrington has spent years thinking about the difference between “welcoming” people and “valuing” them.

As a musician, he’s regularly invited to perform in churches and community events. But often he wonders whether they just want a person of color on stage, or if they want to truly hear him.

Singer and Actor Maria Howell and David Dae-Lee Arrington

Singer and actor Maria Howell has performed alongside people like Ray Charles, and has had roles in TV shows such as “Army Wives” and “Delilah.” Photo by Harris Jeter/Courtesy of Bridge Builders Conversations

Like many artists of color, Arrington’s thumped into countless bad days when he wondered how much he could actually achieve in Charlotte. Most of the institutions that fund art are nonprofits, which are funded by organizations like the Foundation For the Carolinas.

Arrington found ways into rooms with leaders. Often he’d sit in the back and stay quiet for most of the meetings. But when he talks, his words are weighty and cause people to lean in.

  • He formed bonds with people like McColl in those meetings.
  • Eventually he co-founded the creative agency Hue House, to support creatives of color and connect them with funding.

After the 2016 protests over the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, lots of Charlotte nonprofits looked at their diversity efforts. The same thing happened after the George Floyd protests of 2020, only that time it expanded to the corporate world.

Suddenly, executives Arrington had known for years were asking him to consult them on diversity and inclusion.

That’s what sparked the idea for Bridge Builders. It’s a consulting firm in which he helps mostly white business leadership teams do deeper DEI work. But it’s now also a mini-media company, with his interviews and an eventual podcast.

All of it boils down to the same goal: It’s not about simply being diverse or inclusive in the workplace, but knowing why those things add value.

“Our society’s never existed in a way to talk about your value as a white man, my value as a Black man,” Arrington says to me. “We’re more focused on how quickly we can get there, without asking, ‘Who are you, Michael?

  • “It’s not about expecting people to be perfect, but to understand where people are coming from.”
Dae-Lee Arrington and Hugh McColl

Dae-Lee Arrington and Hugh McColl. Photo: Harris Jeter/Courtesy of Bridge Builders Conversations

Arrington has a nickname for people like McColl other top executives he consults with: “Tall white men.”

McColl, it should be noted, is 5-foot-6.

But in Arrington’s phrase “tall” means influential.

  • “I say this a lot to my ‘taller’ white friends, when they ask me how they can help,” Arrington says. “I need you to continue to pursue educating yourself and becoming aware. But I also need you to continue to be a tall white man.”

What does that mean, exactly? Continue to be influential, but wield influence in a way that creates a more equitable city.

  • “I’m not one to say all white leaders need to step down. It’s no, you become more culturally competent,” he says. “And knowing that your implicit bias will be around you until the day you die, surround yourself with people who will check you and your biases.”

I’ve known Arrington for several years, and been in meetings where he’s challenged people who aren’t used to being challenged. But he does it with a grace that serves as an invitation for honesty.

He even has a different lens on the rise of explicit, unmasked racism over the past decade. He’s spent a good bit of time contemplating what people mean when they say they want to “take back” something or that they’re “losing a way of life” or any of those sorts of phrases. And he does his thing:

“Just try to overstand,” he says. “When [that person] tells me that he feels like he’s becoming obsolete in his industry because he’s white, evangelical, and a straight man … there’s parts of me internally that I don’t verbalize, like, ‘Welcome to the party!’” Arrington says. “And then there’s another part of me that’s like, ‘Man, I know how that feels.’”

Arrington pauses and thinks about what he’s just said.

  • “God had graced me with a degree of patience.”

How to watch: The video interview series launches Jan. 13 at 6am. The first interview, with McColl, will appear here.

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