A Life-Changing Chance to Listen

We had to move the worn chair I was sitting in to allow Ms. Shelley to close the bathroom door in her cramped apartment when I first visited her in 2008. Filled with family photos and collectables, the 600 square-foot apartment had little room for much more than a bed, a kitchen table and a few chairs. But Ms. Shelley had something to say.

For over 50 years, Lela Shelley had lived at 501 Campbell Terrace, in our city’s first public housing complex. During most of those years, Old Wilmington Road was a neighborhood filled with poverty and strife. It was a place that even the police were reluctant to visit.

For all those years, Ms. Shelley and the other 250 families in Campbell Terrace lived only blocks away from the center of downtown, but miles away from the attention and opportunities that they so richly deserved. Fayetteville’s first HOPE VI project, a $100-million public and private revitalization effort, was designed to provide a way out for Ms. Shelley and the other residents. It would demolish the existing barracks-type housing and replace it with more than 600 new apartments in seven housing areas. It was the city’s hope, and mine, that the project would also help restore dignity, pride and hope to those that lived there.

As mayor, it was part of my role to meet with the residents, to answer their questions and to prepare them for the positive changes that were to come. They would be temporarily relocated during construction, but the city was guaranteeing them the opportunity for a new apartment. I was sure that they would share my excitement and enthusiasm for this transformational project. But Ms. Shelley, like so many other residents of Campbell Terrace, had no interest in moving. Change is hard. Over glasses of iced tea, she explained that after decades of receiving unfulfilled promises from government, too many “guarantees” from white people and from “well-intentioned” leaders, she simply did not trust the system.

I began to realize that on that day in 2008, in Ms. Shelley’s cramped apartment, as a white mayor deeply committed to our goal of implementing the HOPE VI project, I represented all those people before me that had let Ms. Shelley down. Tears were shared on that day and other days as I listened to her stories of mistreatment and neglect, of continued disappointment and eventual loss of trust. The more we talked, and the more I listened, I gained a better understanding of her feelings. We talked about pain and promise; about dignity and commitments. We talked about hope. We talked about trust. A little while later, Ms. Shelley agreed to move.

Once the project was completed, Ms. Shelley was the first resident to move to her new 850-square-foot home in Dogwood Manor, one of the new housing areas on Old Wilmington Road. We recognized her with flowers at the ribbon-cutting of the new HOPE VI project. But the hard facts Ms. Shelley had highlighted were real. Of the 250 families that had lived in Campbell Terrace, only 54 returned. Progress was coming, but painfully slow. Decades of ill feelings, distrust and a sense of abandonment don’t heal overnight.

I lost touch with Ms. Shelley over the years but never forgot the important message of life she taught me. Ms. Shelley died in August 2015 at the age of 88.  I hope that in some ways, the promises fulfilled to Ms. Shelley helped her to soften her position on believing in people. But the positive changes delivered to Ms. Shelley and the other residents of Campbell Terrace pale in comparison to the impact she had on my life.

More than a decade later, I remember the opportunity to take what I learned from Ms. Shelley and grow to better understand that every person I will ever meet brings their personal experiences, and not mine, to life. We should take time to listen and to learn. Thank you for the tea, Ms. Shelley. And thank you for helping me better understand that every person counts. Sometimes we just have to take the time to move the chair.  

By Tony Chavonne