When a Black Woman’s 40 Years of Leadership is Reduced to a Sentence

When I was a little girl, my mother, Vi Lyles, had the displeasure of teaching me an unfortunate lesson: when you’re black and a woman, you may work twice as hard, and be acknowledged half as much — but you KEEP WORKING. Now that I have my own daughter, I hoped it would not be necessary to teach her this same lesson, but an op-ed in Sunday’s Charlotte Observer proved otherwise. The type of woman my mother raised cannot read an editorial that implies she has not exercised leadership in Charlotte and allow that false narrative to go unchecked.

This op-ed put my mother in a position black women find ourselves in all too often: our contributions diminished, unattributed and ignored; our leadership overshadowed and unacknowledged; saddled with the burden of proof, having to explain our achievements, credentials and qualifications. When you reduce a 40-year record of tireless leadership in the Charlotte community to a sentence, it tells little black girls, that all they do is not enough to be taken seriously; to be considered formidable, you must be white, male or both.

What kind of leader is Vi Lyles?

Ask the many young women who I watched my mother mentor. They became leaders in this community — Tiffany Capers, leader of Black Lives Matter Charlotte; Ann Tompkins, former US Attorney; Ericka Ellis-Stewart, former chair and current member of the Board of Education.

Or the number of volunteer boards she chaired — The Presbyterian Board of Trustees, Community In Schools, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church Board of Directors and The Charlotte Housing Authority Scholarship Fund.

Or reference the many community plans or programs she created — The first Community Arts Plans; the first Community Safety Plan, the Affordable Housing Plan, Mecklenburg County’s Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise Program, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg African American Agenda and over 22 City Budgets balanced without a tax increase.

She has been recognized by many organizations for her service to our city — Charlotte Woman of the Year and Maya Angelou Awards. The Southern Piedmont Chapter of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators created the “Viola ‘Vi’ Lyles Young Public Administrator Award,” in her honor, which recognizes energy, commitment and drive for excellence in work and community service.

As a member of Council, she has a record of working with grassroots and neighborhood leaders; the business community, her Council colleagues and state and federal representatives. She works to get things done with consultation, communication and collaboration. Her fellow Council members elected her Mayor Pro Tem in part because of her exhaustive leadership behind the scenes to reach consensus and make informed decisions in the best interest of the people of this city. She says what she will do and what she can’t. She doesn’t over promise and she doesn’t under deliver. She pushes for progress. She leads by building buy-in for the best possible outcomes for Charlotteans.

Did I mention that she did all of this while being a single mother — raising my brother and me to become leaders in our communities as well?

The woman who raised me is not boastful. She doesn’t brag. She works hard. She leads with vision. My mom taught us you don’t have to scream down from the mountain top to be a leader; a real leader brings people up the mountain with them. That’s the type of leader my mother,Vi Lyles is. Her record of engagement, participation and leadership for a Charlotte where everyone thrives, is more than a sentence — it is her life. It is how she raised my brother and me. It is unmatched. It is underreported. But most importantly — it is unwavering.