The Efland-Cheeks community raised concerns over the marginalization and erasure of Black voices in community matters in a letter, which was read to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners at a March 16 meeting.
The letter was read by LaTarndra Strong, president of the Northern Orange NAACP, and was written by Shontea Smith on behalf of concerned citizens in the community.
Smith, who is also the executive director of United Voices of Efland-Cheeks, said the community asked her to write the letter because of concerns over issues like income disparities and employment opportunities.
“All of this development is happening around us, but there is still no jobs for people in the community to access,” she said.
Smith said she has been a part of the Efland-Cheeks community for 42 years, and her family has been for 150 years. She said a lot of community members used to work in the manufacturing industry, but those jobs have largely disappeared. When those jobs left, they were replaced with lower-wage retail and food service jobs, the letter read, which has led to drug issues in the area.
Strong said she thinks the community has been neglected in terms of economic development.
“So often, we think about Efland-Cheeks as Efland, and the Cheeks people get left behind,” she said. “I just want people to explore some opportunities specific to the people in Cheeks, and to just think about the people in Cheeks.”
The letter also raised concerns over income inequality. Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in North Carolina, with an average wage of $61,130, but in the Cheeks Township, over 32 percent of residents earn less than $30,000. Additionally, Black residents make up almost 20 percent of the area’s population but are overrepresented in indicators of poverty, like food stamps.
The letter questioned if the commissioners had walked the streets of the community, and expressed disappointment in how the board has handled issues in the community. It also noted that the ancestors of many Black community members had lived in the area since the end of slavery.
Renee Price, chairperson of the BOCC, said she has spent time in the area and was previously aware of the issues raised in the letter. She said she hopes the commissioners can bring economic development to the area that is driven by community input and engagement.
“We need to invest in the community," she said. "When a developer comes to town, we show interest in that developer, but it's time to show interest in the people that actually live there.”
The letter noted that the community needs changes that will address their present-day survival, like access to living wages, before they can concern themselves with things like environmental impacts — even though the residents in Efland-Cheeks care about the environment just like anyone else.
Concerns over environmental impacts have contributed to some community members opposing past developments like Buc-ee’s, a gas station that was proposed for the area before the developer withdrew its application in February. Strong said she wasn’t in favor of the development, but some people in the area were because it could bring jobs and businesses to the area.
“Right now, what you have is people who are desperate for some kind of development in their community,” Strong said.
Jared Cates and Del Ward, organizers with A Voice for Efland & Orange, both opposed Buc-ee’s because of concerns over the economy, the environment, traffic and quality of life. Both said they hope they can work with the Efland-Cheeks community in the future, even if the groups have had some disagreements over past developments.
“While our groups may have disagreed on Buc-ee’s, I think we really agree on a lot of things related to development and the equity issues around the Cheeks community, like access to resources and jobs,” Cates said.
The letter asked that commissioners consider the harm the community has suffered as they plan for the future of the county. Smith said she hopes future development will provide employment opportunities while also being environmentally sustainable and fitting within the history and culture of the Efland-Cheeks community.
“I'm hoping that there is more community engagement around what's going on, and that there can be conversation about ways that there can be growth in the area,” she said.
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