Last Thursday, I attended an online event titled, “What is CHALT?”
The event, hosted by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, otherwise known as CHALT, featured members of the organization speaking about a variety of topics. The discussion delved into smart growth, transportation planning and storm water management.
The organization decided to host the event because they have been the subject of several recent articles by local news outlets — including the News and Observer, IndyWeek and even the high school paper East Chapel Hill Observer (ECHO). Each of those articles was critical of the organization’s role in town politics, calling them “the epitome of moderate liberalism,” who prioritize the preservation of the past.
ECHO co-editor-in-chief, Caroline Chen, got the idea to write the article “How CHALT chokes authentic progress in Chapel Hill” when she saw a door hanger announcing CHALT’s endorsements for Chapel Hill Town Council.
The flyer featured scenic pictures of the Town, and stated that CHALT was committed to taking bold action against climate change, encouraging responsible development and providing a mix of housing.
“That’s literally antithetical to everything I’ve known about their organization,” Chen said. “Everything I’ve heard about them — I know this is not what they do. It’s important to let some people know that not everything is how it looks on paper and CHALT is one such thing.”
Her article clearly outlines CHALT's dissonance in their definition of "livability."
So, CHALT wanted to set the record straight.
“You keep hearing about CHALT ... find out who we are and what we do,” they said in a promotional flyer of the event. “Since 2014, CHALT has made a track record for advocating for transparent local government, responsive elected leaders and a greener, more livable Chapel Hill.”
I listened as the 23 other meeting attendees introduced themselves. The overwhelming majority of folks who made it were generally 65 or older, white people — who were members of CHALT themselves. I was the only student (and perhaps, the only one there in their 20s) in attendance.
Some had lived in Chapel Hill for decades, others just a few years, but one thing was consistent: They were proud of the work toward a “livable” town that CHALT helped create.
These “achievements,” as CHALT defined them, do not create livability for all. The anti-development policies of the organization serve only the people wealthy enough to already own a home here.
Chen's article was an examination of the ways CHALT pushes for policies that directly oppose their stated goals, specifically how they make Chapel Hill less livable. It was a well-researched piece of opinion journalism from a civically-engaged high school student.
But rather than embrace dialogue and welcome young people into the local political conversation, co-founder of CHALT, Julie McClintock, attacked Chen in a letter to the editor and called her arguments “unfounded” and “utter baloney”.
“I was kind of shocked when I got the email,” Chen said. “I was like ‘oh my gosh, what if I’ve made all these mistakes?’ I felt really guilty.”
But the more Chen looked at the facts she had written about in her piece, the more she realized she had no reason to worry. Chen said in hindsight, it felt like the leaders of CHALT were trying to gaslight her because of her youth.
“A lot of the points she was making, the facts were actually more on my side than hers,” Chen said.
After receiving McClintock’s email, Chen published a response piece where she explains her research in thorough detail and explains where CHALT was incorrect in their reading of her work.
Along with their anti-development rhetoric, consistent town agitation and NIMBY-esque policies, CHALT is quick to reject critiques and use divisive tactics to push their agenda.
One would think that a civic engagement group in a college town would attempt to garner support from the young people who populate Chapel Hill. Instead, they dig in and oust the voices who disagree with their picturesque vision of what Chapel Hill should be.
We need more young people like Chen to be engaged in local politics and care about what goes on outside of campus. We are all members of this community and if we want to see this town thrive and become as progressive as we say it should be, then we have to start paying attention.
It starts by holding neighborhood organizations like CHALT accountable for their lack of transparency and divisiveness.
Right now, the most important action we can take is voting in municipal elections. Vote for candidates who push for dense housing, multimodal transportation and equitable policy to close achievement gaps.
CHALT’s voices have disproportionately affected local political discussion for far too long — and their attacks on young journalists should not silence the desire for progress in our town.
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