A More Progressive South Call+Response Tennessee

Call+Response with Charlane Oliver

Charlane Oliver has made it her mission to increase voter registration and turnout among Nashville's Black residents. After the 2016 election, she founded a nonprofit called The Equity Alliance to "advocate for African-Americans and communities of color to have a fair and just opportunity at realizing the American dream."

When I first had the idea to feature interviews from everyday Black southerners as part of Blackbelt, Charlane Oliver is one of the first people who came to mind.

Charlane and Adena at Monell's at the Manor in Nashville
Charlane and Adena outside Monell’s at the Manor in Nashville.

I met Charlane a couple years ago when the chamber of commerce she worked for visited the chamber of commerce I work for as a benchmarking exercise. Charlane and I were paired up because we both worked in communication and marketing. I looked her up on Twitter the night before their visit and was excited to see that she was a sista with natural hair who had some woke, progressive tweets on her timeline. We kept in touch, and I met up with her for lunch later that year when I visited Nashville for Beyonce’s Formation World Tour.

Since then, we’ve stayed connected via social media, and I’ve gotten to watch her work–from using her voice to speak out against injustices to starting a nonprofit to put those words into action. I loved learning more about her story and can’t wait to see what she does next.

Call+Response: Charlane Oliver

Charlane Oliver | Photo by Mika Matin
Charlane Oliver | Photo by Mika Matin
Where are you from?

Little Rock, Arkansas

Where do you live now?

Nashville, Tennessee

What pays the bills?

My full-time job is working for U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper (D). He is the United States representative for Tennessee’s 5th congressional district, which comprises Davidson County where Nashville is, and then neighboring counties Dickson and Cheatham counties. My title is community liaison and communications staff, so I wear a few different hats.

Describe a typical day on the job.

I lead an initiative Congressman Cooper started this year called Project Register. It is a public information campaign to get Middle Tennesseans registered to vote. Since Tennessee now has online voter registration – the state legislature passed it last fall – we’re taking advantage of that opportunity and basically approaching employers in Nashville to ask if they will encourage their employees to register to vote. Tennessee is 50th in the country right now for voter turnout and 40th in the country for voter registration. Our goal is to solve that problem by getting more people civically minded and participating in democracy. On a day-to-day basis, I am contacting employers to schedule meetings, coffees, and phone conferences. I create all the graphics and do all the writing and branding for the Project.

One of the other hats I wear is the community liaison. Whenever Congressman Cooper is invited to an event or if he can’t attend an event, I am sometimes sent on his behalf so they have representation. I’m there to build relationships and bridges on his behalf and sometimes go with him to events. I’m also part of the communications team, so I help with drafting press statements and social media posts.

Like so many of us, the outcome of the 2016 election left you wanting to do more. So you formed a nonprofit called The Equity Alliance.

Yes, The Equity Alliance is like my other full-time job that I don’t get paid for. It was started about 18 months ago in response to Donald Trump being elected. But in large part, that was sort of the straw that broke camel’s back. Before that, I was noticing a lack of strong political participation in Nashville not only from the bottom up in terms of our Black community but also from the top down in terms of leadership. When you couple that with what was happening nationally with Black men and women getting gunned down in the streets by police and seeing nothing being done about it, I felt like I needed to do more to make change in the community. And that involved doing what I could to change the laws and get people elected who could change those laws. So I went down that rabbit hole and realized that voting was at the core of that mission.

Charlane represents The Equity Alliance at Women's March 2.0 in Nashville.
Charlane represents The Equity Alliance at Women’s March 2.0 in Nashville.

The Equity Alliance is actually a spin-off organization. The first idea I had was to create a political action committee. We started the Power of 10 PAC, and I brought six different Black women together who were all on board with the idea of starting a PAC, but in that same meeting, we were having conversations about needing a strategy to get people out to vote if we were going to support African-American candidates. We’re not using our vote right now. People don’t feel like their vote matters; we have to get them to the polls and get them to recognize their voting power. The question then became, “Do we create a 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) organization?”

We landed on The Equity Alliance, which is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization with a mission to advocate for African-Americans and communities of color to have a fair and just opportunity at realizing the American dream. To break it down, we provide tools and strategies to engage in the civic process. At the core, we believe that voting and using your voting power is what sparks change because we elect leaders who listen to their constituents. And the only people who get heard are the people who vote. And the people who get heard get their needs met and their legislation passed. It’s a domino effect. When you talk about equity, everyone has a vote. If we can get our people out to vote and elect the people who we want elected, then we can level the playing field and achieve true equity in different areas of our lives.

At the core, we believe that voting and using your voting power is what sparks change because we elect leaders who listen to their constituents. And the only people who get heard are the people who vote.

The Equity Alliance focuses our work in four different areas. First, we have to get people in the game; we have to get people registered. We’re focusing a lot right now on voter registration, as we have five elections going on in Tennessee this year. Secondly, we focus on voter education. We have to educate people on why they need to vote and on the issues they care about. Then, as we grow, we plan to focus on voter restoration because a lot of people in our community are affected by mass incarceration and have had their right to vote taken away. Finally, we plan to focus on voting rights policy and removing barriers that make it harder for people to have a fair and just opportunity to get their voices heard. We want to affect legislation that makes it easier for people to cast their vote.

Any plans for expansion?

Right now, we are focused on Nashville because the idea is to build a model of what works and what doesn’t. When we start seeing results – which we are right now – we can expand to other cities. Hopefully we will eventually be statewide and who knows? Maybe we’ll expand to other states. What we’re doing is scalable, but first we want to get Nashville right to make the case for expanding our work.

What are some projects you’re working on with The Equity Alliance?

We launched a campaign in February of this year called “Souls to the Polls,” where we partner with a local pastors’ council called the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship. Our goal is to get 100 churches 100 percent registered to vote. We are targeting African-American churches and are hosting community events to get people registered. In a little over six weeks, we were able to get 249 people registered to vote and received nearly 1,000 commitments from people who said they’d vote. We have other elections happening in the city, so we plan to do this year-round.

“Souls to the Polls” event at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Nashville

We also published the 2018 Nashville Voting Guide and are seeing results from that. It’s an education tool that features polling locations, candidate profiles, where college students can vote, how to get your voting rights restored, and other information pertaining to voting. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback, and at the conclusion of the May 1st primary election, 1,775 people downloaded the guide. You can request a free copy at nashvillevoterguide.com, and we’ll email you a link to download. We plan to produce a voting guide for all the different elections.

Now that we’ve heard a little about what you have going on now, what’s your story? What drives you to do what you do?

I would say that I come from humble beginnings, and that is sort of what drives me. I grew up poor. I was a product of public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. My mother is a special education teacher at the historic Central High School in Little Rock, and my dad is an Air Force veteran. He barely graduated high school and doesn’t have a college degree, but my parents raised us as if we were the Huxtables and provided us with all we needed.

When they divorced when I was seven, it was traumatic. I am the youngest of three girls and didn’t realize at that age how their divorce was going to affect me. It did later on because having an absent father left my mom to raise three girls by herself. At the time, she was a homemaker and had to learn how to work for herself when my dad’s income left. She became a paraprofessional at high schools because she didn’t have her teaching degree yet. She had to support us on this meager salary while going back to school to work on her bachelor’s degree. Between her full-time job and full-time schooling at night, I didn’t see my mom much and got into a lot of mischief from the lack of supervision. On top of that, my mom took in foster kids, which had an effect on me, too.

But I saw my mom hustle. Back then, as a kid, you’d see things and just think it was normal. Looking back, I didn’t realize how poor we were, although I’d see her pull out food stamps at the grocery store. It just didn’t register.

My mom graduated from college with her bachelor’s degree the same year I graduated from high school. I saw her hustle, and that’s where I get my work ethic and resiliency and “strong Black woman,” independent mentality. I saw my mom really doing the damn thing to take care of us. I wrote my college essay on her because I admired that.

My mom taught me to read when I was four, and I was a straight-A student all through school. I graduated in the top three of my class; was the captain of the basketball, softball, and volleyball teams; and was vice president of the student body and involved in several other clubs. I was an overachiever, but I was living a double-life, so to speak. I was a goody-two-shoes on the outside looking in, but at home, I was struggling with severe depression and dealing with emotional trauma.

My mom graduated from college with her bachelor’s degree the same year I graduated from high school. I saw her hustle, and that’s where I get my work ethic and resiliency and “strong Black woman,” independent mentality. I saw my mom really doing the damn thing to take care of us. I wrote my college essay on her because I admired that.

Because of my childhood, what drives me is the need for fairness and justice. I see how it’s not fair for some people to come up and not have opportunities when they deserve opportunities. For me, I was fortunate to take advantage of opportunities and rise above my circumstances. I loved softball. It was my outlet and my way of getting away from the house. We were a traveling team and were gone in the summertime. We played together from the time we were eight years old until we turned 18. I didn’t have many role models to look to, but Coach Phil was one of them and so were the other parents who took me to out-of-state games and even paid for stuff because my mom didn’t have the time or money to travel to watch me play.

Another opportunity I had was that I was lucky enough to be a part of Arkansas Commitment, which is a program still going on today. I was part of the second cohort for the program. Arkansas Commitment trains smart, inner-city Black kids to go out into the world and be prosperous. They taught us how to score well on the SAT and the ACT so we could get into the most elite schools in the country. The objective was for us to go out into the world, get away from Arkansas to get education and training, and then return to be leaders in Arkansas.

I was one of two kids from McClellan High School to get chosen. When I entered the program, I had my sights set on the University of Arkansas. That was my end-all, be-all. But the program encouraged me to apply to Top 20 schools. Because of this program, my ACT score jumped six points. I applied to Washington University in St. Louis, Vanderbilt University, Emory University, Spelman College, Rhodes College in Memphis, and the University of Arkansas and got into every last one of them. My mind was blown. That program changed my life. I was offered a hefty financial package to attend Vanderbilt, so that’s where I went. I moved to Nashville when I was 18 and never left. I don’t know where my life would be right now without the Arkansas Commitment program. It taught me that we have to expose our kids to more and let them know there is more out there. I was able to escape my circumstances to do better for myself. I believe that we as a Black community can overcome. I know that sounds cliché. We have not been rightfully offered opportunities in life to achieve better.

What’s something awesome that happened in your life recently?

Launching The Equity Alliance has opened up so many doors and opportunities. I don’t do this for the recognition, but I have definitely been recognized by several different people. I recently received two “unsung heroes” awards by two different organizations. My job working for Congressman Jim Cooper came because of The Equity Alliance.

Charlane Oliver accepts an award for her work with The Equity Alliance.
Charlane Oliver accepts an award for her work with The Equity Alliance.
What do you love most about living in the South?

The food, the Southern hospitality, the weather – we get all four seasons – music festivals … It don’t get no better than the South! I’ve grown up all my life in the South, and that’s all I’ve ever known.

What do you wish people knew or understood about the South?

There is a lot of rich history that happened in the South. When you talk about the birthplace of America and how slavery was the bedrock of America’s economic success, slavery happened in the South. The Civil Rights Movement happened in the South. So many landmark historical events happened right here in the South. Look at the Little Rock Nine from Central High, the Freedom Rides, Reconstruction, most Civil War battles were fought in Tennessee – the South is rich with all kinds of different historical events to be proud of and not to be proud of.

If you could change one thing about the South, what would it be?


Fill in the blank: I’d love to sip sweet tea on the porch with  _______________.

Michelle Obama and Oprah.

Favorite soul food?

That’s a tough one; I like to eat! Sweet potato pie.

How can people reach you?

You can find The Equity Alliance at theequityalliance.org and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I’m @CharlaneO on Twitter.


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