When Kevin Spears was elected to the Wilmington City Council in 2019, he brought to the role not only his own lived experiences as a Black native of the city, but also his long history as a volunteer, activist, and advocate for the city’s underrepresented communities. This has included his positions as a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board; as president of Peace For the Port, a non-profit organization focusing on community violence; and as chairman of the MLK Jr. Recreation Association, a non-profit focusing on recreational and educational programs for inner city youth. For Kevin, community leadership is more than just talking. “I think at this point we’re done identifying the problems. So now it’s time for action. There have been a lot of meetings–too many meetings. Too much talk.”
For Kevin, one of the defining problems for Wilmington when it comes to removing obstacles for economic growth for the city’s Black community is a failure to envision a future that doesn’t involve Black people being “pushed aside” or excluded from the “grand scheme.” “What I find the problem to be is intentional exclusion. So, you have to be intentional about helping people in response. Something I’ve always talked about and practiced in life is focusing on the tangible. Let’s pluck the low hanging fruit. What the people of Wilmington–and the country–want to actually see is the effort. We can hear the talk, but when we don’t see the works. We’re riding down Market and there’s potholes all up and down and the street, but when you’re in Mayfaire, they’re as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Those are the tangibles. Those are things we can work on.”
Another obstacle Kevin pointed out to getting things done has been how we communicate about socioeconomic disparities. “What we have is a communication issue. Depending on where you are, your perspective is kind of skewed. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your perspective is wrong. If you’re sitting in Landfall, you might see a functioning community and don’t see any issues. But when you live in other places, you can’t help but see the effects of the opioid crisis. You’re not wrong based on your perspective; but it doesn’t mean that those other perspectives don’t exist. We need to do our best to communicate.”
“We also need to bring companies to Wilmington that are going to hire at a living wage and better rate,” Kevin added, pivoting to how the government can strengthen its commitments to combating underemployment, unemployment, and strengthening support for nonprofits. “We need to set the standard [for sustainable wages] within our own city limits. That’s how you change things. I’ve been on the other side. I know how it feels to not make enough–when everything is survival.”
“I think StepUp Wilmington does a great job about being diverse and giving people opportunity. That’s one of the biggest things companies need to do: you need to give people opportunities. This has been my word since 2019. We have to be a little more personal about things. When a person is trying to better themself and needs help… the bare minimum just doesn’t cut it. And I will say this–I know StepUp practices this as well: we have to allow people to pay their debt to society. Just because a person has a criminal history, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be a productive part of society. If they’re applying for jobs and you close the door in their face, what message are you sending them? You’re basically sending people back into a life of crime. We need to be more forgiving as it relates to people trying to help themselves.”
However, as far as Wilmington goes when it comes to making the city more sustainably employing for its local residents, Kevin admits that up to now, we haven’t come anywhere close to doing enough. “We need a lot of help. A lot of help. The things that I’m saying now in 2021 are the same things I was saying as far back as 2017 and earlier. I have conversations with more important people as of late because of the addition of my title, but it all comes back to intent. People come to me with all these ideas. You can talk all day about helping people of a certain status or demographic, but what does the infrastructure of your organization look like? That speaks a lot about who you are. There aren’t very many prominent African Americans within these organizations that offer this help. It’s great to hire people. But we are more than construction workers, janitors, and kitchen help. You look at the numbers: that’s where we are. Sure, you’ve got some sprinkled through here and there in positions of leadership, but you look at the top organizations in our area–look at the makeup of those orgs and you tell me what you think.”
But Kevin notes that being in positions of leadership does not solve issues of race. “There is a very real fear that even if you do climb to a prominent spot… there’s still the fear of failure. That burden is a little more heavy when you’re a minority. You feel like it’s one mistake and you’re out. and we’re not as prone to bouncing back as other people. I’ll be frank: it’s a lot of burden to be cloaked in this dark skin,” he adds with a laugh.
Ultimately, whether it’s jobs, transportation, gentrification in housing development, or any other number of factors that feed back into socioeconomic disparities felt by the city’s minority communities, Kevin is personally determined to never get complacent in his mission to make the city a better place to live for all its residents. “I’d be glad to come out of my term knowing that I changed the lives of a bunch of people, as opposed to keeping them in the same position that they were in when I got here.”