NASHVILLE, TN — When developers wanted to build condos on top of a burial ground for former slaves at Fort Negley, Charlane Oliver knew she had to act.
“It took a group of unapologetic Black leaders who were willing to stand up and say no, this is not your ground for profit,” Oliver said. “We brought together concerned community members to have their burial site left intact and stop the development from moving forward.”
Charlane Oliver is an award-winning civil rights champion, community organizer, nonprofit founder, wife and working mother of three. Charlane is the co-founder and co-executive director of The Equity Alliance, a statewide 501(c)(3) nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization whose mission is to unapologetically build independent Black political and economic power and keep government in check.
She is among a new generation of leaders who are leading the struggle for Black liberation and empowerment across Tennessee. Awarded Tennessean of the Year by The Tennessean, she’s seeking the Democratic nomination for State Senate District 19. She’s kicking off her campaign Thursday, May 12 at Yay Yay’s on Jefferson at 1821 Jefferson St. from 6 to 8 p.m.
“I’m not a career politician and I bring a new generation of effective leadership with different, fresh, new ideas and perspectives,” Oliver said. “With my 20-plus years of experience, I’ve gotten more done in the last five years than most people do in their entire careers.”
Oliver said she recognizes the responsibility and historical significance that comes with representing District 19, a district that elected the state’s first Black man and Black woman to the State Senate. Carrying forward the legacies of Avon Williams Jr., Thelma Harper and Brenda Gilmore is big shoes to fill.
“They are trailblazers and they were perfect for the times they led,” Oliver said. “But Donald Trump has unleashed an unprecedented wave of extreme, divisive politics. I’ve demonstrated how a bolder approach can get results when we organize coalitions and use our collective power, just like our giants did during the Civil Rights Movement.”
Recovering from the North Nashville tornado
In the wake of the March 3, 2020 deadly tornadoes, Oliver was checking on her neighbors and putting checks in people’s hands in the face of catastrophic events. When other groups were meeting basic needs for residents, Charlane responded to the threat of rapid gentrification that would undermine generational wealth. She went toe-to-toe with predatory developers who swooped in before the rubble cleared, hoping to cheat long-time homeowners who needed relief right away.
The #DontSellOutNorf campaign came together under Oliver’s visionary leadership and urged 328 North Nashville homeowners from selling to those predatory developers. She delivered more than $75,000 in direct cash relief to 125 families helping them to find shelter, repair their homes, and recover resiliently.
COVID-19 relief for Black and Brown communities
Oliver did it again when COVID-19 shut down Nashville’s economy. Oliver led the #OurFairShare campaign, which ensured Black and brown communities got their share of Nashville’s $121 million in federal C.A.R.E.S. Act resources to combat the pandemic. At a table full of lobbyists, consultants and downtown developers, Charlane was the only community-focused member appointed to Mayor John Cooper’s C.A.R.E.S. Act task force. The rapid response needs assessment her organization conducted in partnership with Mayor Cooper resulted in $13.8 million in mortgage, rent and utility relief, $2.5 million in food and nutrition assistance, and $5.7 million for small businesses — 30 percent of which was earmarked specifically for minority-owned businesses.
Defending our right to vote
“While I’ve been deeply impressed by Charlane’s work on the ground delivering direct relief for people in Nashville, she ultimately understands that voting rights are the root of systemic change,” said Kyonzte Toombs, Metro Councilwoman for District 2. “The Tennessee Black Voter Project, which Charlane’s organization led, registered a historic 91,000 Black voters across the state and drove a 413% increase in Black voter turnout in 2018. That’s a record no one can match.”
The Tennessee Black Voter Project was only the beginning. Racist voting restrictions followed in 2019, and through The Equity Alliance, Charlane Oliver successfully sued Tennessee’s Secretary of State to stop his voter registration criminalization law.
Developing Black leadership
Charlane knows voting alone won’t improve our state, and that’s why she’s worked to elect more Black public officials. She’s founded political action committees, developed leadership programs to train rising Black leaders, and worked alongside Rep. Jim Cooper on Project Register, a bipartisan voter registration effort that led to more than 200 companies getting employees registered. The TN Voter Guide she founded has become a reliable, trusted civic education resource for many.
The Power of 10 PAC, which she founded, provided critical support to elect Karen Johnson, Martesha Johnson and Lonnell Matthews; all were the first Black people to hold their respective offices.
To build more multicultural coalitions, Power of 10 PAC transitioned in 2019 with grassroots labor and immigrant rights groups to form the Nashville Justice League, electing Nashville’s most progressive Metro Council in history. The group endorsed 15 candidates and 13 won.
“Charlane has been a strong and passionate advocate for voting rights in our state. I call her Tennessee’s Stacey Abrams,” said Vivian Wilhoite, Davidson County Assessor of Property. “Her work has been vital in pushing against the Republican supermajority.We need more courageous leadership speaking truth to power in the legislature on the issues that impact our community.”
An agenda for Tennessee
Oliver believes it will take a lot of different approaches to advance Black empowerment in Tennessee, but she says she’s up for the job.
“Sometimes we need to be loud with our voices, and sometimes it takes quiet work that results in better public policy,” Oliver said. “I’ve taken on Republicans who wanted to suppress the Black vote, but I’ve also worked side-by-side with Republicans who want to support us.”
Oliver has been a major proponent of legislation to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated persons. That legislation faces long odds in the Republican-controlled legislature, but Oliver secured support from powerful Republicans.
“I’ll be ready to pick that up on day one,” Oliver said. “Working in this community on the ground, I’ve got a pulse on what people need, and those conversations will be ongoing. When I’m in the State Senate, I’ll bring an organizer’s work ethic to build coalitions that get results, just like I’ve always done.
“Whether it’s voting rights, the rising cost of housing, economic development and infrastructure, aging seniors, or healthcare, we’ve got a lot of tough issues to tackle. This campaign is an opportunity for important conversations so that we can build a people-centered agenda and take your voices to the State Senate.”
Learn more about Charlane at oliverfortnsenate.com.