By: Rashad Phillips
On December 21, 1968, Elijah and Nan Chinn were the proud parents of a new baby girl who they named Elisa. Elisa was conceived during the turbulent 1960s, a time of radical transformation in America when African Americans demanded human rights, civil rights, access to education, and economic equality. While in her mother’s womb, Elisa heard some of Dr. King’s speeches and she also heard the news of Dr. King’s death. Elijah and Nan Chinn wanted to do their best to make sure that their baby girl experienced Dr. King’s dream.
Several years after Elisa’s birth, Nan enrolled in classes to earn her GED. Nan, a domestic worker who wanted to “learn so that she could earn”, instilled that lesson in her daughter. Elisa observed her mother getting up early for work and coming home to study at night. She also watched her father, a small business owner, work long hours to provide for his family. These early childhood experiences left an impression on Elisa and fueled her desire to learn and earn.
Elisa followed in her mother’s footsteps she was a hard worker in high school and an excellent student. Two days after her high school graduation, Elisa began her first job at The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). She made both of her parents proud because she secured a safe government job and she wouldn’t have to work as hard as her parents. But after several years of working for the VA, Elisa wasn’t content with her safe government job. She wanted to explore other career opportunities and she remembered her mother’s words, “if you want to earn, you have to learn”, so she decided to enroll in Winston-Salem State University. After she completed her undergraduate studies, Elisa was accepted into The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Law School. After earning a Law Degree and a Master’s Degree in Social Work, Elisa began practicing law by representing low-income juveniles, teaching at The Charlotte School of Law, and serving as a Family Law Court Administrator.
Last year, Elisa Chinn-Gary made history when she became the first African American to serve as Mecklenburg County’s Clerk of Court, one of the most powerful positions in our county. She is responsible for 200 employees and her office collects more than $100 million in receipts. Below is my interview with The Honorable Elisa Chinn-Gary about her natural hair journey and her history making path to become Mecklenburg County’s first African American Clerk of Court.
Phillips: When and why did you make your transition to natural hair?
Chinn-Gary: Thirteen years ago, after the birth of my oldest son, I made my transition to natural hair. It was always my intention to go natural. I thought I would go natural around age 40. But as circumstances would have it, I ended up going natural earlier. For me, I thought going natural was something reserved for grown women. Before going natural, I perceived Naturalistas as women who knew themselves, who were confident, and who were in control of their destiny. I aspired to have natural hair and all of the positive characteristics that I associated with women with natural hair.
Phillips: Did you think transitioning to natural hair would impact your career?
Chinn-Gary: Yes, but it was a risk that I was prepared to take. During a performance evaluation, I remember sitting down with my immediate supervisor and sharing with him my intention to go natural. He was a white man and was shocked that I felt the need to share my decision to change my hair. He didn’t understand the concept of going natural and didn’t know how to respond. My supervisor told me that I could wear my hair any way that I wanted. He said “As long as your hair is clean and groomed, I don’t have a problem.” Based on my supervisor’s response, I wasn’t confident that he knew the difference between relaxed and natural hair.
Thirteen years ago, very few women were wearing natural hair so I felt the need to let my supervisor know that my hairstyle wasn’t common in our court community. Also, I shared many of the natural hair related lawsuits that were filed in the 1970s. During the 1970s, African American women faced discrimination from their employers for wearing Afros and filed lawsuits to defend their rights. In both the government and private sectors, many employers had policies or unwritten rules that said natural hair was not acceptable in the workplace. I thought it was important for my supervision to understand my concerns and be aware of the legal cases related to my decision to go natural. I wanted to make sure that management understood my concerns, was aware of the natural hair related case law, and we had a clear understanding to prevent any future misunderstandings related to my natural hair.
Phillips: You hold one of the most powerful positions in Mecklenburg County. Please tell our readers about your historic journey to become Mecklenburg County’s first African American Clerk of Court?
Chinn-Gary: I can’t remember the exact date, but one day I was sitting in my car listening to Jill Scott. In one of her songs, she said that she was going take her freedom, pull it off the shelf, put it around her neck, and wear it with her everywhere she went. Jill Scott’s lyrics spoke to me at a time when I was considering Locing my hair. My journey to become Mecklenburg County’s Clerk of Court runs parallel to my natural hair journey because both experiences required me to find my inner strengthen.
When I enrolled in UNC Chapel Hill, I wanted to understand the law and find a way to use my knowledge of the law to impact justice and equity. So I enrolled in a dual degree program that allowed me to complete my law degree and earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work. After earning my law degree and passing the bar exam, I started out representing youth which put me in contact with families and children of color. Over a period of time, I learned that it was good for me to defend young people but to really affect change, I need to address the larger issues. I wasn’t just defending children, I was defending classes of people. I decided that I could have a larger impact working outside of the courtroom which led me to work in court administration. For nearly 13 years, I oversaw Mecklenburg County’s Family and Juvenile Courts. With the assistance of my colleagues, I was able to make justice more accessible to individuals who couldn’t afford traditional legal representation. Also, I was able to work our courts to make them understand things about the different populations of people that we served that were often overlooked. Since I was in college, I always challenged myself to find a way to affect justice, equity, and fairness in the courts. My decision to run for Mecklenburg County Clerk of Court was another step in my journey to create fairness, justice, and equity on a larger scale.
During the last three years, African Americans have experienced negative encounters with police officers. Please tell our readers about the diversity training that you provided to Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department?
Chinn-Gary: The goal of Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, an initiative that I co-chair is to train law enforcement, teachers, social workers, probation officers, public defenders, magistrates, judges, and all professionals that come in contact with families and children who interact with our government. Many of the professionals that I just mentioned, when asked if they categorize people, will respond by saying that they don’t see race. But when these professionals are asked to take association test which indicate if they engage in categorizing people, the test paints a different picture than their words. The test make it very clear that a large percentage of the professionals that I mentioned categorize people. The task of Race Matters for Juveniles is to make these professionals aware of their natural biases.
The training has two primary areas of focus. The first part of the training explains the neurology of our brain and how its nature for the human brain to categorize information. When we categorize to protect ourselves, sometimes it’s a good thing but when we categorize people in major situation that affect their lives, sometimes it’s a bad thing. The second part of the training focuses on reducing our biases after we recognizes how our biases can affect children who interact with government employees. In addition to providing training, we also discuss history. There was a time and a place in this nation (some would argue that it still exist to some extent) where people of color were intentionally excluded or disadvantaged by governmental systems. It’s important for people who work in government to understand history so that we can work towards overcoming these issues and build public trust. I understand that I am positioned in a governmental system that has historically excluded, underserved, and exploited people of color. I have to work within the system to change policies, practices, and to change perspectives related to how we serve our community.
How does it feel to make black history by becoming Mecklenburg County’s first African American Clerk of Court? Have you had time to process this achievement and take it all in?
Chinn-Gary: I took it all in on election night and it was overwhelming. I felt grateful, honored, privileged, and a huge since of responsibility. The responsibility of Mecklenburg County Clerk includes managing a staff of more than 200 people, filing more than 300,000 legal documents, storing all criminal and civil court files, and collecting more than $100,000,000. After I was sworn in, my husband [Ernest Gary] and I went to the office to unpack. He asked me “if I ever paid attention to the picture on the wall?” The pictures that my husband was referring to were the pictures on the wall of the probate courtroom. I’ve been in that room numerous times but I never paid any attention to the pictures. So that evening, I went into the probate courtroom and carefully looked at the pictures on the wall. I saw a line of pictures from one end of the wall to the other; the portraits were images of eleven white men from 1866 to 1990. I thought to myself, each one of these men held office during a variety of critical times in our nation’s history. Also, these men built a legacy which is why their pictures were on the wall. Then I asked myself, what is going to happen on my watch? How will I impact justice? How will I create a positive and productive workplace environment for my employees? The moment that my husband and I shared in my office is a moment that I will always remember and it serves as reminder of the responsibility that I have been entrusted with by the public.
Phillips: Any closing comments?
Chinn-Gary: I am extremely grateful to hold this office and appreciative of the voters who elected me to serve as Mecklenburg County’s Clerk of Court. I can’t say thank you enough to all of the people who supported my campaign. Thank you for supporting me and believing in my ability to lead our court. Also, I am thankful for all the people who have played a role in my personal and professional development. I am gratefully to everyone who supported me. I look forward to working with my staff to improve the public’s experience with our court system.