They come from different generations, backgrounds, and industries, yet Merl Code, a retired attorney from the law office of Ogletree Deakins, and David Lominack, the South Carolina market president at TD Bank, are teaming together to save the soul of Greenville. The two are leading REEM—Greenville County’s Racial Equity and Economic Mobility Commission. The multifaceted group formed after the death of George Floyd and has grown into the largest effort in recent history to transform the way Greenville residents think, act, and operate in regard to race. With a roster that reads like a Who’s Who of local leaders, the commission wants to make improvements and remove systemic barriers in five key areas: Education, Income & Wealth, Criminal Justice, Health & Wellness, and Community Learning. The duo shared a revealing update six months into REEM’s efforts.
How’s the work going so far?
Merl Code: I don’t think I’ve ever been faced with a personal challenge such as this. In the other leadership roles I’ve served, I’m not sure I’ve made any major impact to the standard of living and condition of the African American community. Whatever we were doing was trying to address one issue, maybe two. But this is systemic change. We’re looking at what’s in place, what do we need to change, how do we change it, and do we have the will to change it. I’m not sure we’ve had this exercise before, and I’ve been in this community half a century.
David Lominack: Intuitively, most of us know there are inequities in our community. I knew a lot of these challenges existed, but the extent is far greater than I thought. One of the positives Merl and I get excited about is the number of people beyond this commission who have raised their hands and said, ‘I want to be engaged; let me know what to do.’
MC: There’s a different climate and tone right now that says, ‘The stronger we are individually, the stronger we are collectively.’ So how can we put policies and procedures in place that help all members of our community reach their potential? If we are successful,
we are a stronger community.
Where do we go from here?
DL: We initially asked the commission members for six months, but quickly realized we need a lot longer. By December, we hope to have a plan in place to present to the community.
Will Greenville listen?
MC: My travels and experiences have led me to believe we are very different. We are special. Greenville has a record of putting people of color in leadership in key areas: our education system, the Chamber of Commerce, the symphony, United Way. But if you’re not impacting the lives of the people you’re trying to help, have you really succeeded? This is the first time where we are trying to get down into the depths of the problem, and we are not alone.
DL: We’re trying to repair 400 years of history. We’re not going to do that in six months, or a year. It’s going to take time to change policies, hearts, and minds. But how one person can interact with another person in the community takes no time at all. If everybody can be a bit more open-minded, seek out conversations that are uncomfortable, and be curious to learn from one another, we can build a higher level of mutual respect for each other in this community.
Have conversations been uncomfortable?
DL: Yes, there have been some very uncomfortable conversations and people are very passionate, but that’s the space we have to create to move this forward in the community. I believe Greenville has the ability to show that grace and try to measure the true intent of what someone is trying to do and say.
MC: Some folks don’t know what has happened. They just haven’t been exposed. It’s not part of their life experience. George Floyd illustrated what Black folks have been saying for a multitude of years. Now they see it.
What is the biggest challenge to move forward?
DL: I think the biggest challenge is where do we start. If there are 500 things we can do, we can’t do all 500 at the same time. How do we pick those initiatives within each committee and boil them down to a manageable level?
MC: We’ve got to start in small chunks. We need to pick things we know we can be successful with. We need to be bold. Let’s not fix the low-hanging fruit that isn’t going to change anything. None of us got involved in this to be window dressing.
You both sound hopeful.
DL: I would love for Greenville to become the poster child for other communities on how to open this conversation, heal wounds, and improve the experience in the Black community by removing barriers and inequities.
MC: I’ve slowed down and I’m retired, but this one gets my blood running, because I can actually see there is interested leadership saying we can have our beloved community, and we can treat each other well. This is what differentiates us from other communities. All of us are stronger, if each of us is stronger. To me, that is what this community is saying.
Photography by Ian Curcio. For more on Greenville County’s Racial Equity and Economic Mobility Commission, visit REEMgvl.org.