Written By Sydney Torcellini
At the young age of 21, Joel Odom has already become a well-respected community activist, led the charge of many rallies, and even ran for mayor. The accomplishments Odom has made are incredible enough for anyone’s lifetime, but he’s done it all at the young age of 21. His most recent endeavors are filing a complaint against the Charlotte councilman, Malcolm Graham, for a lack of transparency and speaking at NAACP March For Justice this past weekend. He accused Graham of not disclosing to the public that he sits on the Grants Committee for the United Way Central for the Carolina. This is a conflict of interest because Beds for Kids, an organization that Councilman Graham is Executive Director of, received twenty-five thousand dollars from a grant that was voted on by the Grants Committee for United Way. While speaking to Level 21 about this matter Odom stated that he believes there needs to be an audit done so that the public knows for sure what the money was used for. Joel said, “Whether he likes me or not I am still a citizen of Charlotte and the citizens have the right to know what’s going on.”
Q: You ran for Mayor as the youngest person in our city to do so. What encouraged you to take that leap?
What encouraged me to take on the challenge of running for mayor at such a young age was seeing the death and carelessness of many citizens of Charlotte’s lives. Our local leaders are more concerned and worried about re-election and their interests with nonprofits and private businesses than the people of Charlotte.
Q: How is your perspective different as a Gen Z/Millennial than our mayoral candidates from older generations?
I think the older generation and the younger generation have to come together. We have to value both perspectives to better the systems that be and work on creating a more robust America. I do value history and my elders, but I also value my peers at the same time. Everyone has different problems. My peer’s issue would be with housing, car payments, loans, and preparing for a family. My elderly peer’s issues would be health care, medicine, and paying for property taxes. The issues are different but they’re also the same because one day the younger generation will be where the older generation is so we have to take care of both generations, it’s not all about one.
Q: Do you think that candidates from older generations don’t take into consideration the issues that a lot of younger people go through?
At this point in America, I do believe that younger people will vote. I hope that they’ll open their eyes to vote because we do outnumber our older peers and our concerns can be heard and they will be heard if we all get out and vote. Register to vote, not only in presidential but vote in local elections because we’re not only voting for individuals and parties but we’re voting for laws and taxes.
Q: Are you looking to run for another office in Charlotte?
At the current moment, I’m just focused on bettering the city of Charlotte and making sure that this is the place where I want to live and my family wants to live. So, at the current moment no I am not focused on running.
Q: What are the most important issues that local politicians in Charlotte need to address in your opinion?
One would be corruption. We need to weed out the people that are taking money from the city. Not only taking money but they are prioritizing their private interest over the wellbeing of the citizens. Not only corruption but we have to prioritize affordable housing, and we have to prioritize maintaining communities, not just Southpark, Ballantyne, and Myers Park but we also have to prioritize areas like Mallard Creek.
Q: What changes would you like to see be made to Charlotte in the next 5-10 years?
One thing I would like to see in Charlotte is affordable housing. I would also like to see tent city be taken down not just moved somewhere else, if they are moved they should be moved into homes. I want to see taxes lowered and sustained for the elderly. I want to see young people getting paid a liveable wage. Even though they might be starting at Mcdonalds or Burger King, they should still be able to live off that salary for a certain amount of years before they have to move on to the next stage in their life. A lot of people don’t value entry-level positions, but people need to understand that those positions are available so that students will be able to pay off some debt while they’re in school. I think everyone should get paid a liveable wage and to have good healthcare.
Q: What makes you so passionate about change?
I don’t know, I think it’s in my blood. So many people tell me that I’m unique and that I have a calling and I kind of downplay myself and say If I can do it I know they can do it. My passion comes from seeing other leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Arthra Franklin, Maxine Waters, and Nina Simone, and all the other leaders that came before. They weren’t focused on money, they were focused on bettering this country for their children and their grandchildren. That’s where I get my passion from. I go back and I think about the slaves that were put on those ships and traveled across the Atlantic. I think about all the people who put up a fight so that I could live and push so that other people could get their rights and have their rights in this country.
Q: What was it like for you growing up, do you think that the way you were raised or certain things in your life growing up affected how you feel politically and your passion?
I have seen reality. I had the pleasure of not only seeing what was going on from TV or seeing just what people want us to see. It’s not just some fairy tale. I got to see people, older people, that were renting homes for almost 50-60 years, and all of a sudden they were told to move out. I’ve seen violence, I’ve seen communities come together, community engagement. I’ve seen a plethora of different motivations and genres in the Charlotte community. My family has been in Charlotte for over a hundred years. My great grandmother, Vera she’s now 82, helped raise me with the help of my grandmother because my mother passed away. I might be 21, but I have the history and the wisdom of a 100-year-old.
Q: How did you end up finding out about the money not being used correctly by city officials, and what does that whistle blow mean for people in the City of Charlotte?
I sit on the board of directors for Generation Nations, a non-profit that is involved in civic advocacy for the youth, and so I was looking for different grants and seeing what type of nonprofit in the Charlotte community get some type of assistance. I came across the COVID-19 relief on the United Way Central Carolina website and it listed $25,000 for Beds For Kids. I thought that was kind of strange because it is Malcolm Graham’s nonprofit but he’s also on the grant committe. So he sits on the very committe that approved giving him $25,000. I went to Brian Collier, the Executive Vice President of the Foundation for the Carolinas, and he told me that the million dollars they received were spent in the first 3 weeks. He also said that the million dollars went under the shelter and housing department. As I told Mr. Collier over the phone, I said you know that’s where Malcolm Graham’s program falls under. That just says to me that these people assume they can do what they want to do and get away with almost embezzling from the city and nothing is going to happen to them. Also, It says a lot to me that this rich man can contact me the day after I file an ethics complaint and talk to me about the transactions of the Foundation of the Carolinas but Malcolm Graham has been receiving phone calls and emails from me going back to early July about the Beatties Ford Road Massacre and he can’t even get with me. That says a lot about him and his character and how he feels about the people of Charlotte. Whether he likes me or not I am still a citizen of Charlotte and the citizens have the right to know what’s going on. They need to do an audit of this money. What did he get this money for and on top of that where did he spend it? Did he spend it or did it go to his salary? After doing a little bit more digging I found out that the RNC committe donated over 900 pieces of furniture to Beds For Kids and last time I checked the RNC was under a contract with the city. I did not know that you could donate to employees of the city while they’re in office. That puts the city in a place of vulnerability when it comes to bribery, extortion, and corruption.
Q: You spoke at the NAACP March For Justice this past weekend, what was the inspiration behind your speech and poem “Never forget”
I wrote the poem “Never Forget” a couple of months ago when one of my friends was killed. I was reminiscing on history and what was going on in Charlotte. The poem inspired me to touch and connect to all of my ancestors. Some people ask how I prepare for a speech and I usually don’t. I might write a speech out but usually, when I start speaking it comes out natural. Before I go on, I do what Dr. Angelou said “Call up all your ancestors, all your leaders and take them with you” and that’s what I do. I love the passion for speaking and motivating people. I take on the life force of leaders that have come before me and I try to do my best to impress them.
Q: What are some ways you plan on encouraging the people of Charlotte to vote?
On my social media platforms, I share voting information and voting registration. I am also a part of BPC and they have a Get Out To Vote Committee that I take part in. We would normally knock on doors, which is something we can’t do right now, but I did at one point knock on doors, send out letters, and try to get people to register to vote wherever I was and just make people aware. One thing that’s happening in Charlotte that I shared on my social media is the 2020 Voter Workshop. It’s a program that teaches people about civics 101 and how local government works. I put that on my social media pages just to remind people that there is no shame in not knowing, the shame comes in when you admit you’re ignorant yet you’re not taking the steps to educate yourself.
Q: Are you planning on speaking at any upcoming rallies?
I am planning a memorial service with the county commissioner, Vilma Leake, for the people that were murdered in the Beatties Ford Road Massacre. So I am coordinating with Westside leaders, and churches to figure out how we can pull this off for not only the families but the citizens at Beatties Ford.