In Memory of Dr. Garmon-Brown

— Reflections from Leading on Opportunity

We are deeply saddened to share that Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown passed away yesterday after her long battle with cancer. We lost not just a community advocate, respected physician, and unparalleled leader, but we lost a dear friend.

A (task)force for change.

In recent years, many came to know Dr. Garmon-Brown (“Dr. O.”) as the co-chair of the Opportunity Task Force –a group formed to understand how Charlotte-Mecklenburg ended up last (50 out of 50) among major US cities in economic mobility. She had the vision and the drive to make Charlotte confront uncomfortable realities and a not-so-distant history that has created a tale of two cities.

Her impact on the taskforce was immediate. She was a quiet force who commanded your attention when she spoke with a voice that resonated with the passion in her heart and reverberated with the fire of the ordain minister that she was. She led meaningful conversations with her co-chair, Charles ‘Dee’ O’Dell, while also collecting the data and stories that would become the taskforce report. Added Brian Collier, Foundation for the Carolinas Executive Vice President and report co-author, “If we could have more like her in the community, our work…. would be so much easier because we would just start by being kind to one another because that's how she treats everyone.”

Dr. O. dedicated her final years to challenging the hearts and minds of the city’s most powerful government, corporate and non-profit leaders to work together to confront the policies and inequities that allowed some Charlotte neighborhoods to flourish while others faltered. And she did it all while battling another resurgence of cancer.

“She really sensed that she had the opportunity to continue to push this work forward and that creating momentum was everything,” said O’Dell, a U.S. Bank executive, who Dr. O often referred to as her brother. “I've seen over the last five years that she was just increasingly energized by the work.”

A brilliant mentor and close family

Dr. O. held many official roles and leadership positions throughout her career, but many considered her close family. Erin Barbee recalls Dr. Garmon-Brown’s tenderness toward her when she became co-chair of the Leading on Opportunity Council. Dr. O. sat with her and shared her vision that this would be a community free of barriers to access and a place where little black girls can grow up and make it. Dr. O. worked closely with Barbee’s aunt, Amantha Barbee. Through the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, led worship service together after the Keith Lamont Scott fatal police shooting, advocated for fair housing together and did combined ministry work with St. Luke church.

She told Barbee, “Never to be afraid to use my voice for good.” Chisholm also shares that sentiment of thinking of Dr. O. as family. “Every time I would call her, she would always say, “Hey, baby. How are you?” There was this warmth she had, that made you feel special. I know she had lots of people she cared for deeply, but I felt like the most important one in that conversation.”

Leading with your heart

After a storied career with numerous accomplishments, including serving as Charlotte’s first African American female resident in Family Medicine, as well as earning both a medical degree and master’s degree in divinity, Dr. O. still set an example of how to lead with courage and authenticity.

“She inspired people. She inspired a community too, to support each other and tackle big issues,” said O’Dell.

Andrea Smith, Leading on Opportunity co-chair said, “Ophelia always led with her heart. She wanted her legacy to be that she served. There’s no doubt that she served, and she made a difference in so many people’s lives.”

Our commitment to her legacy

“Our legacy is how we take that forward and how we honor her in the work that we do and the lives that we change,” Smith said.

It is our gift to a woman who gave us so much. We remain committed to Dr. O.’s original vision for every child to have an equal chance to achieve social and economic success.

Reflecting on the loss of Dr. O., Chisholm added: “It’s a loss and I also see it now as a responsibility to stand up and keep going. We owe it to her, and we owe it to ourselves. And it’s what she would want us to do.”

- Leading on Opportunity