Longtime community development advocate Michelle Mapp has a sixth sense that sees inequality and injustice in the Charleston area. But these skills did not fully develop until the North Charleston resident was an adult with her own children.
Her philosophy is simple, but bold: “Do justice. Love mercy.
As a child, Mapp developed a love for reading. After years of training and schooling to develop a keen eye for language, she is now doing what she can to make a bigger difference in the Charleston community.
“As a direct descendant of South Carolina’s Gullah Geechee people, I believe I owe a debt to my ancestors and an obligation to my descendants to leave a more equitable and just South Carolina,” Mapp said.
A full plate
Mapp has a lot on her plate from day to day. The recent graduate of the Charleston School of Law spent the summer studying to take the state bar examination. Now, she’s working on a new project to help people not lose their homes.
Mapp understands the benefit of having a place to call your own — it’s something she personifies in her work, helping people remain in their homes. Her favorite place to sit back and relax is on the front screened porch of her home in North Charleston. It provides the perfect protection from summer bugs and heat.
Mapp grew up in a racially diverse area in North Charleston along with other military families. In her eyes, it was a traditional upbringing. After graduating from Gordon H. Garrett High School, she got a not-so-subtle nudge from her father.
“You’re not going to make any money being a journalist,” she recalled him saying. “You’re really good at science and math, you should really look into engineering and something different.” So she did, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Clemson University.
Throughout Mapp’s life, she moved around the world. After being born in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, she moved as an adult to cities like San Antonio, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Fort Bragg in eastern North Carolina. But she always returned to the Lowcountry, an area she says she didn’t understand the importance of until later.
A cultural trustee
“I don’t know that I had a real appreciation for the history in Charleston when I was in school,” said Mapp, who considers herself a trustee for Charleston’s culture. The community holds a special place in her heart. But at some point, something changed. It just wasn’t the same place she remembered.
“People who may have lived in San Francisco or New York are now moving to Charleston,” she said, referring to the area as “Silicon Harbor” because of the technological innovations and investments going on in the city.
A continuing focus on public service
As a new law graduate, Mapp plans to engage in public service, as suggested by the law school’s motto, “pro bono populi,” or “for the good of people.”
But her new role isn’t her first with public service — the North Charleston native was an educator in the Charleston County School District in the early 2000s. After moving from Atlanta, Mapp joined South Carolina’s Program of Alternative Certification for Educators (PACE) and started to teach mathematics to high school students. PACE was established to enable well-qualified people without traditional teacher training to work in public schools based on their academic concentrations and coursework. During her three years in the classroom, Mapp saw firsthand the shortcomings of the public education system.
“I very quickly realized that a lot of the challenges in the school. I was teaching in had less to do with what was happening in the school and a lot more to do with the neighborhood and community,” she said.
While enrolled in a joint-degree program in 2004 between the University of South Carolina and College of Charleston to earn a master’s in public administration, she started interning with the statewide South Carolina Community Loan Fund, ultimately becoming its chief executive officer 13 years later. That experience sparked her interest in community development when Mapp realized a successful venture or organization needs capital, policy and a solid foundation to serve residents in the community.
Mapp wanted to get into law because she felt like creating policy and applying it is one of the best ways to serve and protect residents.
“I wanted the world to be a better place for everyone’s children,” she said, adding that she feels her talents would be best working directly with the community.
Leaving no one behind
Now living and working in her hometown, Mapp said she is afraid African Americans in the area are being left behind.
“It is such a rich history for African Americans in Charleston. And it not only just shaped this place but shaped the country in that so many enslaved Africans were brought through Charleston. And so it’s like how do you ensure that the people who made this place what it is can afford to live here.”
“Charleston is very much a contradiction in that it is known worldwide for its preservation of place, but in that same vein, we have not done, I feel, a good job at preservation of people,” Mapp said.
Mapp will start a fellowship with Equal Justice Works in September, a Washington, D.C.-based. program that primes young lawyers for public service careers. Mapp will spend the next two years working with the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina to help prevent eviction and displacement of low-income and African-American households.
According to a study by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab in 2016, North Charleston had one of the highest eviction rates in the nation. Attempting to stem the crisis, the state has set up a housing court pilot program in Charleston, a model popular in larger cities like New York.
Mapp’s long-term career plans remain to-be-determined, but if her work matches her passion, don’t be surprised if Mapp continues in public service with a run for political office. She hasn’t ruled it out, she said.