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Step outside comfort zone to widen connections, UNCA chancellor urges
Monday, 02 September 2019 17:44
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The finale of Leadership Asheville’s Summer Buzz Breakfast series featured four guests addressing the issue of “What is our vision for a connected community?” on Aug. 14 at West Asheville’s Crowne Plaza Expo Center.

The theme of the three-month series was “How do we build a connected community?” The Aug. 14 session drew 265 people.

Opening the 75-minute session was Ed Manning, executive director of UNC Asheville’s Leadership Asheville, which bills itself as “Western North Carolina’s foremost community development organization since 1982.”

Manning noted that UNCA Chancellor Nancy J. Cable would be acting as moderator of the program.

The four participants, each of which Cable interviewed one-on-one, were Stephanie Brown, president and chief exeuctive officer of Explore Asheville; Debra Campbell, Asheville city manager; Lakesha McDay, head of community engagement and relations for Dogwood Health Trust; and Avril Pinder, Buncombe County manager.

First, though, Manning asked the attendees to use their cellphones to tell how many Buzz Breakfasts they had attended this summer.

In response, 45 percent of the attendees said they had attended one session, 33 percent had attended two and 22 percent had attended all three. (One hundred fifty-nine of the 265 attendees responded to the phone poll.)

Next, Manning said,”Today, we will be addressing what we might think possible in building a connected community... As I said before, I think Asheville and this community could be an example to the state and nation.

Prior to interviewing each of the program’s guests, Cable said, “Well, when I was first approached about serving as your host this morning, I was told they wanted a sort of ‘Johnny Carson thing.’” She then prompted laughter from the attendees when she questioned how far she could go with her “Carnac” impersonation, referring to Carson’s humorous skits as Carnac the Magnificent.

More seriously, the chancellor asserted, “Leadership means connections, noting that there is a tendency to “connect with those similar to us. But the truth is, that kind of leadership, while important, is” going out of style. “Today, we’re going to emphasize the real work of leadership…. with people who have patently different opinions than we hold.”

Continuing, Cable said, “It is easy for some to feel very fractured — whatever side we might be on... I hope we’ll get some insight that will help us feel more courage” as a result of the morning’s Buzz Breakfast program. 

To that end, Brown, Cable’s first guest to interview, said, “In recognition of the inequities, the TDA waived the requirements of matching funds for the YMI and Stephens-Lee” recreation center projects.

“You find yourself right smack in the middle of the private-public partnerships,” Cable said. “Can you tell us about that?”

“Just last week, we provided free marketing training to over 200 local organizations at the U.S. Cellular Center — for optimizing Google,” Brown answered. “Those are all point of access. It reduces the barriers to entry…. And then our rent program has partnered with many entities.

Next, Cable welcomed Campbell to the chair next to her and asked, “As city manager, what is the biggest impediment to building a connected community across racial, etc. boundairies?”

“ In terms of impediments, I think the biggest impediment to addressing racial and socioeconomic challenges,” Campell answered. “We fear ‘the other.’”

The city manager added, “Rather than embrace and celebrate our differences, we do not support or champion the fact that we are different —that that is a strength and not a weakness. We need to do more to tap into those different attributes. We need to look at our differences as strengths rather than weaknesses in our community…. These are troubling times in our community and our nation, we tend to look at differences — who gets to belong. I think we need to all accept that we all belong. And until you do something egregious, we should all belong.”

“Since you’re new here in Asheville,” Cable told Campbell, “you’ve been able to take a very objective look at what’s going on. Do you see any green shoots? Any signs of hope?”

“I do,” Campbell replied. “Equity and inclusion make us a better community. We have so much data that demonstrates that when you include people, it builds. It doesn’t tear down…. 

“We have advcacy groups that advocate for just about everything,” the city manager said, triggering laughter from crowd.

“I think what we need to do more of, is building on these collective efforts…. to harness them to have a collective impact.

“Individually, we can move the needle a little bit, but collectively we can move the needle substaintially.”

Cable then queried, “If we are successful, what would that look like?”

“If we are successful, those who feel disenfranchised will feel like they are part of … That they are important, more people owning homes. Better quality of houses... Those people who want to be educated, ought to be educated.....”

Cable concluded with Campbell by noting, “That certainly argues for the sustainable approach. Thanks, Debra!”

Next, Cable welcomed Pinder to the guest’s chair — and asked her, “Since you’re new here in Asheville... what are the biggest impediments to change?”

“We have to talk about where we’ve been before we can talk about where we want to go,” Pinder replied. “Debra (Campbell) talks about the ‘fears.’ I’d agree with that.

“So the impediment means not talking about it. Really understanding what the issues are. In my organization, it’s a matter of listening to their fears and concerns and how we go forward together... How we help everyone to thrive .. not afraid to talk about their fears. And how we can validate them.”

“Going more deeply in this, what would your staff tell you that their experiences are?” Cable asked.

“At first, they were afraid, because they’d face retaliation in the past,” Pinder answered. “I truly want to know how we can grow together. I took the first 100 days just talking to staff. I haven’t been out in the community yet — it’s been a matter of starting wth foundation.”

“If you were providing advice to anyone in the room, what steps would you advise?” Cable queried.

“First, it’s got to be bottom up,” Pinder said. “Remove those titles and those barriers. Go to those employees to break barriers. Maybe even break bread together. Make sure your value system helps 

“We talk about integrity, accountability. Listen to your employees,” the county manager asserted.

“Can you speak about that?” Cable asked.

”First of all, I’ve found a lot of nonprofits that do their own thing,” Pinder said. “So we’re not really moving the needle. We need to collaborate.

“I don’t want to get ahead of my commissioners, but I will… One thing we’ve got to do better at is work better with the city — and the city staff.

“First, all of the county residents should have broadband service,” Pinder said.

“What might the best of Asheville look like if we’re successful in significant ways, not just to talk?” Cable asked.

“We’ve just finished the strategic plan for the county,” Pinder answered. “One of the things we’re talking about is the ‘achievement gap’ or ‘opportunity gap.’ We’re trying to be intentional in what we’re trying to accomplish. So you will see us put more effort (in this) as we move forward. As we go through this, you’ll see us attack this gap. So that’s one thing I think you’ll see differently.

“The other thing I think you’ll see is more people coming to Buncombe County. So we really need to start working on growth patterns. How can we plan for growth and land management as we go forward. So we don’t have things happen to us….

“Not a good visual, with no mountains and no trees,” Pinder said.

The final guest, McDay, was welcomed to sit in the seat next to Cable, who asked her, “What is the biggest impediment to building community a cross social and economic lines?”

“Wow, that’s an incredibly complex question,” McDay answered. “As people have to move further out to afford housing, connectedness could become an issue. I think the other thing that sort of lies across the veneer is the irresponsibility of creating narratives. It creates a disconnection. We have to be careful about creating a false narrative of disconnection. That’s the one thing I see that seems to be happening quite a bit — the possibility of incorrect narratives being created for us without our permission. Feeding a narrative that forces us to be disconnected....”

Cable then asked, “How can those of us who’d like to know more about that restrain our impulses to make more sustainable changes?”

In responding, McDay said, “People ask me, ‘What have you been doing for seven months?’ since the Dogwood Trust was established. “But there’s a lot of work in setting up….”

McDay then added, “We went on a listening tour to hear from communities. To hear from our nonprofit partners. To give us ‘info’ about what’s happening in our community. It’s easy to look down from the airplane to see what I see….. But it’s important to be on the ground as well. It’s also important to listen with intentionality. One of my favorite questions is what are you most proud of in your community. The fact that everyone has aspects they are most proud of gives me hope.

“It’s all of our responsibilities to listen. I think 99 percent of people want to do what’s best for that other person. But you can’t do that if you don’t know that person.

“We have to really think about things… through the lens of equity,” McDay said.

Cable then queried, “Thomas Jefferson said at one point that ‘knowledge is power.’ What can you say about the demographic qualities in the 18 counties” covered by the Dogwood Trust.

“As for what McDay termed “the 908,000-plus people in the 18-county area, I look at the growth we’ve had in Asheville and Buncombe County — and then I look at Murphy, where they had to close an elementary school, (because of declining enrollment) — and that looks really different.” In startling contrast, with the growth in the Asheville area, she said, “I can complain about the traffic on I-26 when I’m driving home.

McDay added, “We have to recognize there’s another end of the spectrum that is affecting other people... We need to open up to broaden that lens of perspective.... Another thing is affordable housing... ‘Approximation’ has to be not just what’s comfortable for me. At Dogwood Trust, it needs to be raising the tide for everyone.”

“What might it look like in the future with Dogwood Trust influencing it?” Cable asked.

“My hope is that the people across the 18 counties will own and feel responsible for what’s happening in their communities,” McDay replied. “I remember that there was a time when we didn’t recognize we had a lot of money (in her family). It was because there were working families in my neighborhood — and people would watch their children till their parents got home.

“As I heard from Deb (Campbell),” it is all about “‘what we bring, not what we lack.’”

McDay added that she likes that U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) “talks about ‘going out and making some good trouble.’”

In the last 15 minutes of the meeting, two questions that had been submitted in advance by audience members were asked of the guests.

The first question suggested that “to become a ‘connected community,’ we need to atone,” and asked the guests to comment on that statement.

“Atonement is a really strong word,” Pinder said. “Atonement might mean someone has to pay for something. I think it should instead say we need to acknowledge the past and how we move on from there.”

“I think I would agree with Avril on (her discomfort with the term) atonement,” Campbell said. “I think it’d be better if we said we’re all in this together, we need to collectively we want to try to help improve the lives of each other.”

Brown added, “I think one thing would be to take advantage of the opportunities offered in this community.”

 I think it’s about identifying what “healing” means,” McDay said. “What does ‘truly healed’ mean? Sometimes you think you have healed and you haven’t.”

Cable added, “At the university (UNCA), we’re doing all we can to embrace diversity and inclusion. Also, we’re working on attitude. We become more versatile leaders with attitude.”

The second question raised the issues of affordable housing and transportation, asking “aren’t these tremendious impediments to reaching across racial and socio-economic lines?”

“Yes, it is,” Campbell replied. “We are taking very positive steps to address those issues. Those aren’t just city issues, but issues for everyone. The city is doing everything it can do, but we need the private sector to join in. We need the county to join in.

“In terms of transit, we need another funding source. We need additional funding for transit.

“Lastly,” the city manager said, “I’ll say the next time there’s rezoning, it’s probably going to be right next to you — and for people who don’t look like you.”

On the same question, Pinder, the county manager, said, “We’re trying to do what we can at our level on affordable housing. But as Debra said, it takes all of us collectively to move the needle.

“We are looking at transit…. We are talking about that big issue. But it takes the community to get behind it to really move the needle.”

McDay said, “It impacts so many things. So these are one of two things that fall in that social determinants of the health bucket. Again, this is a huge challenge that takes collective work.”

Perhaps because of an oversight by Cable, Brown was not given an opportunity to address the second question.

In closing the program, Cable said she likes an African proverb that was said to be popular with both Desmund Tutu and Nelson Mandela, which goes as follows: “I am more fully myself and I am only a complete self when I am working with you and through you.”

As the program ended with a standing ovation, Manning, the program’s emcee, urged the crowd, “It’s really on us to figure out what’s going on. But beware of the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ response.”



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