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As it ends, ‘lack of diversity’ issue raised about speakers at ‘connection’ forum fielded by Hitch
Tuesday, 06 August 2019 22:44
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Six different speakers gave separate addresses on “What are we doing now to connect community?” at UNC Asheville’s Leadership Asheville Buzz Breakfast series on July 25 at Crowne Plaza Expo Center in West Asheville.

The 105-minute session, preceded by a 30-minute breakfast, drew 226 people who signed up to attend, an organizer said. The meeting’s theme was billed as “Building a connected community — the importance of grassroots engagement”

While the speakers each told of their organization’s efforts and accomplishments — and future goals — to achieve community connection, perhaps the most memorable moment of the morning came at the very end.

With the meeting running 11 minutes past its stated 90-minute goal, emcee Ed Manning lamented that there was “time for (just) one question.”

He then read a question from the audience stating that“the lack of diversity of speakers is telling about who is ‘in’ the community. How might we invite those we are trying to bring into the community have a voice in (future) Buzz Breakfasts?”

Those still on the stage looked to fellow speaker Dawa Hitch, comunicationss and public engagement director for the City of Asheville, who stepped to the microphone.

After looking around cautiously — and confirming that Catherine Mitchell, executive director, River Front Development Group, was nowhere in sight, Hitch asserted, “I think I’m the only person of color left on stage... It’s a great question...

“I think ‘diversity’ can have a number of different forms. The more specific we can be about what we mean about ‘diversity’ can be helpful…. It can feel disheartening to someone who has shown up, who is ‘of color,’” to meet with mainly whites. “Let’s foster participation by those who show up. And beyond that, let’s invite” more people of color to participate.

During her presentation, Mitchell had lamented the lack of — and need for -— connection for African-Americans in Asheville.

The meeting was the second of three in a series scheduled during the summer. The first, “What Is a Connected Community?” was held on June 20. The last, “What Is Our Vision for a Connected Community?” will begin at 8 a.m. Aug. 14. 

Early in the program, the emcee, Ed Manning, who is the executive director of Leadership Asheville, said, “I really think Asheville could be a role model” for the nation in the “connected community” movement.

He added, “We kind of left last month’s session with a lot to sift through, thinking we’re not as connected as we had hope to be.”

Manning billed the July 25 slate of speakers as “six leaders willing to lead the community in connecting....”

He then asked those in attendance to log-in to a certain code on their cellphones….. and answer a number questions. Later, he interspersed still more questions to be answered. The questions — and the resulting answers — will appear in September’s Daily Planet. 

Besides the aforementioned Hitch and Mitchell, the panelists included:

• Erica Anderson, director of economic development of Land of Sky Regional Council

• Chris Joyell, (a man) Asheville Design Center director, which is part of MountainTrue

• Vicki Meath, executive director, Just Economics

• Meghan Rogers, executive director, Asheville Downtown Association

Speaking first, Meath said she would begin by giving a “quick overview of what we do as an organization,” noting that Just Economics has just three full-time workers.

“At Just Economics, we know our current economy doesn’t work for all,” she said, listing three main issues that included. “living wages,” “affordable housing” and “better (mass) transit.”

Meath added that “we do a lot of coalition work… We also have a program, Voices for Economic Justice,” which she described as “an eight-week program for people who are working for a low wage. We discuss things in our community that affect economic justice....

“Our campaign to improve transit grew out of our Voices for Economic Justice program. Many of our participants in Voices for Economic Justice decided they wanted to become more engaged with transportation reform... We launched in January 2014 the agenda for transportation reform....

“We’ve had a lot of successes over the years,” Meath said, result in “some important improvements — things like Sunday bus service.”

To that end, she added, “The (mass transit) campaign made sure there were more people who rode the bus out of necessity who are on the city bus committee ... We have partnered with the city and made significant progress.”

What’s more, Meath said that, in 2017-18, “we (Just Economics) shifted to ‘Better Buses Together,” which promotes the idea that “a transit system that is good for transit-dependent riders is also good for reducing traffic congestion, serving the tourism industry, buildng business and preserving the environment.

Concluding, Meath said, “We encourage you to support Better Buses Together….”

The second speaker, Anderson, noted that the Land of Sky Regional Council (for which she works) “is a multi-county local government planning and development organization.

“As part of our goal, we are the recognized for regional economic development planning and activities in our four-county area.”

Among the LOSRC’s “high priorities,” Anderson said, is high-speed Internet

“Even in Asheville, there are pockets where people don’t have Internet — or ‘good’ Internet…. One of the largest problems is with a rural community’s Internet access.

“Even in education and equity, high-speed Internet is critical.”

To that end, Anderson said the LOSRC is partnering with UNCA, North Carolina State University, the North Carolina Broadband Office and community stakeholders, among others, to improve the region’s rural internet service.

She added, “Broadband is the optic fiber, which is required for high-speed Internet.. We have network ‘glue,’ which is ERC Broadband.”

Phase two of the project, Anderson said “is to incorporate that connectivity to regional focus... We now have some good data on vertical assets — cell towers, tall buildings, public facilities, structures on ridges...

“Over 8,000 citizens responded to the Regional Broadband Survey, so we still have a lot of work to do.

In Buncombe, she added, there were 2,600 respondents.

We (LOSRC) have a lot of work to do. … We’ve had a lot of achievements, but we still have some distance to go,” Anderson concluded.

Next, Chris Joyell, the third speaker (who was the lone male of the six), said, “I’m here this morning to speak with you about community-driven design.

Regarding the Asheville Design Center, which he directs, he noted that it was formed “back in 2016.”

He added, “If you think about it, design is shaping your quality of life. yet not everyone has easy access to an architect, engineeer” or other profession.

“What is the design process?” he asked, rhetorically. “At the Design Center, we ask the community to tell us the problems they are wanting to address” before the center draws up a design.”

Joyell said that among the elements in the center’s design process is making an effort to “engage everyone who will be impacted by the process…. If you ever looked carefully at playgrounds, they’ve been designed by parents and principals…”

Conversely, when the center recently asked children who would be using a playground what they wanted in it, a smiling Joyell said they responded — totally differently from parents and principals — with “gopher holes and spider webs.” The audience laughed along with Joyell. 

Regarding Asheville’s so-called “Pit of Despair” long-vacant space along Haywood Road across from the Civic Center, Joyell asked, rhetorically, “What would we (the ADC) build here?”

Indeed, he said, “the City of Asheville (recently) asked the Asheville Design Center to convene” on that question and, “instead of asking, ‘What would you like to build here?’ we asked to the community, ‘What do you want do here?’”

Joyell then asserted, “The responses were incredible — everything from (the installation of a) Ferris wheel to a cat park.” Once again, the audience erupted in laughter.

He then said there are three kinds of “space” from an urban designer’s perspective, including passive civic space, active community space and mixed use

Continuing, Joyell urged the audience members to be bold with the design of their beloved city , “so don’t be afraid to scale up…” He said such boldness led to the adoption of I-26 Alternative 4B, which he touted as “a community-based design update” provided by the Asheville Design Center.

“We held open-door sessions… As a result, we came up with Altnerative 4B. We showed it to over 400 local groups — and then constantly tweaked the design.”

As a result, “in 2016, in the first time in the history of the community, a community alternative was selected by the North Carolina Department of Transportation” as the favored route for I-26 through Asheville. At that, the audience applauded.

“This in-fill opportunity provides us” with a golden opportunity that the city would not have realized otherwise, if it had just accepted the NCDOT’s original plan.

“We no longer will need six travel lanes across that (Bowman) bridge. So we can have a dedicated greenway across the bridge. And Asheville can have the true gateway it deserves,” Joyell said in wrapping up his presentation, as the audience — again — applauded.

The fourth speaker, Rogers, noted that the Asheville Downtown Association that she directs hosts events “connecting 100,000 people to Downtown Asheville every year.

“These events are breeding grounds for community engagement….The events support a thriving local economy... We employ about 350 active local volunteers.”

Using the Downtown After 5 summer concert series as an example, Rogers said that those who attend are afforded the opportunity to “make connections across a number of valuable community-building spectrums.”

The fifth speaker, Mitchell, executive director, River Front Development Group, began by noting that, in contrast to the others, she would be making a presentation “without slides” — and, instead, “would just be speaking” to the audience.

She then noted, “We have abundant riverfront development — and the African-American community wants to know what affects them.

“If we had a museum that tells about African-American heritage through the years in the city,” it would be a grand achievement, Mitchell said.

“Asheville has a very complicated history with African-Americans. It has witnessed the destruction of almost every African-American place of worship, business, play” and housing. “We (the RFDG) propose getting around that. We’d like a museum that tells how we (blacks) lived — and live.”

After a brief pause, she added, “Asheville’s policies are disconnected from it’s actual functioning.”

To rectify the situation, Mitchell said, “the museum would connect to the African-American cultural heritage district. It would connect with an African-American trail.”

She noted that Stephens-Lee was formerly the only high school for African-Americans in the Asheville area.

(Asheville’s Stephens-Lee High School, built in 1923 and known of as “The Castle on the Hill,” was for many decades Western North Carolina’s only secondary school for African-Americans. It drew students from throughout Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Yancey and Transylvania counties. 

(The advent of integration closed it in 1965. Then, in 1975, the entire multi-building campus, save for the gymnasium, was bulldozed. The gym is now the city’s Stephens-Lee Recreation Center at 30 George Washington Carver Avenue, near South Charlotte Street.)

Regarding the African-American museum, Mitchell said the project was “proposed in 2010... It’s 2019, and we’re still working on it.

“Those nine years mean we’re still working on it. We will make it happen. We want to be a part” of Asheville “That’s how we build connection.”

As for the trail, she said, “We’ve collected stories about ordinary (African-American) people — people just like you” insofar as being ordinary is concerned. “These are not necessarily illustrious people, but people who lived and struggled in their lives in Asheville.

“We (African-Americans) struggle to live and be employed in Asheville. The problem is we have to do this with you,” Mitchell told the overwhelmingly white audience.

To help move the projects along, Mitchell asked the audience members to “give a call to your city manager, or City Council member, and (tell that official) that you would like to volunteer to help. Join us. Connect our commmunity! Thank you!”

The sixth and final speaker, Hitch, communication and public engagement director, City of Asheville, began by noting that the question of “‘How do we, in city government, connect with people?’ is an idea we are addressing... The rubber really hits the road when there is that two-way road of discussion, dialogue” and other communications.

Rhetorically, she asked, “As an underlying principal…. What are we (in city government) doing now to connect community?”

As the city’s response to the question, she listed the following eight points:

• “Intention — It’s more than just showing up. Connecting is that space in between. It’s essential to connection.”

• “Approach with curiosity.”

• “Suspending judgments when we can, (and) instead approaching issues with curiosity in the forefront.”

• “In the city to be intentional, we are stressing to clarify the decision to be made. There are all kinds of public engagements.”

• “Identify the audience.”

• “Learn about the audience (speak to people in their language as often as you can)”

• “Cultivate accountability.”

• “Intention — what is city government doing to make things work. (Intention is really what lies under all of that.)”

In concluding, Hitch asked anyone who would like to “connect” with the city to email her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



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