Missing link: The gaps in the sustainable economy

From a desk in a former public-housing unit across from the W.C. Reid Center, Marilyn Bass ponders what a sustainable economy should look like.

An Asheville native, she grew up when Jim Crow laws kept African-Americans away from basic rights and opportunities, and she witnessed the impact of urban renewal, as some neighborhoods with a long history were leveled.

Asheville was a long way from having its first African-American mayor or renewed prosperity downtown, "but in some ways, things haven't changed" when it comes to the status of low-income and minority people in Asheville, Bass says.

Over three decades, she has helped steer the economy in a more sustainable direction, before the word was commonly used. Bass served as the city's first minority-affairs director, consulted in redevelopment efforts on the Block, and helped many minority- and women-owned businesses get off the ground.

These days, she does community outreach with Asheville Green Opportunities, which puts forth the ongoing Reid Center renovations as a model of how to provide low-income communities with sustainable jobs while building green. The mentality, she says, is different in communities with less wealth, and working-class people, in general, approach sustainability from their own perspective.

“You have a survival piece that kicks in when you're talking about extremely low wealth,” Bass says. “We have people [who] have business acumen or green construction knowledge, but they need a foot in the door.”

Still alive and kicking, the good-ol’-boy network often proves to be an obstacle even in the “green” economy, sometimes shutting out women, low-income people and minorities, Bass assserts.

“Whether it's in construction or in business in general, it's who you know and who you network with. People do business with [those] they feel comfortable with,” she says. “If there's been an absence of certain groups, people may not have a level of comfort to go through with deals or hiring. That's in green business or traditional business. It's a bit different in the green economy, but it still goes on.”

Bass argues, “It's incumbent on both groups — the people who have been marginalized and the business community — to reach out. Our country is increasingly becoming more diverse, and our business community needs to reflect that.”

Over the years, she says, Asheville has not made the headway on the problem as it should, and many are left out of the city's rising prosperity.

Yet, Bass sees spirit and ingenuity in the struggle not just to survive but thrive in a sustainable way. She rattles off the community gardens located all around the city, and other initiatives emerging from the grassroots (see “Shared Creation” elsewhere in this issue).

“Urban agriculture is a big piece,” she says. “Health issues are big concern, [as is] the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables. Obesity is a big concern. So we work on that,” Bass says. And in fighting those issues, she hopes to create a better foundation for the whole city, so everyone can “see that you can be inclusive, despite the challenges, and diversity is its own good.”

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or dforbes@mountainx.com.

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