CAN/Asheville bring on a new community organizer

Barb Verni-Lau, recently named as the new low-income-community organizer for Asheville Parks and Recreation in tandem with the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, says her goal is to assist residents in making positive changes in their neighborhoods of their own volition.

Making connections: Community Organizer Barb Verni-Lau, at left, with West Asheville resident Pearlie May Dixon. Photo By Jonathan Welch

About two months ago, CAN approached Verni-Lau with the idea of hiring her as its first paid staff member. “CAN has a lot of paid neighborhood memberships—but they do not represent low-income neighborhoods,” she explains. “Low-income neighborhoods have been left out … they really didn’t have a seat at the table.” The idea, she says, was that her presence as a community organizer would help to win representation for certain areas, including Burton Street and Pisgah View Apartments in West Asheville.

But bringing her on as a staffer didn’t go according to CAN’s original plan. The organization went before City Council on March 11 to request that city-controlled federal grant money be allocated for the new job. The $10,000 in federal funding, intended for community organizing, was leftover from a grant awarded to Neighborhood Housing Services, which has since closed its operation. But Council member Carl Mumpower and Mayor Terry Bellamy opposed the idea, recommending that Verni-Lau contract with Asheville Parks and Recreation instead. The move, which was also supported by Council members Jan Davis and Bill Russell, makes Verni-Lau a city employee rather than a CAN staffer. Officially, she is supervised and paid by Parks and Rec, but works in concert with CAN.

“I don’t have any trouble with the program,” Mumpower, who strongly objected to handing the money over to CAN, told Xpress. “But I am not comfortable with a political entity such as CAN with no history of managing public dollars being afforded this opportunity.”

“If CIBO were offering to do this, I would take the same position,” he added, referring to the relatively conservative Council of Independent Business Owners.

Verni-Lau says the move won’t alter her goal of including low-income communities in a wider discussion about city issues, but maintains that it nonetheless places her in an awkward position. “I’ll have two supervisors,” she explained during an interview at the CAN headquarters in downtown Asheville, where she has an office. Nor does she agree with Mumpower’s analysis that CAN is a political entity. The intent of community organizing is to help neighborhoods determine their own goals, she says, rather than further the agenda of any political organization.

During a previous three-year stint as an organizer with Neighborhood Housing Services, Verni-Lau says she partnered with residents of the Burton Street community to eradicate a drug house. Standard police involvement hadn’t put an end to the problem, she says. So, working with the city, they formulated a new tactic: “The city gave a letter to the landlord saying, ‘Your house is known to have a drug dealer,’” she explains. When that got no response, they took it to the next level. “We drove up to the landlord’s house in Mars Hill and hand-delivered the letter,” she recounts, adding that they even read it out loud. “We told him, ‘If it continues, we will come back and talk to all of your neighbors.’”

Within a month, she says, the drug dealers were gone.

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