Building Bridges marks 30 years of equity education

BETTER TOGETHER: Building Bridges board of directors co-chairs Walter Bradley, far left, and Heather Tate, far right, are pictured inside the group's original meeting place, New Mount Olive Baptist Church, with longtime participants and supporters Jackie Simms, second from left, and Tyrone Greenlee, second from right, and co-founder Susan Presson, center. Photo by Caleb Johnson

The plan was to host a single nine-week community course on anti-racism. It was 1993. Inspired by Christian-based Sojourners magazine’s America’s Original Sin: A Study Guide on White Racism, a dozen or so Black and white Asheville residents, including ministers, health care professionals, educators and other community leaders, worked together to develop a one-time educational program.

“We were flying by the seat of our pants,” remembers Susan Presson, a now-retired nurse practitioner and activist who was part of that group of organizers. “But we were all so excited, we were kind of on fire.”

The concept — bringing Black and white people together for facilitated discussions on racism — was a hit in Asheville. Presson estimates that 40-50 people showed up for that nine-class series at New Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church. As word spread, more people expressed interest in the classes.

So they did it again. And again.

Around 2007, the group formed a nonprofit called Building Bridges. After three decades, the all-volunteer effort has hosted more than 2,700 community members from multiracial backgrounds and is still drawing crowds twice each year for the nine-week sessions. Workshops include lectures, panel discussions and small-group, mixed-race conversations aimed at fulfilling the organization’s mission of nurturing connections and conversations between individuals as a tool for dismantling racism.

The program has birthed spin-off gatherings and scholarship programs, inspiring individuals to start their own anti-racism groups and enterprises.

This month, Building Bridges leaders are inviting past participants and supportive community members to come together to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a gala dinner on Saturday, June 22, at The Venue in downtown Asheville.

‘Brave space’

Jackie Simms was among the attendees for that inaugural course in 1993. Just three years earlier, she had moved to Asheville with her husband and daughter from St. Louis and, as a Black woman, was surprised to see a stark disconnect between Black and white residents in her new home.

“It was like, where are the Black folks?” Simms recalls. “I could go to Black churches and find Black folks there, but I didn’t know where they were otherwise.”

That initial Building Bridges cohort, she says, was her gateway to feeling connected and at ease in Asheville. The program’s format of exploring the study guide’s essays and articles on racism through facilitated, multiracial, small-group discussions allowed Simms to examine sensitive topics while forming new relationships, including some friendships that have lasted decades.

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS: Jackie Simms attended the first session of Building Bridges in 1993 after moving to Asheville from St. Louis and finding a disconnect between the city’s white and Black communities. Photo courtesy of Building Bridges

“It was just a very comfortable place to hear and share experiences related to racism,” says Simms. “A popular way of saying that is a ‘brave space’ — a safe place for people to bravely state their true feelings and observations or thoughts about race. And there’s not a lot of those around.”

Building Bridges became a passion for the now-retired teacher of the hard of hearing, who has been involved in 61 of the 63 nine-week sessions held so far, from participant to small-group facilitator to board chair. Her late husband, Fred Simms, also became active with the group in the 1990s and eventually served on the board of directors. “He wanted to find out where I had disappeared to,” Simms says with a smile.

Entrepreneur and former elementary school teacher and A-B Tech professor Bettie Council similarly found a new calling when she joined her first Building Bridges session. She had heard about UNC Asheville professor Dwight Mullen’s 2007 State of Black Asheville research project that showed racial disparities in local health care, criminal justice, education and more.

She estimates that she’s been part of nearly 20 sessions, as a participant, then facilitator and, ultimately, after starting two equity programs of her own — VIGOR Racial Equity Conversations and Act Out Equity — as a panelist and speaker. “I want to do everything I can to support my community, so I’m now an activist, working seven days a week,” Council says.

Building Bridges’ small groups — one of the core components of the experience — are led by mixed-race teams who have attended at least one session, says Heather Tate, co-chair of the board of directors. Facilitators are asked to keep an eye out for participants who might be interested in stepping into that role in the future.

“Our goal of facilitation is not to be just a leader; it is to truly facilitate. So [we’re looking at] how people are talking to their group members and processing,” Tate explains.

A white kindergarten teacher, Tate enjoys facilitating because in each session she continually uncovers new truths. “It always leads to really amazing, enriching conversations that help us continue our equity journey,” she says.


Though Building Bridges’ basic concept and nine-week format have stayed the same, the location has moved around, going from New Mount Olive to other locations, including Rainbow Community School, Odyssey School and now Evergreen Community Charter School.

The curriculum also has evolved. A few years in, organizers recognized that many participants didn’t relate well to the Sojourners workbook’s Christian perspective, Simms recalls. They additionally saw a need for the material to present a more local focus. So using grant funding, Building Bridges hired the late Asheville author and leadership coach Doug Silsbee to write a new study guide to include Asheville-specific issues, such as the history of the city’s urban renewal projects and how they affected the Black community.

The workbook is now digital and includes links to additional resources, including articles, audio recordings and videos. To keep the content fresh, says Tate, it’s revised every three years, with the next update happening this summer.

“The way panel discussions happen is continually evolving as well,” says Tate. As an example,  a new addition to each series is a potluck finale, called the Community Bridge, during which nonprofits whose leaders are Black, Indigenous and people of color share information about their organizations.

“So you’ve been doing this work, and now it’s on you to figure out what to do next,” she says. “This is a way to help connect folks with different organizations where, maybe they have this new perspective in their journey with their equity work, and maybe their skill set or sphere of influence really meshes well with that organization.”

Walter Bradley, who co-chairs the board of directors with Tate, notes that while each nine-week session averages 60-70 enrollees, attendance doubled after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020.

Conversely, “it was hard to get people to sign up when Obama was elected,” remembers Simms. “Everybody was convinced that there was no racism, that it was over.”

Though the organization is run entirely by volunteers, Bradley points out that panelists are compensated, thus the $130 fee, or about $14 for each 2 1/2-hour workshop. Scholarships and equity seats for people of color are always available.

Building Bridges has spawned other equity-focused programs, such as its TalkBack Series, which hosts public screenings and discussions of films focused on topics related to racism and equity.

Avoiding trauma

Far fewer Black people typically sign up for the sessions compared with the number of white people, say Council, Presson and Simms. At first, white participants are sometimes puzzled by their absence. Facilitators explain that Black residents make up a small percentage — only about 10% — of Asheville’s population. But there are other factors at play as well, they say.

“The fact is that some Black people choose not to attend discussions like this because it’s so triggering,” says Council. “We have seen over time all of the deaths and all the atrocities that happen to us. And some Black people say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it, to discuss it in a room full of white people.’ So, yeah, it’s harmful to our bodies.”

But despite the discomfort, Council believes Black voices are imperative to conversations about race. “To me, discussing racism in an all-white space, where they don’t have the Black voice and Black perspective is not OK. It’s like the blind leading the blind,” she says.

As a Black man, Bradley, a community health worker and teacher who moved to Asheville from Greensboro almost 11 years ago, says facing these triggers and fighting through his emotional reactions during the sessions he’s attended over the past few years as a participant, facilitator and now board co-chair, has taught him compassion.

“I have to remember what it was like learning something for the first time, even though the subject is racism, which is near and dear to my heart,” says Bradley. “I’m a man of faith, and self-care looks like a lot of meditation. My trusted friends and colleagues, they hold me, we hold each other. We recharge each other.”

And the emotional ordeal is worth enduring to bring about change, says Council. “Whenever one person attends a meeting and learns more about the systems of oppression and white privilege and racism, all those things, that’s a plus for me because that lessens the possibility of us being shot [by police] by making someone else an ally,” she says. “So with Building Bridges, having that forum to make that happen, having those thousands of people attend over time, whether they act on it or not, it’s like having seeds planted.”

TEAMWORK: Building Bridges board co-chairs Heather Tate, left, and Walter Bradley facilitate a recent session in the gymnasium at Evergreen Community Charter School. Photo courtesy of Building Bridges

Tate attended her first session in late 2017 after hearing about it from colleagues and friends. “For me, it provided that understanding of how racism is so systemic and so intentional in each different layer of our world — in health care, in the education system and in, well, not the justice system, but the legal system, because there’s not a lot of justice involved in it,” she says.

“It’s about being able to unpack that week by week to see how all that is happening within the different systems of our specific community, not just within the bigger systems of our country, but right here in Asheville.”

Bradley, who was introduced to Building Bridges in 2018 by Tate, his co-worker at the time, agrees that the program helps bring the hidden aspects of systemic racism into sharp focus. “[Racism] is in every micron, every fiber of the fabric of America,” he says. “We can’t assume that we’re as clean as we think. We can’t think [racism] was in the past, it’s still in the fibers of what we’re doing; even as we’re moving away from it, it’s still there.”

Building on the past

Looking back, Presson thinks Building Bridges’ foundation of creating connections has been crucial to the program’s longevity. “I think probably the biggest part of it was developing relationships where we cared so much for each other, loved each other,” she says. “We felt like we were doing something really important, really valuable. And I think we were.”

“I think there have been lots of instances where people who’ve been impacted by their experience in Building Bridges have gone out and done something different from what they were doing before,” says Simms. “It made it comfortable for me, finally, to live in Asheville. I know people that I never would have met otherwise.”

Tate says there has been interest in creating a template of Building Bridges that could be replicated in other areas of Western North Carolina. Also, there’s been strong interest from various groups in having a more compact, overview version of the Building Bridges program that could be presented as training to staff or group members in a couple of hours rather than nine weeks.

Bradley would also like to see the Building Bridges model implemented outside Asheville. And he feels that offering multiple levels of training, similar to the national Racial Equity Institute, is another way for Building Bridges to continue evolving.

“Once you get an intro, then we can level up the experience three or four times,” says Bradley. “When you’ve experienced it once, your lens is a little bit sharper, you see things differently, and all these other things start emerging and you want to ask questions and build conversation.”

For an all-volunteer organization, finding the capacity to develop such projects is a monumental task. Tate says the “dream” is to have funding eventually to pay someone to lay the groundwork for achieving those aspirations. “You can box up our format, but you can’t box up our resources. So the ability to do that, being able to have folks that are willing to take that on and do it, would be huge,” says Tate.

“There are ways to do it on a minimal budget, but if we’re trying to move into a place of measurable change, I think we need to invest,” says Bradley. “You know, Asheville needs to invest into what we should be, not what we could be.”


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