“We want to see more color,” said City Manager Gary Jackson of Asheville’s goals for increasing diversity in its senior management team at a July 10 meet-and-greet with the two finalists for Asheville’s new Equity and Inclusion Manager. Kimberlee Archie and Alaysia Black Hackett spoke in small groups and one-on-one conversations with community members and city staffers about their backgrounds, the strengths they would bring to the position and their ideas for increasing trust and engagement with community members, especially those from underserved areas and groups.
According to a city press release, “This position will lead the city of Asheville’s effort to expand equity in city services and programs, and will be dedicated to helping the city achieve meaningful progress by evaluating the delivery of city programs, services and its decision-making in order to operationalize equity.”
Jackson described the shift in organizational culture the Equity and Inclusion Manager will help lead as a strategic priority for the city. The position will function as an assistant to the City Manager, he said, and will team up with the city’s Communications and Public Engagement Department under director Dawa Hitch.
Asked what the process for making the final selection between the two will be, executive search consultant Brett Byers of Los Angeles-based The Hawkins Company said that will be up to Jackson. And the schedule for making the decision? “Hopefully very soon,” Byers said. Her firm identified nine strong candidates for the position, she said, and Archie and Hackett represent the city’s top picks from that group.
Archie told attendees she previously served as deputy director of the city of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, where she was responsible for overseeing 12 neighborhood district coordinators and several neighborhood service centers. Since moving to Charlotte six years ago, she has worked in higher education, most recently as a consultant.
To support communities that are less organized than others, Archie said she would actively go into those communities to connect with residents. In addition to sharing information, she said, she would make sure the city is listening to residents and supporting policies with city dollars. She observed that building trust, especially among underserved communities that have been disappointed by government’s responsiveness to their concerns in the past, takes time. “Communication and lots of talking doesn’t always seem like action,” she said. Nonetheless, she continued, community members need to feel heard before they can “move forward in trust and friendship.”
Asked by City Council member Julie Mayfield how she would respond to being the focus of scrutiny and possible criticism in the role, Archie said, “Working with people is tough. There can be a natural distrust of city government because of things that have happened in the past.” Still, she continued, as long as she feels she’s helping people, she will feel motivated to keep moving forward.
Hackett is director of diversity and multicultural affairs at Mars Hill University, a position she’s held for almost five years. A native of Florence, S.C., she first came to Western North Carolina as a student at Western Carolina University. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Hackett enrolled in the Master of Public Administration program and moved to Asheville. Many of her classes, she noted, were held in Asheville City Hall. She’s currently pursuing a degree in diversity law with Kaplan University, according to her husband, J Hackett, who is the executive director of Green Opportunities.
The Hacketts lived in Virginia from about 2005 through 2010. When she returned to Asheville, Alaysia noted, “I was disheartened to see the atmosphere change, especially with regard to people of color and the muted voices.” She got involved with organizations including the Stop the Violence Coalition, Racial Justice Coalition and WNC Diversity Coalition, which led her to pursue the Equity and Inclusion Manager position. “I’m up for the challenge,” she said. “I think it’s time, and it’s much needed.” She said she would encourage transparency to help the city make progress on issues including housing, gentrification, poverty and policing.
“Sometimes we move on feelings: ‘Oh, we need to do this now,'” Alaysia said. “Well, let’s step back and look at the policy and assess the policy, so that when we make the necessary changes, it can stick. That’s the balance that I think I can offer.”
Local activist Patrick Conant, who attended a similar meet-and-greet held earlier on the same day, posted comments on Facebook about the position. Conant has worked with underrepresented communities to encourage greater transparency and access to city data. He noted that both Archie and Hackett seemed highly qualified. Both bring unique skills, he wrote, and either would be a positive choice.
But Conant was critical of the proposed reporting structure, writing, “… I see the Communications Department often working to convey the positive actions taken by the city and generally to make the organization ‘look good’ — placing an Equity Manager in those confines could prevent us from having the difficult conversations that we need to have to move our city forward. It could also damage the credibility of the position, particularly amongst those in our community who are skeptical about whether the city is serious about making real progress in terms of equity.”