The view from above

Our region is facing a host of environmental woes. Often lost in the shuffle of impact studies and environmental assessments, however, is the bigger picture: what we are capable of doing to our planet. With that in mind, one regional conservation group is working hard to educate the public about imperiled ecosystems throughout the Southeast by offering a different perspective: a bird’s-eye view.

Since 1996, Southwings, a nonprofit organization based in Chattanooga, Tenn., has been using aviation to promote conservation. The group’s Web site ( explains its mission: to “use flight in advocacy for sustainable solutions to restore and to protect the ecosystems and biodiversity in the Southeast.” It’s a relatively simple concept. Take a small plane, fill it with civic leaders, politicians, journalists, scientists — anyone who’s in a position to affect policy or public opinion — get them airborne, and let them bear witness.

Now, thanks in part to a $25,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Southwings has been able to open an office in Asheville with its own dedicated Cessna(tm). Southwings spokesman Hume Davenport recently spoke with Xpress about the group’s local efforts. “We’re currently working with forest researchers documenting the effects of air pollution on tree mortality along mountain ridgelines,” he explained, adding, “We’ve also partnered with local groups such as the Dogwood Alliance to further promote their conservation vision.”

Another program out of the Asheville office is a “forestry 101” flight that Davenport describes as a chance to get an aerial perspective on forest-management regimes in the southern Appalachians. “We’re looking at the occurrence of industrial clear-cutting. Traditionally, this has been seen mostly in the Piedmont region, but due to overharvesting on the part of the timber industry, the practice is moving inland and upland. What they are doing is removing natural forests and replacing them with false forests, such as pine plantations. Here, it’s a practice most commonly found in conjunction with chip mills.”

Over the last six years, Southwings has partnered with 250 organizations and logged more than 300 flight hours annually in an effort to give people what Davenport calls “undeniable visual evidence” of environmental devastation. The group has enjoyed significant media exposure, including coverage by such heavy hitters as 60 Minutes, The New York Times and National Geographic. As we spoke on the phone, Davenport noted that he was waiting on the runway for a film crew from Bill Moyers’ show Now.

That day’s flight was scheduled to enable the crew to document the impact of mountain-top-removal mining in West Virginia. Davenport described a similar West Virginia flight as a “watershed moment” in the group’s history. “We flew a group of policy-makers and journalists over one of these mountain-top mines. In order to extract the coal, these companies are allowed to remove the top 500 feet of a mountain — and these are multi-thousand-acre mine sites. It’s devastating to the landscape and the surrounding communities. It’s an absolute tragedy. After the flight, everyone onboard was so deeply affected. People openly wept, including some jaded journalists.”

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Tracking African-American history

Officially sanctioned American history, particularly the brand we’re fed during our school years, is often marked by glaring omissions reflecting the perspective of the majority culture. We learn quite a bit about how the Pilgrims survived those first few arduous years, a lot about the Founding Fathers (or “masters,” for those of you descended from their property), a bit about the Great Depression, and so on. What’s often lost, however, is the unique history of minority cultures, particularly that of African-Americans.

Helping bridge that gap is the Asheville-based YMI Cultural Center. As part of their ongoing efforts to shed light on the customs, traditions and contributions of African-Americans, the organization, in partnership with the Center for Diversity Education, has announced the opening of a new page on the YMICC Web site (

The page is a digitized version of an exhibit titled “An Unmarked Trail: Stories of African-Americans in Buncombe County from 1850-1900.” On display at the YMI until the end of July (after which it will move to the Mountain Heritage Center in Cullowhee), the project is a collection of primary-source materials such as documents and eye-witness accounts. The Web site chronicles much of the exhibit and also includes links to other regional and national archives. Among them is a link to the Library of Congress’ “American Memory” Web site, where one can read the words of Sarah Gudger. Interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, Gudger describes her life as a slave in Reems Creek and Oteen.

Debi Miles of the CDE reflected recently on the project’s significance: “For the most part, people have very little information on the historical contributions of our African-American community. It is very much an unmarked trail — it’s all there, but you need to look for it. The value of bringing the hidden into the open is that people will recognize the contributions of this community. … Through these overlays of human contribution, we can learn why Asheville and Buncombe County are so unique.”

Miles also credits local students with doing much of the detective work of tracking down these documents. “Students from Roberson, Asheville and Reynolds High School researched much of the material. It was the first time we used student researchers, and their work made this exhibit possible.”

For more information, contact Debi Miles at 254-9044, or visit the YMI Web site at

Battling cancer in black women

Before African-American women can even begin to fight breast and cervical cancer, they must first overcome certain cultural stumbling blocks.

Although white women have a higher incidence of breast cancer, black women die from it at a higher rate, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society.

That’s because they tend to be diagnosed later, when the cancer is more advanced and harder to treat, says Harrietta Mason, health-education coordinator at the YWCA of Asheville. In large part, she maintains, that delay is because black women are not informed about the importance of breast self-exams, mammograms or Pap smears.

And a 1995 study at the University of Northern Iowa found that African-American women are less likely to report concerns or symptoms of breast cancer to their doctor, notes Mason.

“It has a lot to do with our culture,” she says. “It’s like we don’t talk about things like that.”

To help overcome those barriers, the YWCA of Asheville has launched The Witness Project, a health-education program that aims to boost black women’s knowledge about breast and cervical cancer and encourage early detection and health screenings. Launched locally on March 15, the program recently got a $25,000 grant from The Community Benefits Program of Mission St. Joseph’s Health System.

Through The Witness Project, the YWCA arranges for cancer survivors and health professionals to hold free educational programs at neighborhood churches, community centers and “basically anywhere they will let us in the door to get our message across,” says Mason. Each session runs about 75 minutes and includes a video, personal stories from cancer survivors and a chance for discussion.

In addition, The Witness Project has a team of people to help women maneuver through the health-care system — from screening to diagnosis and treatment. Explains Mason: “We will walk them through the whole program. I think that’s what’s so important.”

The first Witness Project was launched in Little Rock, Ark., back in the mid-’90s; the idea has since spread to 29 states, notes Mason. Using the church as a vehicle to spread the word, The Witness Project takes its name from the Christian practice of witnessing.

“Their motto is: In church, people witness to save souls. But at The Witness Project, we witness to save lives,” offers Mason. “We want to let people know that breast cancer or cervical cancer is not a death sentence.”

The next Witness Project program is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 25 at the River of Life Full Gospel Outreach Church, 826 Haywood Road in Asheville. The next Mobile Mammography screening will be held Wednesday, Aug. 14 at Hillcrest Apartments, 100 Atkinson St. in Asheville. To learn more about the next Witness Project meeting (or to make an appointment for a mammogram), call Mason at 254-7206, ext. 205.

Commemorating 9/11

As the anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, the local United Way is working on an event to celebrate volunteerism and the community’s generosity.

United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, in partnership with the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, is planning the Spirit of America Day of Caring and Remembrance. The public event is planned for 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 11 at City/County Plaza in downtown Asheville.

“The Day of Caring and Remembrance is an opportunity for people to show their support for America and make a difference right here at home,” explains A-B Tech President K. Ray Bailey, who is chairman of the 2002 United Way Campaign.

The program aims to honor Day of Caring volunteers, recognize the generosity of the community, and remember both the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the people who helped them.

Day of Caring is an annual event organized by The Volunteer Center; more than 1,000 volunteers work on various local projects with nonprofits and public agencies.

The event will also mark the beginning of United Way’s fall fund-raising campaign. In May, volunteers allocated $3.4 million in United Way community-fund donations collected last year to 74 programs at 39 local agencies.

For more information or to volunteer for the Day of Caring and Remembrance, call United Way at 255-0696.

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