Former Equity and Inclusion Director Brenda Mills looks back on her career

TIME TO RETIRE: Former Equity and Inclusion Director Brenda Mills, who officially retired on Jan. 31, has worked in local government for more than 32 years, 18 of which were with the City of Asheville. Mills served in her most recent role since 2021. Photo courtesy of the City of Asheville

As former Equity and Inclusion Director Brenda Mills reflects on her career as she begins retirement, two accomplishments stand out. One is the positive reception city employees gave a plan to increase racial equity. The other is the Reparations Commission, a 25-member joint commission between the City of Asheville and Buncombe County designed to make policy recommendations that will help repair the damage caused by systemic racism.

“Reparations has definitely had some hiccups, but I think that overall the [Reparations Commission] has been successful,” Mills says. “Specifically, I think that they have made good strides with the audit of the city and the county. It was a big task that has never been done before, but I am excited that we were able to do it.”

Mills took over the equity and inclusion role in 2021, one year local racial protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

A strength of the Reparations Commission is its deep connection to the local community. Reparations efforts in cities of  similar size have been done largely internally, without much community input, Mills says.

“Take Evanston, Ill., for example. In their city, the alderman board handled most of the reparations. While they did go out in the community, the majority of their work was done politically,” says Mills. “For us, though, we prioritized working with neighborhoods and volunteers, which can be really tricky. However, I think that our focus on community outreach is what separates us from other reparations efforts and I really think we are going to be a model for the country.”

Achieving equity city-wide

Mills says her time as the equity and inclusion director was an eye-opening experience.

“I came to realize that the needs of one community might be very different from the needs of another,” Mills says. “A friend of mine gave me a really good analogy about it: Goldfish need water that is a little dirty to survive. While other fish prefer clean, pristine water, goldfish need their water to be cloudy. If you put a goldfish in a tank designed for other fish, it will die. People are the same way: Everyone has different needs in order to grow and thrive.”

Mills is proud of her work leading the development of an equity action plan. The plan, which was first presented to City Council in November, looks at the strategic goals of each department within the city and develops a framework for addressing them in a way that is fair and inclusive for their employees and the community they serve.

“We took a different approach to equity action planning because we really wanted each of the departments to think about how they could advance racial equity individually,” Mills says.

Mills says that she believes the action planning was well received by city departments, with many of them already taking steps to put their plans in action. Most plans focus on trying to achieve demographically equal employee retention and promotion rates, she says.

“It was truly a beautiful thing to watch because I got to see people who were most likely ‘voluntold’ to lead this initiative excited and eager to work on it. They were all aware that we are not where we need to be, but they were willing to take what they learned back to their departments and start the process of making real change,” Mills says.

Mills highlights the work of the Asheville Water Resources Department as an example. The department, which set goals to diversify its  workforce and improve communication, created a video that explains what it means to have equity in the workforce and how to use inclusive language.

The department sent out a survey to all of its employees to get feedback on how the department could improve its communication and policies to be a more inclusive and respectful work environment. Of its 172 employees, 111 took the survey, a participation level that Mills calls “incredible.”

Mills’ beginnings in local government

A native of North Carolina, Mills attended Parkwood High School in Monroe and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1985 with a bachelor’s in industrial relations. Later, she earned a master’s in public administration from Western Carolina University.

For Mills, working in local government initially came out of necessity. In 1992, after working for UNC Chapel Hill as a parking services coordinator for six years, Mills moved to Asheville. Mills says she struggled to find a job, taking temporary work to make ends meet. Mills says a friend of hers told her about a job in the booking department of the Buncombe County Jail.

“Initially, I was against the idea. I didn’t know anything about working in a jail and I was a little scared,” Mills says. “Eventually, I went and spoke with the jail administrator. It was more money, so I took the job.”

Two years later, she became coordinator of the county’s Minority Business Program, which exposed her to the greater Black community. Until then, she had a few Black friends but she struggled to find the Black community and did not realize the scope of the issues that local minorities faced.

“When I moved to the area in ’92, I never really saw a Black person. However, when I worked as the coordinator for the [Minority Business] program, I attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast, where about 1,000 of the 1,100 people were Black. It got me thinking, ‘Where do all of these people live?’” Mills says. “That’s when I started to realize how divided and segregated Asheville can be.”

In 2005, the county’s Minority Business Program was transferred to the city, and Mills followed. At the city, Mills worked in various capacities, including as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act project manager, an administrative services manager, an economic development specialist and as a neighborhood and community engagement specialist.

“Neighborhood services was, hands down, my dream job,” says Mills. “I love working in neighborhoods. I like going to communities. I like hearing about the concerns they have and I did my best to try and connect them with the government to help support them.”

Mills says educating people about local government was one of her favorite parts of her career.

“I’m amazed that in the 21st century, people still don’t know how the government functions, which can be difficult because it then makes them think [the government] is trying to hide things,” Mills says. “I am really passionate about educating people on how the city works on a day-to-day basis, how they can get involved and engage with city staff and Council and even how they can use social media as a way to get news and updates. If people feel like they can engage with [the city], they are more likely to see the work we are trying to do and will help us to strengthen their communities.”

Mills became interim equity and inclusion director in June 2021, following the abrupt resignation of Kimberlee Archie, who claimed that the city lacked accountability and support for her department. City Manager Debra Campbell later removed “interim” from Mills’ title.

“I knew the Black community of Asheville really well from my previous roles, and they knew and trusted me. I also knew some of the agencies and organizations, and I felt like I could make a difference,” Mills says. “While equity was not something that I initially wanted to do with the city, I came to love my job and I feel that it’s been a really good journey to learn about myself as a person of color and as a woman.”

Mills says that she has felt supported by city staff and believes the equity and inclusion team has developed strong relationships with the city manager’s office and other city departments.

“I think it is really important for people to realize that if you are facing no resistance in your job, then you are working with robots,” Mills says. “Taking equity out of it, every department has its own goals and objectives, and when another department comes in and asks them to do something outside of those goals, it can lead to resistance. However, I can safely say that I have felt supported in my role and overall I believe that each of the departments has been responsive.”

Looking forward

Mills recognizes the work that still needs to be done to achieve equity citywide. Namely, Mills says the city needs to continue to maintain and update the equity action plan.

“It is not enough to just put a plan together and then forget about it,” Mills says. “It is going to be really important for departments to continue to put their plans into place and to keep them updated and alive.”

Additionally, Mills would like to see improvements to the city’s equity training procedures.

“One of the things I think has to happen is equity training needs to be mandatory for every supervisor and every employee,” Mills says. “We want to set up an organization that values people’s differences, that values what people bring to the table and one where people feel like they know how to take the next step. To do that, I think that everyone needs to be trained, not just directors and managers.”

Those tasks are now up to Sala Menaya-Merritt, who was recently named Asheville’s next equity and inclusion director.

“[Menaya-Merritt] has a lot of experience and training in her background and she has a lot of good suggestions about new programs and initiatives that we can offer,” says Mills. “I am excited to see how she grows the department and what she plans to do.”

As for Mills, she has big plans for retirement. In addition to spending more time with her family, Mills will be an adjunct professor at Western Carolina University, teaching diversity, equity and inclusion in the nonprofit administration graduate program. She also plans to launch a consulting business, whereby she will use her experience in local government to help businesses and nonprofits achieve diversity, equity and inclusion within their organizations.

“For me, I don’t see retirement as the end of my career, but rather as a new chapter,” Mills says. “Public service is a difficult but wonderful profession, and I had the opportunity to work with amazing people, both with the city and out in the community. I am just ready for my next step in the journey.”


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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2 thoughts on “Former Equity and Inclusion Director Brenda Mills looks back on her career

  1. North Asheville

    An inspiring interview that showcases accomplishments and humanity of a person I had not know before. Well done to Ms. Mills and Chase Davis.

    • indy499

      What a generous assessment. Only in the public trough world of government are things like good survey responses and a positive reception by city employees considered accomplishments.

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