“Congratulations. You have a lot of work in front of you, but we’re excited to see that work get done.” Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler greeted Asheville’s newly appointed Human Relations Commission with that call to action after announcing its 14 members at City Council’s May 22 meeting.
The city certainly has high hopes for the HRC. Established based on recommendations from a special Council-appointed Blue Ribbon Committee, the group will be charged with improving human relations and equity throughout Asheville’s government — including the Asheville Police Department, which has drawn fierce criticism in recent months from Council and the public over its response to the beating of a black Asheville resident by a white former APD officer last year.
The existing Citizens Police Advisory Committee, established in 1991, will continue to support police-community relations after public pushback at Council’s May 15 meeting discouraged officials from dissolving it. But HRC member and open government activist Patrick Conant, who also served on the city’s Blue Ribbon Committee, says the new group can take a broader perspective on issues of equity. The HRC holds its first meeting on Thursday, June 14, at 5:30 p.m. in the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center at 285 Livingston St. in Asheville.
“CPAC tended to hear and respond to individual incidents, complaints and concerns. Our HRC can be different because we’ve designed it specifically to focus on system-level issues,” Conant explains. “Even if you can’t have personnel power over a particular complaint against an officer, you can look at that incident and recommend a system-level change that can prevent the same thing from happening again.”
Conant, who is white, imagines the HRC as a sort of city-supported think tank where diverse community members can introduce, discuss and evaluate policy solutions for human relations concerns. “We can get additional research from city staff and input from the city legal team, which then allows an idea from a citizen to become a really strong policy recommendation that moves on to City Council,” he says.
This policy-driven approach somewhat differs from the way other HRCs throughout North Carolina have gone about their duties. In a memo sent to the Blue Ribbon Committee last August, City Attorney Robin Currin outlined three “overarching principles” her office derived from conversations with cities such as Durham, Winston-Salem and High Point.
Currin noted that many HRCs take up enforcement of the Fair Housing Act as a primary priority, resolving discrimination disputes between tenants and landlords. Developing educational programs, running community celebrations and hosting speaker forums are also listed as common activities. While the memo does not specifically mention HRCs as making policy recommendations, it does state that “[c]ommissions can provide advice and resources to area organizations, conduct studies to identify problem areas in the community relations arena and suggest and aid in solutions.”
Raleigh’s HRC, which explicitly delegates housing to a different Fair Housing Hearing Board, has the most similarity to Asheville’s proposal. Among its duties are advising the city’s council on human relations goals and policies, evaluating grants for human services to disadvantaged populations and commenting on city plans for those services.
To ensure a broad spectrum of representation within the HRC, Conant and the other Blue Ribbon Committee members recommended several quotas for Council’s appointments: six African-Americans, two Latinx individuals, two members of the LGTBQ community, two youth members (ages 18-25), two to three residents public housing, two people with a disability and three recognized community leaders.
The HRC’s resulting makeup largely adheres to these quotas. The applicant pool did not contain enough members to meet the Latinx and public housing minimums, while the numbers of black and LGBT individuals both exceeded the recommendations. Kimberlee Archie, the city’s equity and inclusion manager, says she believes that “the group is diverse in many ways” and is eager to work with its members.
“I see the HRC as a critical connection to the larger community, especially to those who are most impacted by discrimination and the deepest disparities, especially racial disparities, in Asheville,” Archie says. “The HRC and its connection to community will help define what equity in Asheville looks like and partner in accountability.”
Although Archie is currently the only city staffer assigned to support the commission’s work, she notes that the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year would expand the Equity and Inclusion Office by three new positions. One of these employees would be specifically designated to provide the HRC with administrative, training and research assistance.
The HRC has yet to establish its regular meeting times and procedures, which will be its first order of business at the June 14 meeting. Commission members will also review the city’s Boards and Commissions handbook and HRC-specific concerns, vote on officers and consider scheduling a group retreat.
Member Christine Longoria acknowledges that setting up those logistics is priority number one for the newly created commission. But she says that encouraging community dialogue, particularly from marginalized groups, should be next on its agenda.
“What scares me is that people are so often afraid to come forward and grieve and shake the trees,” says Longoria, who is Latina. Referencing recent concerns about raids of area immigrant communities by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, she notes, “I do know that [the HRC] is going to have to be a safe place.”
“I think it will be vital to take direction from community stakeholders — residents, local nonprofits, community groups, city staff, etc. — not solely our own experiences, passions and perspectives,” adds member Michael Carter. “This group will not work if city residents don’t know it exists.”
As a social worker, downtown resident and gay black man, Carter says, he felt motivated to join the commission over concerns about economic development, gentrification and public safety. “I want myself (and others who look and love like me) to able to feel completely safe and welcome in Asheville,” he explains. “I will use that desire as a guiding light for my perspective on the HRC.”
Carter and the rest of the HRC’s members believe that the group represents an important step forward for a city that continues to wrestle with the idea of equity. “We will not prosper unless we prosper together,” he says. “The more voices heard, the closer we get to that goal.”