Carl Sandburg called Chicago the “city of the big shoulders”; if he were alive today, he might describe Asheville as “the city of the big thinkers,” acknowledging the passion so many area residents display in seeking out new solutions to the issues we face. On many fronts, creative new approaches are being hatched and put in play.
Big ideas can seem small at first, but even the huge tulip poplars of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest germinated from tiny seeds. These solutions may address problems small or large; they may also be a new way of looking at something that seems to be working reasonably well. Sometimes, the key to a difficult question seems too slippery to grasp; other times, they just bubble up, as easy as falling off a log. Sometimes a big idea appears to be the answer, and sometimes it just helps us ask better questions.
What follows is only a small sampling of the many big ideas and amazing things local people and institutions are dreaming up and trying out. And while we’ve undoubtedly missed some equally important examples, it’s worth noting that the promising ideas presented here are either being implemented now or will be soon.
Today, big ideas are more likely to be small steps with big potential than immediate giant leaps. They’re a better mousetrap, not the steam engine, and the people representing the ideas presented here would all readily admit that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
With that in mind, we invite you to join us in taking a small step toward some big future outcomes.
The planet is changing, and inevitably, we will change with it. Earth’s average temperature is rising, and Swannanoa resident Laura Lengnick is one of the supermajority of scientists worldwide who are convinced that humans are significantly responsible for the concentration of heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, that are piling up in the atmosphere. Disturbances linked to climate change include unusual weather patterns (drought/flooding) and changes in the growth of crops and livestock. And, long term, says Lengnick, our very existence will depend on how we respond.
But she’s no prophet of doom. Instead, Lengnick comes to the table with an idea: Apply “resilience science” to agriculture. “We know a lot already about how to deal with climate change,” she says, and more sustainable, nature-based approaches such as increasing soil quality can “buffer” our food systems from all sorts of damage, including the disruptions caused by climate change.
Lengnick is also a practicing soil scientist: Besides teaching about and studying soil, she’s a farmer herself. A former professor of environmental studies at Warren Wilson College, a consulting scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a recent delegate to the Paris climate talks, she released a book last year called Resilient Agriculture.
The book includes a lot of information about food systems (the entire cycle of food creation, distribution, consumption and return), because “Eaters are participating in agriculture,” Lengnick maintains. Her work considers how climate change could trigger changes in the way the world does agriculture — which, she says, is often damaging not just environmentally but also economically and in terms of global health. “We can use resilience thinking,” argues Lengnick, “to bounce forward to an agriculture and food system that contribute multiple benefits: generating high-quality, nutrient-dense food, stimulating local/regional economies, regenerating natural resources and rebuilding community.”
Resilient systems, she maintains, have three essential qualities: diversity, self-reliance and “a balanced portfolio of high-quality assets,” which can be natural, human, social, financial or technological. “All indications are that 20th-century industrial solutions will not sustain our way of life into the 21st century,” Lengnick concludes. “Not just because of climate change, but also because we are running out of all kinds of critical resources: water, fish, land, metals and so on.” Together, that makes for some terrifying math, and as Legnick sees it, “We can’t build or burn our way out of these problems as we have in the past: Thus the importance of nature-based adaptation and resilience solutions. These offer us a different way to think about solving problems and defining progress.”
To help put these ideas into action, Lengnick has a slew of collaborators.
She’s been working as a consultant and teacher with the Organic Growers School’s new Farm Beginnings program, which aims to encourage and support farm startups in WNC. The program, says Lengnick, is the first of its kind in the Southeast, though the principles have been successfully taught elsewhere for nearly two decades. And because it emphasizes the use of ecological farming practices and adaptive management strategies, it also “promotes climate-resilient agriculture,” she explains. Each year, the program hopes to help launch 15 to 20 new farm and food businesses, which Lengnick says will make the region’s food system more resilient “by increasing producer diversity and enhancing regional self-reliance.”
She’s also teamed up with Asheville-based producer and director Dayna Reggero to create the Climate Listening Project, a series of video shorts about ways to cultivate resilience, spotlighting some of the farmers and ranchers featured in Lengnick’s book. The videos, says Lengnick, are “designed to spread awareness among the general public and the agricultural community of the resilience benefits of sustainable agriculture and food systems through the experiences of award-winning sustainable farmers growing fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy across the U.S.”
Meanwhile, as a consultant and board member at Ashevillage, she’s helping develop programs that teach resilient living skills such as foraging, fermenting and making herbal medicines. This spring, Ashevillage is planning a Community Resilience Challenge in collaboration with a Daily Acts, a California-based nonprofit, and other groups across the country.
The WNC Birth Center wants to give expectant mothers another option. The new facility, slated to open in late spring, is on South French Broad Avenue, less than a mile from Mission Hospital. “This is basically just responding to a longtime demand from the consumer,” says Judy Major, chair of the nonprofit’s board of directors.
Between 2010 and 2014, 1.5 percent of WNC births happened outside a hospital setting, most of them at home, according to the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics. That’s the highest rate of home births for any of the state’s six regions; Buncombe County’s rate is five times the state average. Even among those who did opt for hospital births, many (11.2 percent of the region’s total births) chose to have a nurse midwife in attendance rather than a doctor.
Currently, only one WNC facility, New Dawn Midwifery, offers home birth services with state-certified nurse midwives. New Dawn, MAHEC and some other providers have certified nurse midwives who attend in-hospital births. Some trained but uncertified midwives will illegally deliver babies at home; if there are complications, however, this can have tragic results, as in the high-profile 2012 case of Tina (Rowan) Bailey. There are also many doulas in the area, but unlike midwives, they play only a support role.
The WNC Birth Center will offer a different way to have a baby. Mothers, says Major, have long asked, “Why don’t we have an option for women who, for some reason, choose not to be in a hospital but don’t want to be at home when they have their baby?” And though Mission Hospital does a wonderful job, she continues, some women simply don’t want a hospital birth, whether this is due to concerns about environment and comfort, procedure, cost or simply “the ability of the family and the mother to have birth treated as a normal life experience rather than a medical event.”
Birth centers are designed to feel more like a home environment. “They’re very family-oriented,” Major explains. “Women … cannot even be there unless they meet the criteria of low-risk pregnancy. Birth centers don’t offer pain medication or any kind of surgical intervention; basically, it’s for normal, vaginal birth.” Another important difference is that “All the woman’s prenatal, during-birth and postpartum care happen in that place: It’s familiar to her.” The new facility will also offer basic women’s health care to women of all ages. The big idea behind a birth center is finding the most effective balance of safety and comfort while offering expectant mothers a middle path between in-hospital and home births.
Helping students succeed
An innovative pilot program spearheaded by United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County aims to cut the high school dropout rate by identifying at-risk students and getting them the help they need before it’s too late.
A 2011 study by Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University identified three warning signs that dramatically increase middle schoolers’ risk of dropping out before graduating from high school: missing 10 percent of school days in a single year, incurring two or more behavioral referrals, and failing a core subject such as English or math. Without intervention, the study found, any one of those indicators cuts a student’s chances of graduating on time by 75 percent.
“It is during the middle grades,” Balfantz wrote, “that students either launch toward achievement and attainment or slide off track and are placed on a path of frustration, failure and, ultimately, early exit from the only secure path to adult success: leaving high school prepared for postsecondary education and career training.”
Yet middle school students typically have less access to resources and extracurricular support than elementary or high school students, says Elisabeth Bocklet, marketing and communications director for the local United Way chapter. To change that, she explains, the partners in the Asheville Buncombe Middle Grades Network, a coalition that includes the Asheville and Buncombe County schools as well as assorted local nonprofits, are asking one another, “How do we work together differently? How do we change how we approach working with students so that we catch them earlier and are able to intervene more strategically?”
The network is breaking new ground with an Early Warning and Response System, the first of its kind in the state. The digital dashboard tracks individual students’ performance in relation to the risk factors and makes that information available to both parents and out-of-school support systems in real time. When a student starts missing school, having behavioral problems or getting lower grades, the dashboard immediately alerts the people best positioned to help. They can also determine what other support those students are getting.
In addition, this unique program tracks the effectiveness of the resulting interventions and facilitates communication among both school and outside professionals and volunteers. Recent changes in the law allow institutions to share more information.
Meanwhile, the network is also placing “resource coordinators” in local schools to help address the external factors that cause students to struggle, such as hunger, health problems and economic issues. These coordinators will help connect students with needed services, including financial education and job training. This semester, the early warning system is being introduced in Asheville, Enka and Erwin middle schools.
But while everyone involved is excited about the program, cautions Bocklet, implementation shouldn’t be rushed. “Any tool can be really exciting when it’s shiny, right out of the box,” she says, “but the link between data and intervention has to be done well.”
Although the costs and benefits of a college education are sometimes debated, the practical value of a high school diploma is seldom questioned. The overwhelming evidence shows that completing high school correlates statistically to a higher quality of life. Students who drop out can expect to get lower-paying jobs and be unemployed more frequently. Dropouts are more likely to commit crimes, abuse substances, become teenage parents and even take their own life. And according to a 2009 study out of Northeastern University, each dropout costs taxpayers an average of $292,000 over their lifetime.
No repeat customers
More than a decade after “Looking Homeward: the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Asheville and Buncombe County” was adopted, this community is still struggling to get everybody housed. The Great Recession dealt the program a significant blow, and though chronic homelessness in the city has plummeted, the total population has grown. Meanwhile, the area’s critical lack of affordable housing is hampering the effectiveness of the plan’s housing-first model.
But even as the plan is being revised, local agencies continue to roll out new initiatives.
Micheal Woods, executive director of the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, says his organization is pushing into new territory in several ways. A new building in the nonprofit’s Patton Avenue complex will offer overnight shelter for about 70 to 75 women and children. Due to open this winter, it will include classroom space. Upstairs and slated to open later, Abba’s House (“abba” means “father” in Hebrew) will provide longer-term living space for some 40 women and women with children. Residents will be brought in through the new Abba’s Love program, which helps women struggling with past trauma and other psychological issues as well as drug and alcohol addiction.
Although the overall number of local folks experiencing homelessness is holding steady, a rising percentage are women and children, he explains. “The need has grown to epidemic-sized numbers,” says Woods, whose Christian-based organization runs Asheville’s largest emergency shelter and also operates a yearlong addiction recovery program for men. “Our desire was to create a facility that was more of a learning type center and a comforting place instead of just a sterile and institutional place.”
Homeless women and children, he continues, tend to experience more trauma than homeless men. “We’ve coordinated care with other agencies and organizations to create a new center that’s really going to be geared toward reducing that trauma and helping them through the process.”
The goal, notes Woods, is to “transition them out of poverty, never to return: We don’t want repeat customers. We’re not interested in just warehousing the homeless; we don’t enable people anymore. We don’t have long-term homeless, because everyone who stays here is required to have a plan.”
Clients in the short-term emergency shelter can work with Joshua Program staff to develop a written plan with measurable goals. Plans usually involve education or work as well as a mechanism for putting energy and resources back into the program to benefit others. As long as they’re on track with those goals, they can continue to receive shelter and other support services.
The program, notes Woods, is “making everybody accountable. People absolutely love it: They’re grateful for it, because we believe in them and we’re helping them save money.” Some participants, he reports, have saved thousands of dollars to help them build a future with a home, pay off debts and become more financially stable. “We’re trying to create a system where we can move people from a place of poverty to productivity in their lives.”
There’s also a key health component. Beginning next month, the shelter will host a permanent, on-site medical clinic through Appalachian Mountain Community Health Centers, a new federally qualified health agency. The approach makes sense, says Woods, since most of the 500-plus people experiencing homelessness in Asheville on a typical day filter through the ministries on a weekly if not a daily basis.
The primary care clinic will have two exam rooms staffed by medical professionals who can diagnose and begin treatment for illnesses and wounds that might otherwise be ignored. The hope is that early action can keep some cases from ending up in the emergency room. To that end, they’ll also offer preventive care.
“Every year, when the flu starts here, it runs through this population two or three times: It just never stops,” says Woods. “But if we could get on the front end of this thing and get the majority of people vaccinated … they’re gonna trust the process.”