Office of Equity & Inclusion fills out staff

Nia Davis, Yashika Smith, and Paulina Mendez
SOCIAL JUSTICE FOR ALL: The three recently hired staffers for Asheville's Office of Equity & Inclusion — from left, Nia Davis, Yashika Smith and Paulina Mendez — will help the city operate more fairly for all its residents. Photo by Dan Phairas, courtesy of the city of Asheville

For over a year, Kimberlee Archie led a team of one. As Asheville’s first equity and inclusion manager, she joined city government in July 2017 to oversee a department with ambitious goals, Council support and a direct reporting line to the city manager’s office — but no other employees.

That changed with the approval of Asheville’s budget for fiscal year 2019. Archie requested and received a more than $250,000 boost over her original FY 2018 allocation to hire three new staffers. A new citizen board, the Human Relations Commission of Asheville, was also convened in June to complement her department’s work.

As of late January, Archie’s office is fully staffed. The four Asheville employees are together charged with advancing equity, which the city defines as “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential,” and promoting inclusion, defined as “authentic and empowered participation with a true sense of belonging.” Racial equity — “the condition when racial identity no longer predicts individual or group life outcomes, and outcomes for all groups are improved” — is a particularly important focus.  

What does this mission look like, and what challenges does the Office of Equity & Inclusion face as it goes about its work? Xpress spoke with Archie and each of her recent hires to better understand Asheville’s newest city department.

Spreading the news

Priority No. 1, Archie explains, is increasing the city’s awareness of and capacity for equity work. Through internal training and engagement, she hopes to multiply the impact of the relatively small staff devoted full time to the issue.

“It can’t be seen as just four people responsible for getting the city to a place of operating in a more equitable and inclusive way,” Archie says. “It is our expectation to make sure that everyone knows what equity really is about and how to operationalize it on a daily basis in our work as a city.”

An opt-in equity assessment survey of city employees published in July by the Government Alliance on Race & Equity (avl.mx/5pp) suggests that Asheville has substantial room for improvement. Of the 661 respondents, 45 percent had not participated in any racial equity training, while more than a third of those who had completed such training hadn’t found it to be useful.

The city’s four largest departments — fire, police, public works and water services — had less than 40 percent of staffers respond to the survey at all. Archie suggests that these low rates may have been due to the “trepidation” of employees with little knowledge about the topic.

“A lot of times you can be afraid of things that you don’t know or understand,” Archie says. “I think this first time out, there were people that just didn’t want to take [the survey] because it was the unknown.”

Paulina Mendez was hired to address this knowledge gap as the Office of Equity & Inclusion’s training consultant. A UNC Asheville political science graduate, she gained an understanding of local race issues from now-retired professors Dwight Mullen and Dolly Jenkins-Mullen, which she is using to develop training resources with what she calls an “equity lens.”

In contrast to Asheville’s reputation as a “superprogressive, liberal city in the mountains,” Mendez explains, the area has a legacy of race-based mortgage discrimination and urban renewal that played a role in shaping present-day racial inequities. As part of her changes to training materials, she is developing a history of housing policy in Asheville to give city employees a broader perspective on how government action can have unequal and long-lasting effects on different groups of residents. She hopes those conversations will help city staff think more deeply about their own work and its impact.

“When you’re able to know your history, you’re empowered to see the opportunity — ‘Oh wow, we have made those decisions, but we have the opportunity to make different decisions,’” Mendez says. “My hope is that it will reflect even in small, day-to-day activities.”

Outside in

Beyond City Hall, Archie says, her office plans to re-examine how Asheville’s government interacts with the wider community. Taking point on that part of the agenda is Yashika Smith, the department’s inclusive engagement and leadership manager.

“My role is to reach out, connect and give voice to the overlooked and underrepresented communities in Asheville,” Smith explains. “I’ve been tasked with looking at new ways to implement inclusive engagement so that everybody is heard — not only heard, but listened to, and in response, they see their input being utilized.”

Smith, an Asheville native with over a decade of experience at nonprofits such as Youth Transformed for Life and Community Action Opportunities, says she takes an “on-the-ground approach” to outreach. Years of grassroots work, she adds, have taught her to be “transparent and raw” with information and listen carefully to the community’s response.  

“That is my first and primary focus: not to listen with intent to respond but listen to understand,” Smith says. “After I’ve listened to the community to hear where they feel unheard, where we have done well and where we can improve, then my steps forward will be guided by what I hear.”

One of Smith’s first major projects will be a seven-stop “community storytelling” tour conducted in partnership with the nonprofit Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community. By facilitating conversations through video and visual art, she hopes to hear the stories of community engagement in historically low-income areas such as Pisgah View, Southside and the Emma community.

Building bridges

Straddling the Office of Equity & Inclusion’s internal and external work is the Human Relations Commission of Asheville. The citizen board, established on the recommendation of a special Council-appointed blue-ribbon committee to address “all forms of individual, institutional and community discrimination through education, advocacy and policy recommendations,” is supported by full-time city staffer Nia Davis.

As suggested by her title of human relations analyst, Davis says she will help the HRCA collect and interpret data on its focus areas of education, public safety and housing. She is also collaborating with other city employees, such as interim City Attorney Sabrina Rockoff, to develop the commission’s procedures for hearing discrimination complaints.

HRCA Chair Tiffany De’Bellott says the city’s direct assistance is invaluable for the board, which is made up largely of residents without previous experience on boards and commissions. “We have a city department who’s holding us accountable, who’s educating us and informing us on our role, but then also allowing us as a community and as a commission to have autonomy,” she explains. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone who sits on the commission to learn what that looks like.”

De’Bellott notes that, because the HRCA started from scratch, much of its work thus far has focused on defining its structure, goals and work plan. But she emphasizes that the group will soon be ready to engage with the community, with outreach planned around the city’s recent contracting disparity study.

“Our focus now is unpacking the business report and also teaching companies, especially those owned by people of color, how to make requests to the city and how to bid for specific projects,” De’Bellott says. “I think that it’s been a challenge in Asheville to communicate to those that really need to hear the message.”

Information should flow both ways between the community and the HRCA, Davis adds. When asked about the biggest gap Asheville has in its data regarding equity issues, she points to the lived experience of minority residents who have experienced the city’s transformation in recent decades.

“With urban renewal, a lot of folks are being pushed out, and I think really tapping into the population of folks that have stayed would be interesting,” Davis says. “I don’t know how much the city has tapped into their stories and how the changes are impacting them.”

Slow but steady

All of this work is guided by the Equity Action Plan (avl.mx/5pr), developed by Archie and approved by Council in June. At that time, Archie said that her department would provide quarterly updates on the plan’s progress; as of the time of writing, no such updates had been presented to Council.

“The timeline for the Equity Action Plan, to be completely transparent, is very much off-kilter,” Archie acknowledges. She attributes these delays to the staggered hiring of her department’s staff, an approach that was adopted after she finalized the plan’s timeline, and the challenges of finding the right people to fill those new positions.

The department is adjusting its targets for the year to reflect these realities, Archie says. While the plan initially called for putting 30 percent of city staff through introductory equity training by the end of the fiscal year, for example, she now aims to complete training for 15 percent of employees. “I knew it was lofty when we wrote the Equity Action Plan, but we wanted to be bold and try to get as much done as possible in the first year,” she says.

Nevertheless, Archie is confident that her now fully staffed department can carry out the plan’s goals. She does not anticipate asking for additional employees in the upcoming budget cycle — instead, she hopes that staffers from throughout city government will take equity and inclusion to heart in their own work.

“We have to add capacity to our staff through training, through creating more resources or information and getting the word out in different ways,” Archie explains. “That’s part of the framework of getting people comfortable with talking about race and racism and where there are inequities and what we can do to create better equity.”

Mendez shares her boss’s excitement, as well as her recognition that change won’t happen all at once. “We’re trying to shape and change institutions, systemic-level stuff, stuff that has been entrenched since the beginning of this country,” she says. “We all know that this is a heavy lift.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and city government beat reporter for Mountain Xpress. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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19 thoughts on “Office of Equity & Inclusion fills out staff

  1. jason

    What do these people actually do on a daily basis? WTF is wrong with Asheville?

    • Potts

      Those specifically who feel divided need only venture out of their apparent comfort zone… they also need to examine the factors that make them feel apart from the apparent disparate group. This being a personal pursuit – either the heart is open to the notion of unity or the presuppositions of division will continue to expand rifts… or the person will remain uncomfortably boxed into a particular identity they have not formed uniquely. May people accept individuality? Can the people tasked actually open the hearts of those who are currently closeted off in various sects of society?
      I love everyone (doesn’t mean I like everyone!) and treat everyone the same… its not much more complex than this, this is the solution. Anyone who believes any particular group needs special treatment is promoting a form of bigotry… whereby certain individuals will be faced with people “strategizing” rather than classically “socializing”. Though, truly, in this world of extreme social anxiety (thanks facebook, twitter etc) coupled with a general inability to communicate/accept ideas in an individual way (thanks emojis, memes…)… the great social problems we face extend far beyond any form of identity arbitration.

  2. Trevor

    Things to make white people feel good. This is another example ridiculous government spending. The fact that they need an entire staff to figure this out shows the level of incompetence of the people who runt his city.

    • C-Law

      Haha!

      Money well spent Asheville! You certainly have got the local government you deserve at the city and now county levels! Enjoy the ride down when it inevitably crashes and burns. Bill Fortschen’s One Second After may be instructive to those who are “awake”, note well, not “woke”…one letter makes a YUGE difference! haha!

  3. Enlightened Enigma

    Good! Now it’s time for them to set about achieving EQUITY and INCLUSION with the city school system by working for dual system CONSOLIDATION for the children’s equity and inclusion and so that all the students can fail equally in government screwls! Also, HOW MANY MILLION$$$ will consolidation SAVE the taxpayers EVERY YEAR forward ?? WHO can answer that question???

    Get YOUR children OUT of the INEQUITABLE Asheville City Screwls as fast as you can! They are NOT for inclusion at all…they are BIG ELITISTS with BIG salaries to pay…enough of the double costs! Time for Archer to get her tail in gear for REAL inclusion or STFU!

  4. Robin

    This is just a poor excuse to make the Asheville elite seem like they’re doing something constructive for the minority communities by providing useless high-paying jobs. If you really want equity, how about a grocery store in the food deserts of Livingston, Oakley, and Montford (and don’t give me Wal-Mart unless you’re willing to lug your groceries uphill for 2 miles). There’s a lot of minorities who don’t even have reasonable access to anything more than a convenience store, and forget about fresh food.

    Also, I might add; that’s a department budget of over a million dollars to oversee hundreds of functions (and millions of dollars) that the City is required to bid and award based on price (and price alone). You can be the most excluded minority in all of North America, and a North Carolina municipality still can’t award you a contract unless you are, in fact, the lowest bidder. So, Asheville citizens may want to inquire how an Equity and Inclusion department is going to change that dynamic without wandering into some illicit or illegal activity. The same state law that governs bidding also states that collusion (rigging a bid to favor someone or something) is just as illegal. Other than that, it’s just another set of big fat government jobs that doesn’t really have a customer or a deliverable, and isn’t really accountable to anyone other than a politician.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      grocery stores locate where the customers are, duh… plenty of grocery stores around here… minorities don’t like to eat healthy anyhow…fact.

  5. Low Rider

    It seems popular in Asheville to focus predominately on the black population when it comes to diversity and inclusion, particularly in city’s public and educational sectors. There seems to be much smaller emphasis on the female population, even smaller emphasis on the LGBTQA population, and smaller still emphasis on the Hispanic population. There does not seem to be much emphasis if any at all on other types of diverse groups such as the differently abled population, people of different ages, people of different heritages, people of different religious and spiritual outlooks, people from other geographic areas, people facing mental health issues, people facing substance abuse issues, people of different socioeconomic status, people from different local subcultures, people with genetic difference, etc. Many aspects of diversity are not visible or immediately discernable. Members of diverse groups are not always loud and proud about their differences and do not have to be. Equality is not about advancing a preferred or one’s own (minority) group over another, especially at the exclusion or unfair expense of other groups– even members of the majority group. It is about striking fair balance for all groups. Objectively considering geographic and other representation statistics to assess the types and proportion of diverse groups might be a logical start for trying to promote a truly fairer balance. Relying on experts with substantial training and objectivity in diversity and inclusion matters in balance with those who have personal experiences as members of diverse groups. Having personal experience with issues of diversity and inclusion should not be discounted but it does not automatically make a person an expert on matters of diversity or objective about them as a whole or even as affecting a particular group. Personal experience can sometimes backfire and compromise objectivity. The greatest civil rights leaders have recognized this.

    • Richard B.

      Low went High with this commentary. Very well stated. The diversity issue and efforts to “strike a fair balance” seem to me akin to trying to make all trees look alike by some high tech hybridization, in order to improve the landscape. It appears to be a case of, “if I don’t look like you, and you are doing better in life than I (obviously a very objective observation, likely greed/paranoid motivated), and there are more people walking around that look like you, then I am a VICTIM”.

      Further, I believe that the highly touted corporate goals of “Inclusion and Diversity”, so widespread and sought after by “ethical” organizations, assumes, wrongly, that there are a whole bunch of bigots walking around out there.

      Frankly, I find it offensive to sit with a group of business peers being lectured to by someone who is obviously telling me that I don’t even know how racist I really am, that, because I am not of their skin tone, that it is an innate characteristic of my being that I am required to undergo coaching, that is, indoctrination, to achieve enlightenment.

    • Jim

      Yeah, “diversity” DEFINITELY doesn’t include people opposed to the socialist agenda of the “progressives”.

  6. Richard B.

    It strikes me as a bad joke that Asheville’s taxpayer funded Office of Equity and Inclusion is 100 % staffed by non-Caucasian females, who comprise less than 15% of Asheville’s taxpayer base. It is obvious exactly who is being excluded. This has become the norm across our country.
    Is it not also a further insult to those who are derisively referred to as possessing the mysterious advantage and entitlement of White Privilege?

    History is clear that Americans of African descent were slaves until over 300,000 young white men from the Northern states lost their lives, while another 400,000 were wounded, to end slavery over 150 years ago. And yes, many descendants of those slaves, mostly folks living in the South, were deprived of their civil rights, mostly by those in the Democratic Party, until 50 years ago.

    It is also clear that today, and I repeat, TODAY…, every lawful citizen, of every skin tone, is free to truly pursue any lawful business or vocation, (or not), what the Founding Fathers decreed as our “unalienable rights”. Thus, I question the real need for this “office” whose purpose is to train all the other City employees that we are each equal to one another, as if the current atmosphere is such that colleagues of different skin tones and cultural origin are menacing one another, inhibiting one another’s ability to achieve our goals (or not).
    It seems to me that those who are having difficulty with achieving their goals, or perceive that others are doing better than they, are finding it useful to justify their lack of achievement by claiming some type of victimhood status.

  7. Lulz

    I make much, much less than those 3 in the picture. Therefore I am unequal to them. So these worthless government made up job cronies live off people that are economically poorer than them. Yet they are there to mete out inclusiveness and BS. LOL, get outta here with your wasteful gimmicks and lies.

    • luther blissett

      “I make much, much less than those 3 in the picture. Therefore I am unequal to them. ”

      What’s your net worth: you know, your liquid assets minus personal debt plus the equity on the property you own?

      (You’re the one making a quantitative argument here.)

      • Enlightened Enigma

        luther, how rude to ask someone’s net worth…you sound like donald trump …

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