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.”
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.
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.”