What do you see in this picture? Gender, race, length of time in Western North Carolina? Or maybe the institutional control of billions in assets and spending?
Looking at a stage full of women — panelists for the Aug. 14 finale of Leadership Asheville’s summer Buzz Breakfast series on building a connected community — some might focus on the concentration of female power, bolstered by the presence of Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and other female leaders in the audience.
Others, noting that three of the speakers are black, might reflect on changing racial dynamics.The prelude to City Manager Debra Campbell’s arrival in Asheville was the Feb. 28, 2018, release of leaked body camera video of a white city police officer’s assault of an unarmed black resident, leading to former City Manager Gary Jackson’s resignation.
And although the corruption and embezzlement scandal that preceded County Manager Avril Pinder’s appointment as the head of Buncombe County government wasn’t centered on the whiteness of those targeted by federal indictments, she’s nonetheless the first woman of color to hold that position.
Meanwhile, in the seven months since Dogwood Health Trust came into existence to receive the profits from the sale of nonprofit Mission Health to HCA Healthcare, Lakesha McDay has served as one of the new foundation’s most public faces, building DHT’s relationships in the 18-county WNC region where it will spend $60 million to $75 million annually to boost residents’ health and well-being.
Another lens might emphasize the impact of new blood at the top levels of local agencies and institutions. As discussion facilitator Nancy Cable, who began work as chancellor of UNC Asheville last August, pointed out, she and Campbell are wrapping up their first year in the community. Pinder came to Buncombe County in March. McDay is an Asheville native, but her role at Dogwood is a switch from her previous responsibilities for diversity and employee engagement with Mission Health. Only Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority President and CEO Stephanie Brown has been in the same job for over a year, having taken up her current post in 2012.
Lessons in leadership
Kicking off the discussion, Cable characterized the work of leadership as being “to gather and connect with people unlike ourselves, from different life experiences, from different backgrounds, with patently different opinions from ones we might hold.” She posited that bridging these differences to create progress and change is the primary charge of leadership, particularly “in these days of political divide.”
Taking the stage with Cable, Brown reflected that “we come to this room after hundreds of years of systematic and intentional injustices and inequities.” Those without deep roots in Asheville, she said, haven’t “experienced the vibrancy of the African American communities that were here and that were destroyed through urban renewal.”
Brown highlighted recent TDA funding awards that will highlight and help preserve the city’s black history, including the Stephens-Lee High School Museum and Cultural Center; renovations to the YMI Cultural Center, one of the nation’s oldest black community centers; and the African American Heritage Trail. She also touted the authority’s role in drawing visitors to Buncombe County, which she said creates economic opportunity for entrepreneurs and workers throughout the community.
Campbell urged the audience of about 250 to reimagine perceptions of racial and socioeconomic differences. “We need to tap into those different Ashevilles that we all individually experience and look at them as strengths rather than weaknesses,” she said. “Look at them as assets rather than deficits for our community.”
The creation of the city’s Equity and Inclusion Department, Campbell said, represents a long-term shift in shared values. “Equity and inclusion makes us a better community; it strengthens us,” she said. “We’ve got so much data that tells us that when you include people, it builds — it doesn’t tear down.”
Pinder’s priority has been listening to county employees. “They had a distrust for leadership because of what we’ve been through,” she said, referring to the federal indictments on corruption charges of four former county employees, including former County Managers Wanda Greene and Mandy Stone, as well as former Buncombe County Commissioner Ellen Frost and county contractor Joseph Wiseman Jr.
The county manager revealed that she spent the first 100 days in her new job “just talking to staff” rather than going out into the community to build relationships there, explaining, “We are public servants, but until we can fix ourselves and we decide what we believe in, we really can’t focus on anything. For me, it was work that had to be done.”
Pinder also spoke of the need for expanded collaboration with nonprofits and city of Asheville staff and elected leaders, pointing to the pursuit of high-quality internet connectivity for all county residents as the type of issue that requires broad cooperation among various groups.
The county’s new investments in “the first 2,000 days of life” — with $3.5 million committed to early childhood services in the current fiscal year and similar support projected for future years — Pinder said, will play out over time as Buncombe youths experience less of an opportunity and achievement gap than earlier generations. She also pointed to the need to plan for smart urban growth, including possible county investments in public transit outside Asheville city limits.
Location, location, location
Reflecting on the “908,379 people across the 18 counties” that will be served by Dogwood Health Trust, McDay sees significant differences of geography and demographics. While Asheville and Buncombe County are grappling with the consequences of growth, she said, places like Murphy and Robbinsville face shrinking populations.
Mentioning traffic on Interstate 26 close to Asheville, McDay remarked, “Those things that we don’t like, somebody else would love. Or those things that are building up our economy and our infrastructure are not happening in other places, so I think we have to broaden that lens of perspective as we think about the demographics.”
McDay also spoke strongly against “narratives that cause disconnectedness,” characterizations of communities that portray them as “lesser than” instead of different and resilient in their own ways. “We have to be really careful that we are actually creating the spaces, that we’re creating the opportunity for people to feel connected, versus feeding a narrative that forces us to be disconnected,” she said.
Atonement and healing
As the discussion approached its end, Cable posed a provocative question submitted by an audience member.
“What do we do as a community to systematically atone for decades of betrayal and truly heal, in order to become a connected community?” Cable read.
After a long pause as the question sank in, Pinder raised her microphone. “Atonement: That is a very strong word,” she said. “Atonement to me says that somebody’s got to pay for something.”
Neither Pinder nor the other panelists were willing to get on board with the idea of paying for past sins, but each offered a response. For Pinder, listening to our neighbors’ experiences without judgment or defensiveness is the best fix, while Campbell added, “I don’t think it’s about atonement — it’s about us agreeing collectively that we want to try to help improve the lives of each other.”
Brown suggested that learning about the inequities in Asheville’s past and present can go a long way. “For each of us who have decided to come here and make this our home, we owe it to those who came before us to learn the history and become educated.”
McDay tackled a different aspect of the question, focusing on the idea of healing. “Healing doesn’t mean that you won’t hurt again or that you won’t think about it again or that you might not get taken back to that space again,” she said.
Even after acknowledging a loss and moving on, she continued, “It’s still a part of who we are.” The grief can still be triggered, sometimes when it’s least expected. “Because sometimes you think that you have healed and you haven’t. So I kind of got stuck on that word,” she concluded, to a burst of applause.