Xpress presents: Asheville’s eight influentials for 2016 — Phyllis Utley

Photo by Emma Grace Moon

From Dec. 1-5, Xpress’ website will feature profiles of the eight people we selected as Asheville influentials for 2016. You can also view all eight in this week’s print issue.


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Our area sees its fair share of awards and recognition ceremonies. And many dedicated individuals receive well-deserved attention for the work they do to make our community a great place to live.

But it often seems a small group of movers and shakers get all the glory, while the energy and talent of legions of other contributors remain hidden in plain sight.

So, in the spirit of our mission to build community and foster civic dialogue, Xpress set out to find some of those lesser-known folks who are quietly doing important work in the Asheville area. We put out a call for nominations and received a total of 41. From there, our editorial team conducted background research on the nominees, including interviews with colleagues and collaborators. Gradually, over a series of meetings, the list was narrowed to eight outstanding influencers.

The nominees, overall, embodied a high degree of the qualities we were hoping to celebrate. That’s the calling card of a committed community: We have an abundance of passionate citizens mobilized to make a difference in the Asheville area. We realized, through the course of this project, it only scratches the surface of all the active, influential people in our region. As such, Xpress hopes to revisit this concept in the future.

Xpress applauds the work of those profiled here, and we hope you will be as inspired as we have been to learn more about their motivations and contributions.

Xpress editorial staff

Previous profiles:

There are two ways to view the Q&A: Either click the graphic below or scroll down to see text version of their answers (some text versions have more information than we could fit in the graphic).

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Phyllis Utley

  • A-B Tech, diversity recruiter
  • Presents college as option in underserved communities
  • Increased Latino enrollment by nearly 3 percent at A-B Tech
  • Helps potential students with admission and financial aid applications

Nominator’s quote:
“She has proven to be a diamond in this region, and many people trust her with their lives. Phyllis is informative and assertive. She has not given up on those who people call hopeless. She is hope for the underrepresented population.”

Job, volunteer work:
CoThinkk, a giving circle that invests its time, talent and treasure to accelerate positive changes in communities of color in Asheville and Western North Carolina; Foundation for Indigenous Americans; Center for Diversity Education; Center for Participatory Change; Hispanic Alliance; Black and Latino Filmmakers Coalition; Alternate Roots; African-American Heritage Commission; A-B Tech Minority Student Leadership Academy.

What books, music or other media influenced you as a kid?
Mahalia Jackson, sacred Scriptures, Motown, Jewish folk music, Hebrew Israelite music, old Puerto Rican music, Puerto Rican and Dominican dance.

Who were the three most influential people in your life as a kid?
My mother, my grandmother, my best friend, Leon.

What books, music or other media influence you today?
Books by James Loewen, Muata Ashby, Robert Wallace, Del Jones, Micheál Ledwith and Klaus Heinemann, Rekhit Kajara Nia Yaa Nebthet and Wekesa Madzimoyo. Music by Jonathan Santos, Climbing Poetree, Joseph Riverwind Music, Pedrito Martinez and Tony Duncan. Films/Documentaries — Crossing Borders: American Textures, Billy Elliott, Europa/Europa, Hidden Colors 1-4 and Forks Over Knives.

Who are the three most influential people in your life today?
My mother aka Queen Mother Maggie Belle, Dr. Mitchell Gibson and Dr. Joseph Fox.

What is your favorite quote?
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” — Alice Walker

How does Asheville influence you?
I am influenced by the amazing group of current social change activists and the amazing history that is not commonly known of the Ancestors of Color of Asheville.

What makes you passionate about Asheville?
My belief is that we are capable of doing more than simply surviving. Instead, we can thrive, elevate, win, compete, get ahead and build one of the most powerful communities on this earth if we make moves right now to build what we desire.

Why is investing in your community important?
Investing in my community is important for today and seven generations into the future, as well as honoring the work of those who came before me. I stand on their shoulders.

Is there a defining moment or experience in your life that led you to be the community-spirited person you are today?
There wasn’t a defining moment. I come from a family of community-spirited individuals.

If you had $50,000 to spend on your project, how would you spend it?
I would split it three ways between CoThinkk to be used to help fund grassroots organizations and individuals who are doing the work on a daily basis just because they see a need and act; Minority Student Leadership Academy at A-B Tech to fund supportive services; and Pisgah Legal Services, which provides free legal services for underserved populations.

What’s your core advice for your fellow community members?
You are powerful beyond belief. Each of us matters and makes a difference. Each of us are superheroes in ordinary clothes.

What keeps you awake at night?
Books I am reading. I’m currently reading Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives by Howard J. Ross.

What helps ease your mind so you can sleep?
Indigenous flute music.

If you hadn’t chosen your current path, what are some other ways your career or your interests might have evolved?
If Harvard Business School had had an MBA in social innovation when I was offered an 80 percent fellowship, I would have attended.

What is one thing about you that people would find surprising?
I am a green tomato apple pie connoisseur.

What can the community do to support your work and efforts?
Check out and support CoThinkk (cothinkk.com) and Pisgah Legal (pisgahlegal.org)

What would you like your work’s lasting legacy to be?
I would like my work’s lasting legacy to have had an impact on assisting low-wealth individuals to create high wealth internally and externally

Please feel free to add anything else about yourself, your projects and/or passion that we did not ask about.
My favorite children’s story books — Light as a Feather by Kajara Nia Yaa Nebthet and Adofo Bey, Growing Smarter by Judith V.T. Wilson and Who 2 Bee: The Inside Story by Jane C. Williams.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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3 thoughts on “Xpress presents: Asheville’s eight influentials for 2016 — Phyllis Utley

    • boatrocker

      So far you’re 3 for 3 in insulting the 8 influentials. Keep up the good work, Kowalski.

  1. Idris Salaam (Vaughn)

    I met Ms. Utley back in 2001. She help me in transitioning from Single male to Single parent (of 2). I had skills in a lot of things but was not confident in putting those skills to work. She pretty much held my hand and got me where I needed to be mentally. She boosted my confidence and self-esteem. 14 years later we re-connected. And she picked up where we left off. This time it was about Minority Leadership. She led me to places I never knew existed (foundations, education programs, etc.)
    I don’t know where I would have been had I not been introduced to her.
    She was never too busy to offer a helping hand.

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