Making a difference: a decade of activism

PEOPLE POWER: So many people showed up to hear about (and say something about) Asheville's first proposed nondiscrimination ordinance in 1994 that City Council's meeting was moved to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Ron Lambe's in the front row, center, wearing a brown suit and a tie. (Photo courtesy of former Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick)

The ’90s in Asheville were definitely a decade of activism — of all sorts. One of the earliest projects was the revitalization of downtown, which took courageous leadership. The Green Line (precursor of Mountain Xpress) was publishing; Asheville-Buncombe Discovery was promoting downtown; the LGBT community was awakening; the environmental movement was fighting back with protests and demonstrations. I was involved in several of these activities, so I know of them firsthand.

I was working with the WNC Alliance when we mounted a major campaign to stop clearcutting on the national forests, a fight that eventually impacted the National Forest Services plan. There was a campaign to support the cleaning up of the Pigeon River, which was being polluted by Champion Paper. We participated in a national campaign to stop a nuclear waste dump from being built in Sandy Mush (the Crystalline Repository Project). There was a successful campaign to stop the construction of hazardous waste incinerators in Mitchell and Avery counties. I have quipped that thanks to the WNC Alliance and other environmental groups, there are a lot of bad things one does not see around here.

Another campaign I was involved with was Citizens Organized to Save Biltmore School. The old school’s campus had been slated to be sold and demolished, but many residents wanted to save it. In the end, we reached a compromise that saved the main building but allowed the rest of the campus to be developed.

In 1992, I was the first openly gay candidate for City Council. Although I did not win, I placed reasonably well and went on to serve on the Transit Commission for 10 years.

In 1994, there was the fight to have the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance protect gay and lesbian employees. This provoked an enormous response from the conservative religious community, who bused in hundreds of protesters, which meant the hearing had to be held in the Civic Center. This struggle also ended in a compromise.

We also staged the first Gay Pride March and Festival, and created a community center for Asheville’s LGBT population.

So, today’s progressive social inclusivity, our protected environment, the saving of historic buildings, the development and revitalization of our downtown were all hard-fought battles and should not be taken for granted.

And of course, the work is not done. We now have efforts to disenfranchise voters, racial discrimination and a mean-spirited state legislature that wants to ruin public education, take Asheville’s water (and took the airport) and, in my opinion, erode our democracy. Protecting the Founding Fathers’ vision of equality and an educated electorate is the challenge facing us today. We know how to do it; we just need the leaders for this decade to step forward to face today’s challenges. It can and must be done.

Ron Lambe served as executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance in the ’90s. He also served on the Commission on Religion in Appalachia and helped found the annual Gay Spirit Visions Conferences in Highlands. He moved to Asheville in 1988 from a small collective farm in Mitchell County, where he was the managing editor of RFD Journal. He is currently music director at St. Matthias Episcopal Church. He organized and now manages the First Sunday Chamber Music Series (now in its 18th year).

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