BY JERRY STERNBERG
Somewhere in the late ’60s or early ’70s an African American gentleman named Arthur Edington expressed an interest in joining the Toastmasters Club that I was involved in. I was pleased to be one of his sponsors, and while I knew it was customary in these times that local civic clubs were white male only, I felt Toastmasters was a more accepting platform, because we practiced and offered speeches on eclectic and controversial subjects.
Because Arthur Edington was a renowned and dedicated educator and community leader, I thought he’d be welcomed with open arms. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and as is Toastmaster protocol, we held a long and intense debate. I was shocked at the vitriolic opposition, and several of us members threatened to quit the club if he were not admitted. We prevailed, and Arthur became an excellent toastmaster. He died in 2015, but his name lives on in a wonderful community institution.
The Livingston Street School, a segregated facility serving African Americans in Asheville, was closed in 1970 during the desegregation mandate and became the Livingston Street Community Center, run by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Later the name was changed to the W.C. Reid Center before finally being dedicated as the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center, to honor this very special local hero who had done so much for the African American community, especially the children.
At the invitation of another community leader, my friend Gene Bell, I had been to the building a time or two over the years to observe and enjoy some of the programs put on there by and for the children. I also learned that the center had a fully equipped carpentry shop run by Green Opportunities, a local nonprofit. Prior to COVID, its federally funded YouthBuild program was teaching carpentry skills to students and young adults to prepare them for careers in the field. In the last few years, students in the program have helped build several houses in the Livingston Street neighborhood.
Mr. Kikkomon Shaw is the head chef at the Southside Kitchen, which unites local farms, activist chefs and neighborhoods that are food deserts while also training students in food preparation and culinary skills to help them find well-paying jobs. Throughout the pandemic, the program has prepared and delivered hundreds of meals each day to people in need. It also provides meals for the new Asheville PEAK Academy charter school. Some of the produce comes from We Give a Share, a local nonprofit that’s in negotiations to assume responsibility for operating Southside Kitchen.
Another exciting local initiative is Word on the Street, which offers bilingual, arts-based programming to youths of color ages 13-19 to encourage creativity, build self-esteem and, in many cases, prepare them to be the first in their families to attend college.
Summer can be particularly difficult for students in underserved neighborhoods. And in the summer of 2020, the Asheville City Schools, in partnership with the Asheville Housing Authority, CHOSEN (a local nonprofit) and other community organizations, created a program known as as Positive Opportunities Develop Success. PODS established in-person outposts providing computer and internet access at various sites, including the Edington Center. This filled a desperate need, as many of the students involved have no internet or Wi-Fi access at home.
Although all of these programs are amazing, it was a graduation ceremony I attended last June that motivated me to write this piece. The event honored about 50 students from different school districts who had completed the nine-month PODS program. Dedicated community members gave students personal instruction to supplement the remote learning curriculum provided by the teachers. I can’t imagine the challenges faced by teachers like Cassandra Wells, whose determination, energy and courage are what made this initiative work.
Passing the torch
I was visiting one of the classrooms when a 12-year-old student came in and spoke with the teacher. She asked him to perform several computer tasks, including setting up an electronic display for a program she was planning. She introduced me to Tristian, who was very shy at being confronted by an old white dude, but we discussed computers and I gathered that he was the information technology guy for the entire school.
Later in the day I saw him working with another teacher and asked if he was going to be a computer expert when he grew up. I was surprised when he took his teacher’s hand, looked up at her and said, “No, I want to be just like her. I want to be a teacher.”
Under the leadership of Shaunda Sandford Jackson, the Housing Authority’s director of resident services, this huge, immaculate building has once again become a safe place for children and community residents. This definitely couldn’t happen without the efforts of Cecelia Fisher, the Southside site manager; Karolina Hopkins, who manages the Family Self-Sufficiency Program; Bobby Head, who takes care of all the building maintenance and repairs; as well as other paid staff and an amazing number of truly caring and dedicated volunteers. Many of them grew up in the neighborhood and were very vocal about wanting to give back and make it a better place for the current generation.
Hopefully, all the dedication, caring, support and love nurtured by the Arthur Edington Center will help these wonderful youngsters survive the racism, crime, drugs and poverty that they encounter almost daily and go on to become professionals, businesspeople and/or social and community workers. And who knows? Maybe in a few decades there will be a building dedicated to another outstanding local educator: professor Tristian Dukes.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All proceeds from The Gospel According to Jerry: 90th Birthday Edition are being donated to Pisgah Legal Services. Copies ($25 suggested donation) can be ordered via pisgahlegal.org/jerry or by mailing a check to PLS, P.O. Box 2276, Asheville, NC, 28802.