Buncombe County Commission Approves Isaac Coleman Community Initiative

Gene Bell and artist Robert Hooper unveil a portrait of the late community activist Isaac Coleman while UNCA Professor Dwight Mullen addresses Buncombe County Commissioners. Photo: Urban News

Buncombe County Commissioners had big items on their agenda for the Feb. 21 meeting.

One was a pair of proposals from the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, led by Mandy Stone, one devised (and named) in memory of the late civil rights activist Isaac Coleman, and a collaboration among numerous agencies to improve the county’s criminal justice system.The other was A-B Technical Community College’s plan for further growth and development, using the money from the bond issue of 2007.

Community Investments Get Smooth Sailing

Both the Isaac Coleman initiative and the Justice Center plan passed the Commission with bipartisan, unanimous support.

Beginning with a detailed presentation by UNC Asheville Professor Dwight Mullen, drawn from his annual report “The State of Black Asheville,” statistics were presented showing vast disparities in income, wealth, and opportunity between racial groups in Buncombe County. Mullen noted there is an average difference between blacks and whites in earned income of $352 per week, leading to a $21,000 annual differential in median family incomes between blacks ($25,065) and whites ($46,300). He pointed out that, across the private sector, in all industries, 44% of black households earn under $20,000 per year, compared to only 19% of white families, while 19% of black families earn over $50,000, compared to 47% of white ones.

In 2015 average monthly earnings were $1,135 lower (-32.8%) for black workers in Buncombe County compared to white workers. Over the last ten years the gap has averaged -$980 per month (-31.6%). Source: US Census Bureau

As a result of these disparities and lack of opportunity, 28% of all black families in Buncombe County are living in poverty compared to 14% of all white families—including 25% of all children. Similar differences occur in unemployment rates—17% black, 6% white. The same disparities exist in business ownership—858 black-owned, 26,112 white-owned—and their revenues: $40K average annual sales for black-owned businesses, 10 times as much ($397K) for white-owned businesses. Which, of course, impacts how many employees a business-owner can hire.

Profound inequities exist in housing as well: 42% of blacks own homes, v. 65% of whites, while 58% of blacks v. 35% of whites rent.

With such disparities in income, earning potential, job opportunities, and general access to “the American Dream,” it’s little surprise that while African American males 16 and older represent 5.6% of the local population, they comprise 28% of those in jails or prisons—five times their population ratio.

Healing from within

Lisa Eby of Buncombe County Community Services noted that evidence-based national models call for coordinating “every investment in a child: all the barriers to success including race, poverty, communities in trauma.” She noted that in 2013 “an entire kindergarten class—27 children—in Buncombe County died before their first birthday.

“The community needs to have resources to heal from within—it needs spaces where children see their neighborhoods as islands of hope. The former Reid Center was an island of despair,” she said, until community activist DeWayne Barton pushed to have murals on what is now the Edington Center. That type of change, said Eby, is what is needed: “to invest in neighborhoods, in a community center, then connect that to schools, then develop pathways to economic opportunity.”

Judge J. Calvin Hill (at left) addresses commissioners regarding the benefits of the Isaac Coleman Initiative and the Justice Resource collaboration at A-B Tech. Photo: Urban News

Punishment v. Support

Similarly, Green Opportunities Executive Director Joseph Hackett pointed out that it costs the government $30,000 a year to incarcerate someone, with no long-term benefit, leading to present costs of $1.2 million a year. GO was established to help train and find employment for those in need, including former felons who cannot otherwise get jobs. Among its early successes has been the “ban the box” movement so that Asheville and Buncombe County no longer ask job applicants at the outset if they have a criminal record (the question may be asked later in the application process). The organization currently trains scores of men and women in culinary arts, construction, and other trades, and has helped many find permanent jobs and the stability that follows.

Hackett, who himself once faced a criminal conviction and incarceration, noted, “one dollar of taxpayer money invested in job training turns over thirteen times” in new economic activity.

DeWayne Barton, a local community activist, shared the podium with Tamiko Ambrose and students from the Asheville Writers in the Schools program. The group spoke about the need for the Isaac Coleman initiative. Photo: Urban News

As Asheville native and GO founder DeWayne Barton said, “I went to the first State of Black Asheville held by Dr. Mullen 10 years ago, and I left so angry and upset. But then I went to what was then Reid Center and saw neighborhood kids [performing] in a play, and I realized we do have what we need.” He noted their talent and potential for success, given the opportunity. “Now I see a renaissance in the coming together of pockets scattered across the county and city, a merging of policies, plans, people—a grassroots network anchored in the communities to spark engagement and create pipelines of support & motivation.”

Involving youth in revitalizing communities

Also testifying in favor of the initiative was Tamiko Ambrose-Murray, co-founder of Asheville Writers in the Schools. The organization has “sixteen staff members, all either Buncombe County or Asheville city students, all black or Latino, [who] have created a culture of high expectations, learn writing and editing skills, design, technology.”

She described the new documentary team the students developed, leading to an intergenerational story-telling project created with “no high technology, that used cell phones, worked with what we had to create interview questions together, design a plan to reach out into the community, collect interviews. It was a youth-driven project that exercised their leadership.”

The students continued up to and past their deadline, deciding at the end of the project to add an interview with a visiting dance performance company. “They got press passes, interviewed the company founder, asked critical questions. It was amazing to see their confidence, their growth in such a short period of time,” concluded Ambrose-Murray.

The students also spoke up about their experience. “We learned how to interview people, to speak up to the community,” said one youth. “To ask people in the black community how they feel about the community.” He was echoed by a classmate, who said, “I learned with this group how to do interviews and writing skills. What I really like about the group is it’s a group of youths, and we’ve built relationships so we’re like a family, and we’ve been learning from the community.”

A freshman at Asheville High School’s SILSA Academy, Donovan Spencer explained the purpose of the documentary. “We could get people to realize the gap between white and blacks. It’s not new—we’ve been doing this for years now and we’re starting to make a difference. Every week we meet together as a team, and try to come up with new ways to better the community—mainly the black community because that’s where the problem is.”

He reminded commissioners, “We want you to understand the struggles of the black community. We got the people we interviewed to think of the problems, too. Asked them, ‘If you had a view of our community, what would you want it to be?’” And, he pointed out, while there are white students who also are fighting for change, “Nobody will take a stance like we would.”

Starting in Elementary School

Other advocates for “building community from inside out” included school officials. Suzette Swanger explained the use of social strategies and skills for learning and how they teach children how to accomplish self-regulation when under stress. And Johnston Elementary Principal Charlotte Hipps, described the ACES—Adverse Childhood Experiences—the schools face along with the methods they use to counteract them.

“Our district has 300 students, of whom 60% are minorities, 33% require ESL (English as a Second Language), coming from nine countries and speaking nine languages. More than 90% are eligible for free lunch, but we serve 100% in the Deaverview and Erwin communities.”

In addition, she noted, “This year we had a student murdered. There were eight gun-related murders in Deaverview. Students come in tired, they’re scared, and they’re worried what’s going to happen when go home.”

Yet, she said, by dealing with the ACES, helping the children deal with the baggage they bring with them, helping them be fed, feel safe, they teach resilience. And along with that, and while still meeting state criterion for advancement, “We also have to teach kids crisis techniques, relaxation, breathing, how to take a mental vacation.”

And it works, Hipps said. “Some of the students who have come in with many ACES are leaving as very different people.” Arriving in first grade, they develop “resilient, strong leadership skills as they go to Intermediate school.” One morning recently, she noted with a smile, a fourth grader came in to her office to inform her that “there was a smaller kid having a breakdown. He needs your help.

“Then, he said, ‘Never mind: I’ve got this.’” And she followed him to the classroom and watched as the older boy helped the younger one with whatever was wrong before “both went back to class.”

Comprehensive plan to cost $500,000 in first year

The DHHS asked the commissioners to invest not in services or buildings or a safety net, but in the neighborhoods and youth, following the Economic Community Investment Model. Stone asked for “$500,000 of which $325K will support community and neighborhood initiatives, putting the support and infrastructure on the ground so they can become self-sustaining. Of the funding, she said, that $325K will be a one-time offset of unspent funds from the Hard-to-house project, with the money serving the same population (Oakhill Housing) the original allocation was meant for.

The $175K balance would be a new allocation for the current year.

“Invest in small and minority businesses,” she asked. “This is new work, and we are one of the few communities in the United States putting all these pieces together. But,” she noted, “it takes three years for the fire to catch. You can’t do it in one year: building something new takes a long-term commitment.”

According to Stone, the DHHS will develop benchmarks outlining how contracts will be supervised and will provide regular reports to the Commission measuring employment, activities, and other impact on youth.

Commissioner Ellen Frost moved to approve Isaac Coleman Community Investment Program, which passed unanimously.

Justice Resource Center at A-B Tech

On a related issue, Stone also asked that the Commission allocate $547,000 to fund a new Justice Resource Center at AB Tech, the project to be managed by a judicial leadership team comprising Chief District Judge Calvin Hill, Judge Allan Thornburg, Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, Buncombe County Clerk of Court Steve Cogburn, Chief Public Defender LeAnn Melton, Sheriff Van Duncan, and Director of Probation and Parole Laurie Anderson.

Statistics were a big part of the presentation: 7,500 people moved through Buncombe County jail reflecting a 7% increase from 2015 to 2016—and a 30% increase in the number of women in the jail population. Of those, 70% were incarcerated for low-level, non-violent offenses and nearly 70% suffer from substance abuse; 95% of women who have been incarcerated have a history of trauma (physical, sexual, or psychological abuse)

Stone noted that even those charged with misdemeanors—even without being convicted—face legal limitations on housing, employment, education, and financial assistance.

“We have specialty courts for DWI, drugs, veterans, we have a crisis intervention team, we have jail case-management for substance abuse, we offer a program of pre-trial release, or bail, but though we invest money in specific services, we fail in building coordination of those services.”

Focused, coordinated strategy

Rather, they called for a focused strategy that would protect community safety, formalize coordination for the justice system, and invest in the gaps in the current system. That strategy would include the proposed Justice Resource Center, detention-based prosecution, Victim Witness Legal Assistance, and better Pretrial Services. The proposed model “will be undergirded by a foundation for effectiveness, including a case-management Data System, Business Intelligence, Planning, & Evaluation that includes Communication, Support Services, integrated Law Enforcement, the detention system, and the courts.

Stone specifically asked for the funds to establish a Collaborating Council, implement a Data System for case management, and hire three new personnel: a Justice Resource Coordinator, a full-time victim and witness legal assistant, and “an Assistant District Attorney assigned to manage detention-based prosecution, overseeing who’s in jail, are they in need of substance-abuse help, etc.”

She said such a program would lead to increased safety, equity, and efficiency and would eliminate duplication, reduce recidivism, and divert non-violent offenders from the justice system. Outcomes would be “a treatment-focused system, increased wellness, employment through working with employers, Green Opportunities, and, above all, more families will stay intact.”

Stone pointed out that the county’s current capital plan calls for a new detention facility for $45 million; ideally, the targeted investment of $547,000 could delay or eliminate the need of a new facility altogether.

The Justice Center proposal, including its requested allocation, passed the Commission on a unanimous, bipartisan vote.

A-B Tech Proposal Tabled

The A-B Tech plan, presented by President Dennis King, was a request to allocate funds from the bond issue to build a new 99,000-square-foot multipurpose building at a cost of $27 million. The structure would house Arts, Sciences, and Engineering classes and contain a performance space as well as flexible space for public use. King said that $2.2 million had been spent so far on planning and architectural design; he also offered a sense of urgency, saying that there is a deadline for responding to bids that were submitted in response to the Request for Proposal that went out for the project.

In addition to the new building, King’s proposal asked for commissioners’ blessing on finishing the fifth floor of the Ferguson Building; finding a new home for the Enka campus that is to be sold; and renovating Elm, Birch, and Sycamore buildings on campus.

But many commissioners expressed wide-ranging questions about the proposal, as well as concerns with the low levels of diversity on campus in both students and faculty. Also at issue were the unfinished state of Ferguson Building, the diversion of funds for fundamental maintenance, building retaining walls and repaving roads, and the change from the originally planned renovation of several buildings to their demolition and planned replacement.

While Dr. King presented numerous statistics about the number of students enrolled in degree and certificate programs, continuing education, and transfer programs, and on the financial value to the community, the proposal did not anticipate the skepticism of the commissioners nor their concerns over whether the spending had any relationship to the needs of the community. As a result, after nearly an hour of intense questioning, the Commission unanimously asked him to go back to the drawing board.

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