History of Mount Zion Community Development, Inc.

Amplifying Advocacy and Access for Health Parity Through Hope.

Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, located on “the Block,” was constructed in 1919. Photo: Johnnie Grant/Urban News
Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, located on “the Block,” was constructed in 1919. Photo: Johnnie Grant/Urban News

Mount Zion Community Development, Inc. (MZCD) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community-based redevelopment corporation that was born of the vision of Dr. John H. Grant, Pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

That vision was and remains “to build a thriving community that reduces barriers, systemic and institutional racism and ensures access to employment, quality healthcare, education, and housing for People of Color”—and, particularly, to build on the foundation of leading the church in preaching, teaching, and witnessing to the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.

For several years prior to MZCD’s formation, the church took an active role in the development of the surrounding neighborhood, a primarily African American community known as “the Block.” The Block had been the primary cultural and commercial center for African Americans in western North Carolina since early in the 20th century, but shortly after WWII, the area began to decline, and, after 1970s “Urban Renewal,” it was declared blighted by the City of Asheville in the 1990s.

Blighted areas can become like prisons for those who are powerless to change their way of life. People living in deteriorated or overcrowded conditions can become the victims of crime and disease which have serious social consequences. The church as an institution, and its proud, active members were well aware that when a blighted area is restored and improved, the community benefits through the creation of new or restored homes, prospering businesses, more attractive public areas and parks, and renewal of individual and civic pride.

Origins as a Force for Redevelopment

Redevelopment was a key goal in the 1990s: the up-building and transforming our community. Rev. Grant was the founding president, chairman, and CEO of the Eagle-Market Streets Development Corporation, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit, from 1994 to 1997.

Housed at the Mt. Zion Church for these years, he led the corporation in securing more than a quarter of a million dollars in grant funds, gaining official recognition as a development partner with the City of Asheville, and hiring its first full time executive director. (The EMSDC recently completed construction of Eagle Market Place, a $12 million project that provides 62 affordable workforce apartments.)

As a result of this and other focused improvements, the Block is no longer a dilapidated area but home to hundreds of residents and many newly enlivened, active businesses.

Mount Zion Community Development, Inc. is Born

Mount Zion Community Development, Inc. was established in 1997, with the mission “to advocate and amplify the voices of People of Color in particular, and all people in general, who are disproportionately impacted by health disparities, and to address the need for jobs, housing, crime prevention, education, and health care.” That mission builds upon the organization’s, and Dr. Grant’s, original vision. Especially in the area of healthcare access, MZCD works to impact health disparities by partnering with faith-based organizations, policymakers, hospitals, and nonprofits to implement evidence-based programs and strategies.

MZCD’s capacity to serve African Americans in Asheville/Buncombe County rests largely on four factors. First, as a minority-owned and -operated organization, it has the trust of the minority community because its leadership is drawn from the community.

Second, MZCD has a record of successful collaborations with like-minded community organizations. Third, it has completed other grant-funded projects with strong and verifiable outcomes, and is committed to raising additional funds to ensure quality service provision.

Finally, MZCD is recognized as being both fiscally and legally sound, with its own board of directors and professional support partnerships.

Major Programs

Since its inception, MZCD has developed several acclaimed programs to address the spiritual, physical, emotional, and financial health of families and communities. The acronym “T.E.A.C.H” summarizes the vision for the up-building and transformation of our community:

T = Teach and Train to provide tools with the goal of

E = Educating, Equipping and Empowering so that persons can become

A = Advocates for the good of themselves and others, and

C = Not be merely Consumers but Contributors who make

H = Healthy lifestyle choices, spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially,  and financially.

MZCD has raised and invested millions of dollars for its community programs—and in the process has provided residents with part and full-time jobs with full-time benefits (medical insurance, retirement, etc.). Its highly honored programs include: The Project NAF Program, Project EMPOWER (Education Means Power), and the Elizabeth Grant Hill Campus of Learners.

Project NAF Participants Kimberly and Jonah

Project NAF (Nurturing Asheville & Area Families)

Project NAF was the first African American-led nonprofit to address and initiate services to impact minority infant mortality and maternal and child health, reaching its target population—pregnant and postpartum women of all ages—in Buncombe, Henderson, and Madison counties.

Since its establishment in 1997, Project NAF has provided services through a planning grant from the Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) through the Healthy Beginnings Project, formerly the Minority Infant Mortality Reduction Program.

With its target population of Black/African American pregnant and postpartum women, their babies, and their children, Project NAF has been honored as a “National Community Initiative Model to Eliminate Health Disparities” program—an initiative led by the US Bureau of Primary Health Care, a 48-state exchange that encompassed 180 sites and 6,000 participants. The NCDHHS Women’s Health Division also recommended the Project NAF Program as a Community Program Model during the NC Child Fatality Task Force.

Project NAF Participants Tiffany and Penelope

Project NAF is led by Belinda Kennedy Grant, Executive Director, and dedicated and committed staff who are certified in research-based curriculum to address the complexities of maternal and child health. The program’s leaders understand the interconnectedness of community partnerships and the need to advocate for improvements in maternal and child health by being a visible presence in the community and by speaking out to keeping service needs in the public’s awareness.

Project NAF’s research-based parenting curriculum, Partners for a Healthy Baby, was developed by a multidisciplinary FSU faculty team with expertise in obstetric medicine, early childhood development, psychology, infant mental health, social work, and early intervention. Using the latest research and clinical guidelines from their respective disciplines, the faculty team compiled evidence-based strategies for home visitors to use when addressing issues facing expectant and new families.

Future plans are to expand to other counties in WNC to impact maternal and child health strategies.

Project EMPOWER (Education Means Power)

The first teen pregnancy prevention initiative funded by the NCDHHS, Project EMPOWER supports Black and/or African American youth and teens in particular, as well as teens of all races, through school-based pregnancy programs that have resulted in the reduction of both teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Its evidence-based curriculum, approved by the NCDHHS, is a core curriculum for class credit. Thousands of youth and teens have been served through the Asheville City Schools District and the Asheville City Schools Foundation. This program was one of two programs highlighted during a statewide NCDHHS videoconference and workshop.

Project EMPOWER’s current focus is to reduce the opioid- and substance-abuse crisis among youth and teens in Buncombe County. Collaboration with institutional partners such as the school system ensures that all youth and teens are supported in their growth and learning, without threat of punishment.

Calvin, Janet, Grant, and Tamia Hill.
Calvin, Janet, Grant, and Tamia Hill, primary contributors for the Elizabeth Grant Hill Campus of Learners.

The Elizabeth Grant Hill Campus of Learners (EGHCOL)

EGHCOL was established in 2001 to close the digital divide by teaching computer skills to underserved youth, adults, families, and to the community at large. The internet is not only a necessary resource for education; when made available to all, and used properly, web access powers the economy, supports our health and well-being, and connects us to our families, neighbors, and the community.

Through this program, individuals and families with limited or no access to computers were able to use internet services to pursue educational and employment goals, and pastors and faith-based organizations were able to meet their goals and objectives to reach the wider community.

EGHCOL helped connect individuals with resources and training for skills development that better qualify them for well-paying jobs. It provided computer instruction to individuals and families from age 5 to 75+, and received the first “Faith-Based Initiative of the Year Award” by the North Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations. (The program is currently inactive, but plans are to reincorporate the Campus of Learners once the new resource facility has been constructed.)

EGHCOL was recognized as an outstanding program by the City of Asheville, then-Chairman Nathan Ramsey of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, NC State Representative Wilma Sherill, then-Governor Michael Easley, US Congressman Charles H. Taylor, Senator John Edwards, publisher Virgil Smith of The Asheville Citizen-Times, and with a special Proclamation of “Calvin and Grant Hill Weekend.”

Dr. John H. Grant, President, CEO of Mount Zion Community Development, Inc., and Mrs. Belinda Kennedy Grant, MZCD Executive Director
Dr. John H. Grant, President, CEO of Mount Zion Community Development, Inc., and Mrs. Belinda Kennedy Grant, MZCD Executive Director

A Catalyst for Change, Then and Now

For more than 25 years, MZCD has been dedicated to uplifting, advocating, and amplifying the voices of Black/African American communities particularly, and all races in general, to enhance health and racial equity and to be a voice for vulnerable populations in Buncombe County and beyond.

Executive Director Belinda Grant says, “We are proud of our role as a catalyst to help revitalize many Black/African American-owned businesses, homes, and community organizations to once again thrive and prosper in Asheville, as well as initiatives to pioneer local programs that support Maternal and Child Health for Black/African American women and their families.”

About Dr. John H. Grant & Belinda Kennedy Grant

As President and CEO of Mount Zion Community Development, Inc., Dr. John H. Grant has been named “One of Buncombe County’s Most Influential People.” He is the recipient of many congressional, state, and local awards.

Belinda Grant is recipient of the first Lisa C. Clarke Award, established by the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) to honor Ms. Clarke and ensure that our bridge-building efforts continue. This award honors an individual or program that builds collaborations and/or closes gaps between systems within their local community. Individuals or programs nominated for this award must have demonstrated outstanding service in four key areas: Communication, Health Disparity Reduction, Best Practice, and Advocacy.