Arts & Features Staff Writer
Among the green mountains and the flowing river valleys of the Southern Appalachia region lies a rich and vibrant history of African-American heritage, resilience and perseverance. As part of the university’s commitment to diversity, UNC Asheville hosted the fifth annual African Americans in Western North Carolina and Southern Appalachia Conference with the theme “Making the Invisible Visible.”
The conference provided students, scholars and the Asheville community an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the history of
African-Americans in the region. The three-day conference included a series of lectures, activities and art exhibits covering a variety of topics including social justice, race in education, racial equality and regional African-American culture.
Darin Waters, associate professor of history at UNCA and executive director of community engagement hosted the conference. Waters said the university and the city have been talking about diversity, equity and inclusion for a while.
“We’re showcasing the experiences of the marginalized communities through the work of the conference, emphasizing that the experience has been important and vital to the development of the region,” Waters said. “It is raising new questions about how we can do better about ensuring not only that those experiences are acknowledged and celebrated, but how we can continue to build on those experiences in ways that are positive.”
Keynon Lake, a Buncombe County social worker, helps create positive experiences for minority youth in Asheville. Lake founded the nonprofit organization, My Daddy Taught Me That, based on the book he wrote with the same name. Published in 2012, My Daddy Taught Me That honors Lake’s father’s legacy of working with the youth of the community.
He started his organization to offer support and mentorship to young men in the Asheville area ages 12 to 19. The program provides grade tracking, job training and other educational opportunities. Special focus goes toward young men of minority groups who experience the absence of a father in their lives.
“The book was written to educate primarily men about what we face in our communities, which is what I feel are broken homes and absent parents,” Lake said.
Lake said many young men of color lack a positive male influence in their lives and the mentorship his program offers helps to teach young men how to be responsible adults.
“You’ll have roadblocks and you’ll have pitfalls, but it is about being held accountable and being able to learn from those,” Lake said.
Lake was presented with the Award for Community Service by the UNCA history department at the opening reception of the conference for his contributions to the youth of the Asheville community.
“Getting the award was a blessing, but then also continuing to do what I do, which is support the conference, watch it grow and come to learn,” he said.
According to Lake, questions regarding change in the Asheville area lead to discussions about inclusivity.
“When you talk about change — do the needs of minorities, people of color — does that fit into the grand scheme of things?” Lake said. “I think programs like mine, I think conferences like this, continue to push the needle.”
During the early and late afternoon panel discussions on Friday and Saturday, black-led organizations and businesses had tables at the Sherrill Center. Walking around the tables and engaging with volunteers was Amy Worthen, the project manager for the conference.
Worthen, a freelance writer, focuses on collective liberation in her work that includes racial equity, systems of oppression and illuminating things in the community that sometimes go overlooked. She became involved with the conference when she started volunteering and working with Waters. For Worthen, it is the collective narrative of African-American culture that is important, a concept to which she credits to Waters.
“I’ve been influenced by Darin’s work, the collective historical narrative. It’s about the narrative of who we are as a community and as a country and helping that narrative to be collective and bringing those stories that have traditionally gone overlooked to the forefront,” Worthen said.
Making a shift to push against the dominant narrative helps to make space for future possibilities, she said.
“It’s being able to connect and build and make a shift to push against the dominant culture and the dominant narrative to create space for new possibilities,” Worthen said.
According to Student Body President Michael Davis, UNCA values diversity and inclusion throughout the campus community. Davis said while the university’s commitment is evident, there is still room for improvement.
“It’s tremendously important for the diversity of UNCA,” Davis said of the conference. “Something I’ve definitely said in meetings, ‘diversity is easy, inclusion is difficult.’”