Asheville’s Office of Equity and Inclusion reforms local government

Cameron Woodyard

Contributor

cwoodyar@unca.edu

The three members of Asheville’s Office of Equity & Inclusion: Nia Davis, Yashika
Smith, and Paulina Mendez.

Amid recent police shootings and ongoing systemic racism, community leaders and organization members demand equity and change across the country, and Asheville’s Office of Equity and Inclusion upholds those demands, according to its members.

As part of city government, the Office of Equity and Inclusion embeds equity in the policies, practices and procedures of local government to advance opportunity for all Asheville residents.

As a member of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national network of government, the Office of Equity and Inclusion work to achieve racial equity by dismantling structural racial inequity and creating equitable outcomes.

Current members include Nia Davis, human relations analyst. Paulina Mendez, training consultant. And Yashika Smith, inclusive engagement and leadership manager.

Davis said there were about three components that formed the Office of Equity and Inclusion in July 2017.

“We had very specific council support, council member Young was a big advocate for having an Office of Equity and Inclusion,” Davis said. “We also had strong community support especially from organizations such as State of Black Asheville and the Blue-Ribbon Committee. And then we had the office solidified by allocating funding for three full-time staff members.”

Smith said another reason the office was formed was because of a local police shooting that sparked a community outcry in 2016. The shooting gained national attention after Police Sgt. Tyler Radford shot and killed a man by the name of Jai Williams at Deaverview Apartments. Radford faced no chargers on evidence that he acted in self-defense.

“This office was formed as a reactionary measure,” Smith said. “It was not that local government was being proactive, they were being reactive.”

Smith said this was not the first person to be killed by the APD, but this case in particular drew a lot of attention because of the way it was handled. His body laid uncovered on the pavement for hours in Deaverview and bystanders took pictures of the scene and posted them online.

Members of the Asheville community expressed their frustrations on police brutality and inequality toward Black and brown people to city council.

City council then set on a national search to find a leader for the Office of Equity & Inclusion they planned to implement into their city government. The essential duty of the office would be to advance equity and inclusion within municipal government.

They hired Kimberlee Archie, former director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, in July 2017.  Archie had an excellent strategy to implement equity. She conducted internal surveys to see what “equity” meant to people, met with stakeholders and grassroot organization members to understand the relationship with local government and formed a five-year equity action plan for embedding equity into local government.

Archie’s first hire was Smith, in October 2018. Smith said there was a mistrust of local government in the community, especially Black communities. Archie understood she was not a native and had not yet built relationships with government officials and community activists. She hired Smith to be the external branch of the office because Smith is a native of Asheville and had already built relationships with the community.

“I grew up in Asheville, I grew up in poverty, I grew up in public housing, I grew up Black, I grew up poor,” Smith said.

Smith worked in equity for 15 years and she said her background is at the core of all of her work.

Growing up, Smith fell into the mindset that the way Black people are treated in society is just destiny. Smith said that she felt like the race was cursed and that maybe the plight of the Black community was theirs to own and no one else’s.

It was not until Smith’s high school years that she realized there is systemic and structural racism that purposely burdened Black people.

From then on Smith’s vocation was always in equity because she herself experienced the inequalities of the school system, employment, the wealth gap, housing disparity and more.

Smith said the city cannot be truly inclusive in serving all of their citizens if parts of the community are not engaged. She is the liaison between the community and local government.

Her essential role in the Office of Equity and Inclusion is to uplift the voices of the communities that are not typically heard, even if they are not a formal organization. She also does troubleshooting, internally, to make sure potential projects and continual projects are inclusive.

“I work with communities that are not traditionally organized,” Smith said. “Some of them don’t have the disposable time or disposable income to be considered formally organized and some of them choose not to be organized in that fashion.”

Smith also said she decided to work in local government to have the influential change at the highest level she possibly can. She said it is important to recognize the history of equity and what needs to be learned and relearned to create real change.

“Equity is not a charity,” Smith said. “Equity does not mean Black. Equity is giving people what they need to be successful and the reason that often translates to Black is because Black and Brown people have been so disenfranchised in this country from the very inception of it.”

The Office of Equity and Inclusion hired Mendez in November 2018. Mendez does racial equity training and inclusive training for the city of Asheville’s staff and board of commission members.

“My role in all of this is capacity building, Mendez said. “Making sure that we’re normalizing conversations around race and equity and inclusion. We’re building capacity to make sure people have a shared language as well as building a lens so that people are able to see inequities within their department or within their practice, policies, and procedures.”

The other part of Mendez’s role is to coordinate pieces of the equity action plan. She coordinates the workforce equity team, community engagement and contracting and procurement.

Having grown up as Mexican immigrant in the U.S., her experience influenced her to work in equity. She said being a woman and recognizing power dynamics in the latinx community shaped her worldview.

Mendez experienced racism from her classmates when she lived in Mississippi and she sensed the racial tension between white communities and Black communities. Her curiosity drove her to study political science at UNC Asheville, studying under Dwight Mullen and Dolly Jenkins-Mullen.

“That’s really where I was introduced to critical race theory and given historical context on what has happened in the United States,” Mendez said.

Mendez said she wants it to be understood that equity is not a zero-sum game. While equity does mean sharing power and sometimes redistributing power, equitable systems improve things for everyone.

All three members of the Office of Equity and Inclusion described their role in city government as “the disruptors.” Dismantling the current systems, structures and institutions through innovative ways is the ultimate goal.

The office hired their final addition, Nia Davis, in January 2019. Davis’ primary responsibilities involve working with the board of commissions, human relations commissions, African American heritage commission, and the Vance Monument task force on community engagement.

Alfred “Al” J. Whitesides Jr., member of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said they have been working with city council and the Office of Equity and Inclusion to implement equity into existing policy.

“We are trying to tackle things in the county, like reparations, and develop ways to level the playing field and turn this around,” Whitesides said. “We will eventually need help from Raleigh and Washington D.C. to pull this off.”

Davis said her experience as a Black woman molded her worldview. She said she fully believes in collective liberation and does equity work to ensure a better future not just for herself, but for everyone.

Davis went to a very low-income, predominantly Black and brown high school.

“At the high school they integrated an international baccalaureate program,” Davis said. “I was a part of this program which had a lot of white students and it was interesting to see the stark differences in the outcomes of students.”

She said she felt something was not right with how the Black students would typically go straight into the workforce or the military. But most students who came out of the IB program would go to high-ranking four-year universities.

Davis attended UNC-Chapel Hill where she said she equipped a deep knowledge of structural and systemic racism.

“Going to UNC really solidified my passion for social justice and I found that many others are trying to fight the same fight,” Davis said.

Davis said she wants equity to be at the forefront of decision-making for local government. Her goal in her current position is to be a government-adjacent individual that helps bring the community together.

“In the work that we’re doing, it takes great imagination to picture what life would look like without systems of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism,” Davis said. “This is what the people in equity work are tasked with.”

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