Sphere College Project

A New World of Learning

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Our Starting Point: Mentorship for African-American Contractors

Well, we’ve found our starting point. After several dialogues with Dee Williams, and a bit of consideration about what to do to help the Asheville community, we are jumping in to begin a mentorship training program for African-American contractors. It seems an obvious place for Sphere to assert the value of mentorship as it relates to increased economic mobility.

We will begin the training program in the New Year by recruiting contractors who desire to become DBE-certified with the NC DOT. The certification is a rigorous process involving a plenitude of paperwork along with a “pre-qualification” process, where representatives from NC DOT in Raleigh travel to Asheville to review candidates’ qualifications to perform the work well. DBE-certification is viewed as a serious undertaking, and anyone with the qualification enjoys great esteem from the community.

The City of Asheville has been aware of the value of this certification; for many years it has hosted a number of “introductory” sessions to entice contractors. But it has failed to convert. We hope to find out why, as we embark on meetings next week with our first 4 contractors.

Dee will serve as our lead mentor for this project. As noted in the previous post, she is a DBE-certified contractor with NC DOT, and, while retired, is a storehouse of knowledge about the business. In fact, we recently found out that Dee was named Minority Construction Firm of the Year in Asheville in 2005, and was responsible for negotiating the first contract for an African-American owned firm from the City of Asheville. She was also the first African-American professional to successfully package/obtain funding for black firms in WNC for SBA Guarantee and SBA Direct Loans.

Since building successful contracting businesses requires much more than certification, Dee’s wide range of experience will most certainly come in handy. We are already in discussion on creating a program that will include mentorship in bidding and contracting as well as management. Our hope is to help these small, independent entrepreneurs grow into strong, mid-sized firms that can apprentice and employ members of the community at a living wage – an essential component for overcoming poverty.

Thankfully, there are others in the Asheville community, such as the organization Just Economics, who are helping work toward the reality of sustainable incomes for all. We are also progressing with offering courses sometime in the New Year at The Fortune Building in West Asheville. We are fortunate to have a great space to hold courses, and begin the process of bringing people together to create a new system of education.


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Economic Mobility Opportunities

Over the past several weeks, one of Sphere’s key advisors and lifelong Asheville resident, Dee Williams, has shared with us how years of systemic and structural discrimination against African-Americans has reached a critical point. Without specific strategies to increase economic development and economic mobility, Asheville will continue, she says, to witness much of what it has seen in this neighborhood for a long time – increasing levels of poverty and crime, and a decrease in hope.

Because Dee is a retired DBE-certified contractor (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) with North Carolina DOT, she is intimately connected to the issues plaguing minority contractors, specifically those of color. As it turns out, of the approximate $1.8 million in FY2015 spent by the city of Asheville on minority-owned businesses for construction, general and professional services, and procurement, only $262.50 was apportioned to DBE businesses for construction. Additionally, we have become aware of a $50 million Greenway project that is due to begin construction in early 2017. At least 10% of these monies are slated for minority contractors, but there are few in Asheville positioned to bid. As Dee has described, there is no supply chain of African-American contractors in Asheville, so the work is channeled to firms outside of the city, which ends up costing more. We see this as an opportunity.

Because we are open to the possibilities for Sphere to assist with mentorship in the African-American community, we agreed to attend a meeting (this past Tuesday) with Dee and Asheville’s Economic Development Group, and a number of groups working on behalf of the African-American community to improve their standing in the community. We learned a couple of things from this meeting. People representing the black community are frustrated, and fatigued, about the lack of adequate funding for economic development. Unsurprisingly, the City of Asheville is very concerned about these figures, and is looking for viable solutions, saying they are very open to hearing from people in the community about how to solve these problems.

We left the meeting recognizing that in every case where there is a lack of economic development, there is a lack of education and support for it. This is no different. If there is one thing that we have learned, in the research we have done so far, the black community has different needs when it comes to education. This is where mentorship (and Sphere) can help greatly. Mentorship meets people where they are, and can quickly mobilize them toward specific learning and outcomes.

For several months now, we have been wondering where to “begin” Sphere in Asheville. While we review the several course proposals that we have received, we will be thinking about this. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Sphere to prove the value of mentorship. Stay tuned and find out.