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.