The State of Black Asheville Research Spurs Buncombe County Commissioners into Action
Ten years after research into The State of Black Asheville began, that ongoing UNC Asheville student research project has made headlines, coming from the classroom into the community and prompting significant new funding by Buncombe County for community programs addressing the needs of underserved, poor communities.
Annually since 2007, UNC Asheville Professor of Political Science Dwight Mullen has led his students in collecting and presenting an array of data on health, housing, income, education, employment and incarceration rates – cataloging the severe racial disparities in Asheville. And over the past 10 years of assessing The State of Black Asheville, “In pretty much every area the students have looked at, the disparities by race have widened,” said Mullen.
“It began in a class on public policy in the fall of 2006, on the heels of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans,” he recalled. “The question the class raised was, ‘If the hurricane hit Asheville, who would be floating in the water?’ And so they looked at many public policy areas including education, health care, criminal justice and housing. They found these racial disparities and wanted to present them for Black History Month 2007. The students asked me – I didn’t ask them – to work through the Christmas break to pull papers together.” The result was a full-day presentation to civic and government leaders that drew an audience of some 400 people.
The annual public presentations have continued, but it took almost a decade for local government officials to start using the data as a basis for forming new policy initiatives, beginning with a special presentation to some officials by Mullen in June 2016. “It picked up in the spring and especially last summer with Buncombe County Commissioners, particularly Ellen Frost, and newly elected Asheville City Council member Keith Young,” said Mullen. “Both of them had been paying attention to The State of Black Asheville over the past 10 years and wanted to do something about it.”
Conversations led to proposals for new funding for community-based anti-poverty initiatives, and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners invited Mullen to present data from The State of Black Asheville at its public meeting. After his presentation, on Feb. 21, 2017, the proposal was approved by a unanimous vote of all seven Buncombe County Commissioners – Democrats and Republicans.
“I’m finding that when we involve people of different perspectives in identifying the problem based on data, it often is not much of a fight in terms of what to do about it, because we’re approaching it not from an ideological standpoint but a practical ‘what will work’ standpoint. I think that’s a common ground we’ve ignored in North Carolina in favor of political ideology,” said Mullen.
Mullen is excited about Buncombe County’s decision to devote $500,000 this year to the new Isaac Coleman Community Investment Program to support and expand existing community efforts to improve health, education and employment. "Recognizing that people, especially African Americans, have been left behind, many community organizations and individuals have been trying to do something about it on their own,” said Mullen. “So getting funding to people already engaged in that work is really encouraging.”
And the success in gaining bipartisan support in Buncombe County has Mullen optimistic about his efforts begun last year to foster a statewide State of Black North Carolina. “I’ve been talking about this with the historically black colleges and universities, both private and public across North Carolina, and they are looking at Asheville and wanting to replicate what our undergraduate students have done, on their campuses for their localities. We’d like to compel politicians to make public policy become data-driven policy. These disparities are so undeniable that is difficult for any appointed or elected official to deny that this should be on the agenda,” said Mullen.
For UNC Asheville students, those who have been a part of the research and those who want to be involved either with the project or those community initiatives benefiting from new county funding, the message is clear. “The collection of data seems dry, but it leads to a level of community engagement that feeds into student activism and sense of social justice, and that fits UNCA’s character to a T,” he said.
To learn more about the Buncombe County Commissioners’ action and the role of The State of Black Asheville and its data on racial disparities, please follow these links to news coverage: