For UNC Asheville's Fourth Annual African Americans in WNC and Southern Appalachia Conference, convener Darin Waters, assistant professor of history and special assistant to the chancellor, directed the event's focus to the history of African Americans in the area, and to the contemporary issues and challenges they face in WNC, Appalachia and beyond.
With the theme "Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," the conference featured a variety of speakers and musical performances. Presentations included panels on black banjo players, a documentary on present-day community celebrations of the emancipation of the slaves, and much more.
"At the heart of what we do here at UNC Asheville is, through the liberal arts and especially through the humanities, is to step out of ourselves and engage with the world
through the eyes of other people," Waters said at the conference.
Bringing People Together
A special panel on Saturday morning reunited alumni of Political Science Professor Dwight Mullen's ongoing State of Black Asheville research. The alumni had worked with Mullen throughout the decade of research that this project has entailed, examining racial disparities in Asheville in areas such as housing, health, employment and more. Those disparities, Mullen and his students have found, have grown in the past 10 years.
"Assuming that these individuals are not defective, that there's not something inherently wrong with them, assuming that's not the case, that possibly this collection of data, sooverwhelming in its presentation, indicates that something happened with the system--maybe--my question to you is: what are your perspectives on that," Mullen posed to the panel. "But more importantly, adaptations? What do you think about your future?"
The nine returning alumni provided insight from the perspectives they've gained in their various career fields since graduating, including criminal justice, early childhood education systems, public housing, environmental justice, voting rights and others. They discussed the most recent findings in the State of Black Asheville research, and the trends shown by the last 10 years of research--a conversation that Mullen said made him proud.
"I said to you in every class, make sure it's the most solid, most government-based data you can find. I don't want anyone being accused of cherry-picking or blowing up the numbers," Mullen said to the panel as he shared the new statistics with them. "So, I gave the result of a set of your papers to [Buncombe] County. The county statistician went through and found that in almost every area of public policy that you did your papers in, you were overly conservative."
Mullen presented the data gathered in the State of Black Asheville research to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners earlier this year. After his presentation, a proposal for new funding for community-based anti-poverty initiatives was approved by a unanimous vote of all seven Buncombe County Commissioners. The commissioners approved $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.
Representatives from some of those community efforts gathered at the African Americans in WNC Conference for a panel on community resilience. Organizations represented on the panel included ABIPA (Asheville Buncombe Institute of Parity Achievement), My Community Matters, Word on the Street, Emma Community Ownership, the Shiloh Community Association and the YTL (Youth Transformed for Life) Training Program spoke on how their programs address the challenges shown in the State of Black Asheville research.
Tamiko Ambrose Murray, a 2006 UNC Asheville alumna, spoke about her work as co-director of Word on the Street, an online magazine designed to give youth in communities of color a voice. JaNesha Slaughter, a 2016 alumna who presented on the State of Black Asheville panel, also works at Word on the Street as co-youth coordinator.
"We are living in that data Dr. Mullen presented earlier," Murray said. Together, the panel discussed the challenges their organizations face in helping the community overcome that data, and how they will continue the work of creating resilient and supportive communities.
For more information about the African Americans in WNC and Southern Appalachia Conference, visit aawnc.unca.edu.