The Black Lives Matter Movement is a critical moment of reckoning in our nation’s history and has provided a necessary opportunity to acknowledge systemic racism in all its forms and varied impacts on our society, educational systems, politics and economy. We’ve received several inquiries on how our organization addresses diversity, equity and inclusion. These subjects rightly deserve more than lengthy email exchanges, rushed statements, or online commentary.
I’m writing to share my thoughts below and would be glad to connect with groups large and small in the weeks and months ahead for continued discussion. I truly appreciate this opportunity for local dialogue.
As a regional business organization with members spanning 8 counties and 1,700 businesses, the staff and boards of the Asheville Chamber and Economic Development Coalition recognize the very real economic consequences of generational racism at play here in Western North Carolina. To that end, we recently appointed Sharon Oxendine of the Western Women’s Business Center as Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Chair to the Chamber Board of Directors Executive Committee to provide continued executive oversight and guidance. We also recognized these principles in AVL Greater, an open source 20-year community vision and planning conversation that the Chamber facilitated 2018-2019 with diverse city and county partners, businesses, entrepreneurs, academic and nonprofit agencies. The vision outlined critical action items and guiding principles that we must get right as a community to counter current trends that limit the wellbeing of the Buncombe County residents and economy. I was pleased to see these guiding principles included expanding ‘Economic Mobility and Shared Prosperity’ and becoming ‘A Place for All People’ to feel both belonging and personal success – specifically people of color. It will ultimately fall on all of us, our collective leadership, business community, non-profits and residents to operationalize and advance this community vision.
These guiding principles greatly influenced our development of the AVL 5×5 Strategic Plan for Job Creation 2025 which is the program of work for the Chambers’ 25-year partnership with Buncombe County and the City of Asheville known as the Economic Development Coalition (EDC). Published in September of 2019 and launching in July of this year, the plan fundamentally challenges past measures of economic success that overlooked the inequities of economic participation. The plan lays out specific investments and programming for growing economic opportunity in long marginalized communities of our County. This work will require consensus, funding, creativity and cross sector partnerships to be successful, and I am personally thrilled to see us working in the right direction.
Programming like our longtime CAYLA partnership, NEXTAVL mentorship program, or the People’s Community and Inclusion fund are exciting existing investments by the Chamber made to retain our students, entrepreneurs and businesses of color. Our Venture Asheville Impact Micro Grant Program continues to provide more equitable access to business formation funding with $5k competitive grants to early stage founders without the financial means, or wealthy ‘friends & family’ network to lean on. To date, 55% of our 11 grantees have been female and 18% are people of color. For over a year now, we’ve also been working closely with local partners at the Asheville Housing Authority, Upskill WNC, the SPARC Foundation and Community Action Opportunities to launch an ‘Equity Employer Partnership’ to systematically support more local residents of color in pursuit of career ladders and economic mobility for themselves and their families. Stay tuned for more detail as the programs launches.
For now, I’ll refer you to the following landing page where we maintain an updated summary of the DEI initiatives of our organization. Please let me be clear, there is much work still to be done to make our staff, boards, business members and local economy more inclusive and representative. We have a long way to go as an organization and community. We think that this work is essential to the work of Chambers and to our mission of economic development and building community prosperity. We’re committed to seeing it through with the help of partners in our public sector, private sector and community members like yourself.