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City embarks on effort to improve diversity

 Aisha Abdul-Ali, a Hendersonville native, speaks about her experience during desegregation of the city schools in the late 1960s. Aisha Abdul-Ali, a Hendersonville native, speaks about her experience during desegregation of the city schools in the late 1960s.

Before a word was uttered, a gathering earlier this month at the City Operations Center looked much different than other meetings of the Hendersonville City Council.

There were more black and brown faces than white, and the voices of the more diverse than usual audience delivered the meatiest food for thought. During the kickoff of the council’s diversity, equity and inclusion journey, listeners learned, for instance, that the widely shared view that desegregation of public schools in the 1960s was smooth and harmonious is, from a black perspective, mythology.
Three city council members attended the kickoff — Lyndsey Simpson, Debbie Roundtree and Jerry Smith — along with the city’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee, which the council formed in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The city is paying Ahkirah Legal and Diversity Consultants of Durham up to $147,000 to guide the council, city leaders and its workforce and the community at large through the year-long process.
After the consultants take the community’s Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), they will help city leaders and other stakeholders develop a strategic plan through more assessment and one-on-one conferences. By next spring they’ll coordinate education, training and outreach. The IDI “assesses intercultural competence — the capability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonalities,” the consultants say in a written introduction to their work.

HHS graduates speak

Ahkirah, which means afterlife in Arabic, was founded and is led by Bahiyyah A. Greer, an attorney and former magistrate. The team of seven consultants who will guide Hendersonville’s diversity assessment and long-range plan includes Aisha Abdul-Ali, who is from Hendersonville. Abdul-Ali and Edward King, a 1970 graduate of Hendersonville High School, were in the first African-American classes to leave the old Ninth Avenue School when the city schools desegregated. Their testimony provided what was likely fresh perspective for the audience.
“It was a horrific experience that I would never inflict on any my children,” Abdul-Ali said of desegregation and the way students from Ninth Avenue were treated when they arrived at HHS in 1967. “And when I approached my mother later on in life, many years later, she said, ‘You know, baby girl, we thought we were doing good, and I apologize to you, for subjecting you and other students to the torment.’ And it was worse for the black males.”
“So I decided, the last year, in order to get through it mentally, I joined the basketball team. And if you can run that basketball and if you can score you were all right with everybody. That was the only time the students invited me in.”
King, who has a degree in psychology plus minors in physics, mathematics and chemistry, said he has managed drugstores and restaurants and for the past 29 years built million dollar homes in Asheville and Hendersonville. His affinity for numbers and near-photographic memory were underappreciated skills when he left Ninth Avenue for HHS.
“The educational system when it integrated was, in my opinion, a downgrade because there’s the fact that we were expected (to excel) a lot more in the black school than it was in the integrated school,” he said. “I was told as soon as we went to the integrated school that these classes I could not take because they felt that I could not have made the test scores in math and science and in history. … I had a great memory, which a lot of people didn’t understand, so at school I would get a whippin’ for it — because if I looked at a sheet of paper I could rattle off the first 50 words off of it.”
King urged the participants and the audience to listen to the consultant and seek solutions.
“Please listen, and give her a chance to get this system and this information to us and let’s work it,” he said. “Hendersonville has grown and has become better. But there are things that need to change. Stop pointing fingers. come up with a plan. What’s the dog-gone plan?”

‘Deeper than I imagined’

Comments like King’s and Abdul-Ali’s filled the bill that the consultants had projected in their introductory. Taking the town’s diversity inventory and ripping old scabs will be painful.
“We actually got a lot deeper than I imagined we would for a first meeting,”
council member Simpson said in a written response to the Lightning’s questions.
“I’m really excited to continue the process with the council, staff and community. I imagine we will all learn a lot about each other, ourselves and our community.”
Having Abdul-Ali on the team is especially useful, she added.
“I think we are really fortunate to have a consultant on Ahkirah’s team who grew up in Hendersonville and was a part of the first desegregated class at HHS,” she said. “It was truly moving to hear her story at the first meeting and I’m glad she came to be a part of this process.”
The consultants will return Sept. 12 to begin interviews and workshops to begin the process that they say will move the community’s diversity from inequality to equality to equity to justice — “fixing the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities.”
“We’ll be gathering input from various stakeholders in the community,” City Manager John Connet said. “Invitations will go out this week to the Community Foundation, United Way, other nonprofits, other stakeholders.”
City workers will be asked to fill out a 50-question Intercultural Development Inventory survey that takes 15-20 minutes to complete online.

‘It’s all about perspective’

Like Simpson, Connet thought the comments from the two HHS graduates was an important part of the meeting and a reminder of why the city council commissioned the project to begin with.
“I think the whole point is, it’s all about perspective,” he said. “As it relates to the rest of the country, the city had a pretty smooth desegregation process as a whole. But what I heard from students was that may not have always been the case. If there are, for lack of a better term, old wounds that are connected to that below the surface, I think it’s a positive thing that we talked about it.”
The diversity consultants will find fertile ground in City Hall for improvement; the city currently has no minority department heads.
“I think one thing that’s going to be a focus of ours is encouraging diversity within our workforce,” he said. “That is a challenge for our community. I think we have admitted that.”
Although Henderson County has a smaller pool of black, brown or Asian people to recruit from, Connet said, that’s not a reason to avoid the goal of a more diverse team.
“We recognize that we do have a small minority community,” he said. “But just because we have a small minority community doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try harder to attract a diverse workforce into our community. And if there are barriers in a small diverse community to getting employment or getting access to services we need to know that. Even though they are small (as a percentage of the total population), we need to make sure that we eliminate as many barriers as possible.”
At the diversity project kickoff, Connet made the point that he had assigned himself as the staffer who will lead the city’s involvement in the study and action plan.
“I’m a 6-2 white guy,” he said. “I think if this process is going to be taken seriously and our organization’s gonna make a concerted effort and see real change then the city manager has to be bought into it and has to support it.”