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ASHEVILLE — A Buncombe County initiative targeting poverty in the black community is preparing to spend half a million dollars every year, for three years, but commissioners unanimously approved it last month with no specific project in mind.
“We’re trying to not do what government can tend to do,” said Mandy Stone of the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services. “That’s to make criteria for applying to grants so stringent that people can’t be creative.”
Stone recognizes the uniqueness of the situation, especially since commissioners approved the initiative, called the Isaac Coleman Fund, before specifying any projects to which the fund would contribute.
“No matter how creative we might be, it took political courage of the commissioners to invest in this and see it as investing in people and communities,” Stone told Carolina Public Press.
To her, the county’s action signifies confidence in people who live in communities that have long struggled with trauma and poverty.
The Isaac Coleman Fund is made up of $325,000 funding for community investments, $75,000 for small-business grants, and a cushion of $100,000 to support proposals they receive, depending on what ideas the community has, said Lisa Eby, who is spearheading the Isaac Coleman Grant Funding process on behalf of Buncombe DHHS, along with Stone.
About 15 people from various organizations showed up on Friday to a mandatory information session for groups interested in applying for funding.
Viola Williams from Bethel Seventh-Day Adventist Church attended the meeting because she plans to apply for funding for her church to be able to carry out after-school programs for teenagers, as well as to provide health-focused programs for adults.
“My ultimate goal is for Asheville to be a health-conscious community,” Williams said. An Asheville resident since 1972, Williams said she’s been part of outreach programs to teens who are “at the line” for a long time in Asheville. She said being “at the line” means someone who is ready to break the law but hasn’t yet.
Williams, whose husband died from diabetes, is most passionate about providing workout programs connected to the YMCA near her church, and hosting educational sessions on dealing with diabetes and hypertension.
But funding has always been an issue for her efforts. She says she plans to apply for $150,000 through the Coleman Fund.
Other groups interested in funding that attended the meeting included representatives from Hood Huggers, Read to Succeed, Companeros Inmigrantes de Los Montanas, Sphere College Project, Urban News and Bountiful Cities.
Idea for the Coleman Fund
Eby and Stone said one of the individuals who helped inform them about the needs of the black community has been DeWayne Barton. Working with Barton, a well-known advocate for Asheville’s black community, has given them a window into how the county can be a supportive partner for community organizations, they said.
Barton founded the organization Hood Huggers International in 2001 to give tours of the black community to celebrate the history of neighborhoods in Asheville that often get overlooked in typical tours of the town. He also co-founded Green Opportunities, a youth employment agency that gives job training in carpentry, construction, building maintenance and work in the food industry.
In conjunction with three community centers that are in minority neighborhoods — the Shiloh Community Center, Burton Street Community Center, and the Stevens Lee Recreation Center, he presented ideas to county officials about specific community plans that are “sitting on a shelf because they didn’t have funds,” according to Eby who has worked with Barton.
“He gave us an idea of what those plans would take and it was roughly about $100,000 per community center,” Eby said. She said she’s never seen the specific plans each community center laid out.
“We’re not already deciding that we’ll fund those community centers, but we have an idea of what it would take to get those up and running,” Eby said.
Visiting community centers and asking for what they needed helped the county to price the potential cost. For example, one group wants to start making things and asked to buy sewing machines.
“Maybe we need some traveling bus to go sell those wares or to build an auditorium,” Eby said.
County officials said they have worked with several individual contractors in the community to get a context of how much funding to allocate. The Tipping Point applications in the fall also helped inform their decision.
Though DHHS has been working in the black community to try to come up with ways to address disparities for the past four or five years, a report released in June 2016 by a UNC Asheville professor Dwight Mullen called the “State of Black Asheville” created a sense of urgency, Eby said.
The report revealed a range of disparities in education, income and healthcare. The median income annually for a black family of four in Buncombe County is $26,065, just above poverty level. In contrast, the median household income for a white family is $46,805. Black infants have a 3.1 percent higher risk of dying than other Buncombe County infants.
Buncombe DHHS began awarding small grants of up to $5,000 last fall to support small community organizations such as My Community Matters, a summer camp for at-risk youth.
That process helped DHHS staff to identify “unsung heroes” in the community, Eby said. DHHS received 70 grant applications for up to $5,000, and awarded 23 grants.
“There may be things we have no idea (about) going on that are really vital to the health of this community,” Eby said.
Continued approved funding next year and beyond does face a risk, since commissioners have to vote to renew their commitment each year. So far, they approved funding of $500,000 to create grants for the first year. The commissioners will have to approve another $500,000 next year, and the following one for a chance to make this project successful, Stone said.
Buncombe DHHS expects change in these communities to take the three-year commitment. Stone said she made that clear to the commissioners who she met with individually from the beginning and feels confident they will continue to support the fund.
County officials told CPP that they hope to award three to six grants total the first year, each sizeable enough to make an impact on existing organizations.
“The dollars need to go toward existing efforts for those community groups that have self-organized and are doing things they have determined the community itself wants to have happen,” Eby told CPP.
Shuvonda Harper, who works at the Eddington Center, and is on the Residence Housing Authority, applied for a Tipping Point grant in the fall for My Community Matters. The group got $3,500 of the $5,000 it sought. Harper said the grant writing process was complicated, and unfamiliar to her. She hopes the process will be smoother applying for grants through the Coleman Fund, especially since the grants are for larger amounts of money.
“I’m hoping through the Tipping Point grant process they’ve learned from mistakes that were made on their end,” Harper told CPP.
So many small and separate groups now aim at youth education, literacy and empowerment, that it would be ideal for them to be connected, Harper said. Pointing to organizations including her own and My Daddy Taught Me That, My Sistah Taught Me That, and Word on the Street Magazine, Harper said, “We need to tie them all together.”
Barton told CPP that he’d like to see the Coleman Fund used to create job opportunities for youth in the community. One idea he had for using the funding would be to create a framework for a teenager in the neighborhood who is selling vegetables at a market from a community garden to get training in math and business so that they have marketable job skills.
“The people who should be leading the process are the people who live in those communities not the people working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and work until the grant is over,” Barton said.
One example that Eby used to show how funding could be used to support existing efforts is if a community garden launched a canning facility that sold products at the Chamber of Commerce and Mission Hospital and supported the neighborhood whose residents were originally growing the produce. Another idea is creating a diaper bank to distribute and sell diapers at an existing community center.
Following information sessions with community organizations, the organizations can apply, and submit proposals to a review committee made up of local officials and members of DHHS. Then the county will conduct site visits before awarding the first grants, likely July 1, Stone said.
The county will provide support to help fine-tune proposals, and provide grant-writing training throughout the process, unlike a traditional “yes or no” approval or denial process to programs applying.
“In some ways when you interject something outside in something that has strengths naturally, there’s the risk that you upset that environment,” Stone said. “That’s the one outcome I fear the most, that we’re not supportive.”
She said she would never want the county to leave these communities some way more hurt or vulnerable as result of outside intervention.
“They show up and deal with personal and community traumas, many of us may not be strong enough to face every day,” Stone said.