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Advocates: Youth Need More Say in Reparations

 ‘Let Your Voices Be Heard'

Tyler Lewis, 18, says he's tired of talking about reparations. "Let's start making things happen." // Credit: Starr Sariego, Asheville Watchdog

By SCOTT CARROLL, Asheville Watchdog 

Cultural malnutrition.

That’s the phrase Asheville native and longtime resident Priscilla Ndiaye Robinson has coined to describe the disconnect many in the Black community, especially young people, have about their history and culture. In Robinson’s mind, knowledge is power, especially now as a historic Community Reparations Commission works to atone for the government’s role in denying Blacks wealth-building opportunities.

“There is a lack of knowledge of relevant local history,” Robinson said. “Our youth need to learn that history.”

Perhaps no group could be more impacted by the work of the Reparations Commission than Asheville’s Black children and young adults. But a lack of participation by youths is emerging as one of the early challenges to the reparations process. 

The 25-member Reparations Commission is decidedly older —  at least 13 members are 55 or older, and none are high school or college age. And many Black youths have thus far not shown much awareness or interest in the work of the commission.

Robinson, along with several youth advocates, educators and business leaders, think that educating young people about the history of Buncombe County’s Black population is key to changing that. Robinson finds too few young people know about the policies and practices that led to today’s racial imbalances  in home and business ownership, educational achievement, job opportunities and incarceration rates.

Robinson is leading discussions with Black youth groups on the impact of urban renewal, a federally-funded program that began in the 1950s to raze “blighted” neighborhoods ostensibly to improve housing opportunities. In Asheville, Blacks were displaced from their homes, many relocated to public housing. 

“We need to ask our youth, ‘Why are we having these conversations about reparations? What does it all mean? What does it have to do with you?” said Robinson, who experienced urban renewal first-hand and spent more than a decade researching its impact on Asheville’s Black community. “We also need to ask ourselves, ‘How do we get youth involved in the reparations process?”

Priscilla Ndiaye Robinson  // Credit: Starr Sariego, Asheville Watchdog

The Reparations Commission has been debating how to involve Black youths but has not decided what role they should have.

“Our young people will be instrumental in the implementation of any medium- and long-term recommendations,” commission member Chris Gordon, who teaches special education at Asheville High School, told Asheville Watchdog. “Young people have been impacted by the policies and actions that need to be repaired.”

Gordon said he is talking to students at Asheville High, including members of the Black Student Union, about reparations and how to get involved, such as participating in focus groups. 

Dewana Little, the commission’s vice chair and executive director of the YMI Cultural Center, said at a recent meeting: “As we look around the table we do see a gap, a generational gap. We’re expected to make such big decisions, and our youth should be a part of this conversation.”

Daniel Young, an Asheville native and longtime youth advocate, spoke bluntly to the commission.

“It’s time for us to stop the BS and put these kids in a place so they can make decisions that are going to benefit them,” Young said. “If these kids are our future, show it to them. Include these kids on what’s going on in these meetings.”

Little has proposed creating a Black youth council or adding one or two young people to the commission.

Commission member Bobbette Mays fears that enlarging the group would further slow an already cumbersome process.

“As a commission, we’re not getting our work done,” she said recently at a commission meeting. “This process of how you would bring youth into this group, you want to pay them, you want to interview them, you want to schedule them to be in our meetings. We’re already meeting once a month. Time is winding down.”

The commission had been scheduled to vote on one of the options presented by Little at its June 26 meeting, but tabled that vote. A subcommittee has been tasked with discussing options and bringing recommendations to the commission.

Urban renewal, lasting impact

On a recent evening, Robinson spoke to a group of 21 young Black males in a converted storefront at the Asheville Mall, the headquarters for the group My Daddy Taught Me That.

The nonprofit organization founded in 2012 by Keynon Lake, an Asheville native, former basketball star and son of longtime community leader and activist Bennie Lake, My Daddy Taught Me That provides tutoring, field trips, job training, mentorship and more to about 60 youths a year.

Robinson, 61, spoke of her childhood in the thriving Southside neighborhood of Asheville, where about half the city’s Black population lived.

She had everything she needed, she said. Boiled peanuts and fresh green beans from the local market. Freshly baked cupcakes from a neighbor. Open fields to play in. A watchful eye from elders, who would sit on front porches and talk. Church on Sunday.

Going out, women wore their finest dresses, and men donned suits and hats, she said. 

“Nobody was hungry; nobody was homeless. I mean we worked together,” she said. “That’s really when community meant community.”

But as Robinson has documented, urban renewal eviscerated the neighborhood — an estimated 1,200 homes and businesses were lost in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the largest such projects in the Southeastern United States.

Robinson described seeing scores of neighbors losing their homes and putting their furniture on the curb, only to see white families come and take it.

“It was like a bad dream,” she said. “But we all knew it wasn’t a dream. It was reality.”

Robinson began researching urban renewal in 2008 while working on her master’s degree in management and leadership from Montreat College. With the help of volunteers, she created the website Urban Renewal Impact.

Robinson said urban renewal took more than homes and businesses, more than the opportunity to build generational wealth. It destroyed a community, undermined trust in the government and spiritually “wounded” thousands of Blacks who lived there, she said.

Robinson also maintains — and many scholars who have studied the issue agree — that the harm done by those policies persists today. 

Records reveal stark gaps in Asheville and Buncombe County between whites and Blacks on measures such as educational achievement, job opportunities, business ownership, and arrests and incarceration rates.

With home ownership, for instance, two-thirds of white households — 65.9 percent — owned their own homes in Buncombe County in 2020, compared to 41.3 percent for Blacks. 

Repairing past harm

Asheville became one of the first communities in the nation to seriously address reparations to the Black community in 2020 with resolutions passed unanimously by the Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Commission.

Hailed by racial justice advocates as a historic first step toward righting centuries of injustice and discrimination against Black Americans, Asheville’s reparations work, they said, could provide a roadmap for other communities.

But nearly two years passed before the Reparations Commission came together.

The delay has sown distrust in the Black community.

During Robinson’s presentation at My Daddy Taught Me That, Lake asked: “Why should we believe they’re going to take what we say seriously? Why should these young people speak to the commission when the people on it are spinning their wheels?”

Keynon Lake discusses needs for young Blacks in Asheville // Credit: Starr Sariego, Asheville Watchdog

Robinson told the group: “I’m going to say it again and again — they want to hear from young people. They want to hear your voice. Let them hear it.”

Robinson asked the boys what they’d like to see from reparations.

“Scholarships,” one said.

“Jobs,” said another. 

Kiran Kudva, 13, an “A” student at Asheville Middle School who attends weekly tutoring sessions through My Daddy Taught Me That, hopes to be an engineer, plays several sports and has his own business, Kiran’s Konfections.

Kiran understands the reparations work will affect his peers and future generations and said he hopes it leads to more sports programs, tutoring in computer coding, job opportunities and recreational activities.


Kiran Kudva, 13, and Keynon Lake  // Credit: Starr Sariego, Asheville Watchdog

“What I want for my community is more funding for programs like My Daddy Taught Me That, more community events and more things to do, because we don’t really have a lot of things to do here,” he said.

Jump-starting reparations

Local businessman Bruce Waller isn’t waiting for the Reparations Commission. The co-owner of Grind AVL, a popular coffee bar and event space and Black Wall Street AVL, both in the River Arts District, Waller is launching a Black entrepreneur program for young adults ages 18-24. 

Tyler Lewis is considered an ambassador for that program. Lewis, 18, who recently graduated from Erwin High School in Asheville, has worked at Grind for about a year. He has published a self-help book, Word to Self, and last year founded Project Above, a nonprofit that helps community groups network.

Tyler Lewis  // Credit: Starr Sariego, Asheville Watchdog

Lewis said young people should be involved in reparations and understand their “hidden history.” 

“I”m talking about every dimension of life. The information is what we need,” he said.

Lewis also said he’s frustrated with a lack of results.

“We’ve been talking about reparations, and nothing’s happened yet,” he said. “I’m tired of us talking about it. Let’s start doing something. Let’s start making things happen.”

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Watchdog reporter Scott Carroll is a Report for America corps member.  Email him at scarroll@avlwatchdog.org or DM him @scottcarroll15 on Twitter.

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