Equity & Access for Black Asheville

A conversation with Alexandria Ravenel, equity director at the YMI Cultural Center, recipient of East Fork’s Wealth Reclamation efforts in spring 2021.

East Fork’s Wealth Reclamation/Seconds Sale recipient for April, May and June is Asheville’s YMI Cultural Center, which opened its doors in 1893. At the time, it was known as the Young Men’s Institute and, as envisioned by founders Mr. Isaac Dickson and Dr. Edward Stephens, served the Black community of Asheville as the center of civic and cultural life. The YMI building also housed medical and dental offices, a pharmacy, funeral services and other businesses. It also offered young Black men a place to study, exercise, socialize and, if they needed a place to live, to stay in its dormitory. 127 years later, the YMI continues to offer programs for youth and families, economic development and community engagement. Some of its rooms have been transformed over the years to meet the community’s needs for things like small business incubation and co-working spaces.

YMI then and now

In late April 2021, YMI’s equity director Alexandria Ravenel spoke with Clarissa Harris, East Fork’s senior community impact manager, and Marcyanne Hannemann, junior content coordinator and glaze generalist. Their wide-ranging conversation touched on, among other topics, equity, access, the YMI’s history, and the remarkable building that houses it, where, as Ms. Ravenel says, “you feel the energy that has been there from day one.”

Clarissa Harris: Can you talk a little bit for folk who don’t know Asheville and who also don’t know the history of the YMI, about the struggle, or maybe the resiliency, of the YMI.

Alexandria Ravenel: So it’s both, right? Thank you for saying that because there is resilience. The reason why there is resilience is, there is struggle. There’s that connection. So, history of YMI, and this is interesting because I was looking on the city’s website and I was on Explore Asheville. There’s a trail, so maybe it’s a heritage trail. There’s a stop on the trail.

Marcyanne Hannemann: Like a walking trail of the downtown?

Alexandria: Yes, a walking trail, an urban trail. And there’s a stop for YMI—I guess it’s a self-guided thing. This is the first time I’m seeing it, and I’m reading the description about YMI and it touts the efforts of Mr. Vanderbilt. So, Vanderbilt thought it was a good idea to have a place for the folk. I can’t remember exactly what it said but just that it was his idea to build this building for his Black workers.

Marcyanne: But on the YMI website, it says the opposite of that.

Alexandria: Exactly, because it is a place that they asked the money for it to be built. For themselves. Because they were not allowed anywhere else in Asheville. It’s ours. It’s ours! And I’m so tired of that explanation. This man has removed all of these people from their homes and don’t tell me that he paid them. I don’t want to hear that. He removed them so that he could build a monstrosity that almost caused him bankruptcy. Hello?

Marcyanne: People love the narrative of the philanthropic old white man. Or even the billionaire and it’s like, look what they are doing for the people. But maybe they shouldn’t have all that money. They give some away and they’re still billionaires.

Alexandria: That’s what I’m asking for. Don’t “help” me—give me your money. I know what to do with it. I don’t have the resources and there’s a reason that I don’t and you do. So therefore, just give it up. You'll be fine. It’s the idea of access, right? I recently had a conversation with someone, and I’ve had it several times now, about what the Civil Rights Movement was fought for. It’s one of beginners’ favorite places to start a conversation around. They ask, what can I do to engage in racial justice work and a lot of them like to say that they were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and what that was about for them as white folk. Or, someone in their family who was their ancestor and involved in that work and what it meant for them. I find it really funny because both my parents are Panthers. What was told to me about why the Civil Rights Movement happened, right? And what I find is a lot of folk that I have these conversations with is, it was about us being friends and our being able to be in companionship with each other and be able to share space. It was about friendship. And I was like, well, that’s not what I was taught and they’ll ask, well, what were you taught? I tell them it was about access. We fought for access. If we could have had access without having to be in community with white folk, we might have chosen that. Because it’s hard to be in community with white folk.

Marcyanne: And there were times when there were cities, groups or areas of certain cities where you didn’t have to be in community with white folk and they were thriving—and then destroyed.

Alexa: Ajax [Alexandria’s child] sent this to me this morning: “A white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic equity and real justice.”

Clarissa: And I think that, even in what we are trying to do at East Fork, at the end of the day, who is being centered in this work? How much of it is around us providing charity in good faith and how much of it is about actually providing—not “providing,” I think we have to change the act of it, to creating space...Nope! It’s so hard to talk about, but how do we say, without us moving out of the way, so that there can be access. That is the goal at this point. How do we get out of the way so that we make space for access.

Alexandria: Because charity, like you said, is about appearances. Or dependency. I’m not interested. I tell them all the time at YMI, those folks need us. We don’t need them. You think about the historic district there: it was thriving with Black businesses. You don’t let us into your beauty parlors? We’ve got our own. We can’t go into your library? We’ve got our own. Can’t use your showers? We’ve got those here, too. Schools, teachers, health institutions, everything—a mortuary. There was a mortuary in the YMI! Talk about covering all of the bases, from school to death.

Marcyanne: It was all there!

Clarissa: And then destroyed.

Alexandria: And then destroyed. That is the struggle right now. This institution is here, and it’s here for Black folks, but the Black folks are being pushed out. And so, trying to get down here and park, and feel safe and not assaulted by white folks who want to stop you on the street, to say the thing? Like, leave me alone. I don’t have time to give you directions. Or education!

Marcyanne: I was just reflecting on the urban walking trail and the copy you talked about. I was just looking at the YMI website before I came here today. All you have to do is click on Google. It’s on the [YMI website’s] About page, it’s a bullet point. It’s not very difficult to access this information. It’s not even research, it’s fact-checking. You’re just looking at what the YMI is already saying.

Alexandria: Right. And see, the stories get passed down, these narratives get passed down and so, you don’t need to fact-check if your grandmother told you that story, right?

Marcyanne: It’s like, oh, it’s just common knowledge.

Alexandria: Right, and so, organizations have the story. I’ve copied myself on it and I will be calling whoever I need to call and ask them to make the adjustment.

Clarissa: With that being said, what is the goal at this point of the YMI? I feel like a lot of what I hear now in the community is about the constant struggle of the YMI to keep its doors open, to stay afloat, to do something, to have a mission, translated by someone who is intimately engaged in the work. What are the ideal outcomes?

Alexandria: First, I’m going to say, YMI is not struggling. This work is no harder at YMI than it is anywhere else. There is this narrative going on that YMI is struggling, and I’m like, struggling with what? Struggling with whiteness? Yes. Struggling with access? Yes. Struggling with the city to provide parking? Yes. Struggling with proper lighting. Some kind of wire came down the other day. Did you see the barricades? Yellow caution tape that the police put up or whoever put up says “crime scene.”

Clarissa: Stop it.

Alexandria: That’s the struggle. Why are you telling that story in the Black community? Why are you telling that story in front of YMI?

Marcyanne: I’m sure that whoever put it up was like, well, that’s just what we have. Or whatever.

Alexandria: And you know, two businesses had chimed in, saying it’s bad for business to have those two barricades and the yellow caution tape that says “crime scene.” Are you kidding me? That’s the struggle. But when you walk into that space, you feel the energy that has been there from day one. You see the beauty of the architecture. You feel this pride in knowing that Black hands created this, and lived and breathed—and bathed in this space. That’s what I feel when I walk in there. Then there’s Noir Collective. I’m so happy that that’s there and then there’s PennyCup right next to it and it’s PennyCup Coffee At The YMI, because they are acknowledging and recognizing. And we’ve got the shoe shop across the street and Jefferson has Jawbreaking over there. We’re rejoicing. I love to see that multicultural place. It’s fine that it’s not all Black. That’s fine; I don’t care. Because we’re all blending. We all belong. Just don’t squeeze out YMI. Don’t squeeze out Black folks. We can share the space. So it’s not struggling. It’s making its bills the same way everybody else is making their bills. It’s asking for money the same way we’re all asking for money. It’s a living, breathing entity that has really committed people. As far as finances go, whatever has happened in the past is the past. It’s a new day at the YMI. It’s a new day and it feels so good. So, we’re going to change that narrative. Not struggling. Not struggling.

Clarissa: What is the end goal for the YMI? What is the vision? If you could say, YMI: this is what we’re about and this is where we’re headed.

Alexandria: YMI talks about Black Excellence and promoting, one, there’s nothing wrong with us, there’s never been anything wrong with us, and how do we, in all the areas that we’re looking at—health care, education, the criminal justice system—and how are we going to be involved in every single one of those things? Not that we have to lead it, but that we know who the organization is that we can promote and what that organization is doing. How do we uplift Black folks so that we can see each other and share resources with each other? How do we become the hub for information for the resources that are coming in? That’s what we want to do. That’s what’s really important because we can’t be the apartment or the shower or the mortuary anymore. But we can be a space for Black people to come and hang out. There’s a co-working space upstairs. There’s an artist co-working space and things people don’t know about. When covid hit, we had already started developing a lot of these things. Hopefully soon, we’ll be able to invite people back: the gallery is thriving and just imagine you’re a Black artist and they’re not letting you in the doors, up and down the streets in this town. You can go to the YMI. It’s a beautiful space, right? So it’s the place for whatever you want. Whatever you can imagine, imagine it at YMI. Now that The Block Off Biltmore is gone, that corner space is the Impact Center. People rent it out for things they want to do there.

Marcyanne: I was curious about what was happening with that space. That’s awesome.

Alexandria: And we rent it out to anybody.

Clarissa: I wanted to talk a little more about the youth programs and the programs in general, because I think a lot of folk forget there are programs being run out of the YMI that are thriving as well.

Alexandria: There are so many programs, but I guess because we aren’t having mass amounts of people coming through, we’re getting smaller groups.There’s a program for home ownership. There’s a finance program to teach you about budgeting your money, and that program extends to children. It’s an eight-week program for children to learn about money. They’re going to have a pop-up shop in a couple weeks where they’re sharing their crafts and hoping people will come by. Philip is there, doing the workforce development. We have the business incubator program that just launched that will serve six to eight businesses. Goombay [an African-Caribbean festival] is being planned right now. A Ladies in Fitness program is going on. And we have a partnership with Grail Moviehouse where you can watch movies in your home that the YMI picks. And we just transitioned to a new program director, so all of those things are available but I don’t know how current everything is. She needs to acclimate to get it moving again.There’s also the Black Experience Book Club, a partnership with the Buncombe County Library: every month, there’s a new book and twice in the month, we get together on Zoom to talk about it.

Clarissa: What kind of community overlap and partnership is going on with folk that are BIPOC, like BIPOC businesses?

Alexandria: That’s where I’m hoping the business incubator program will bring those businesses together. We have enough funding from an outside source that we can offer grants to at least six businesses, starting with six businesses. We start with six and then there’s more money left in the pot. So the idea is: what stage are you in your business? What are you looking for to move into the next phase? Do you need to form an LLC? Do you need budget management? Do you have a business plan? So we give them money that’s a grant that they can use to fulfill those goals that they have, and then we have money in the pot should extra things come up, like maybe now you need marketing. We can help with that.

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