Alona Norwood wanted to avoid being part of the regional “brain drain” and felt an obligation to return to the region when she finished her college education in Kentucky.
“I’ve seen that with so many of my friends,” Norwood said. “They’ve gone off to college, and they just start their life and they never look back. And to a certain degree I don’t blame them, but I felt ... if I don’t stay and try to inspire the young people that are still in our community, then who’s going to stay?
“It took me leaving my city and my home to realize that maybe my purpose is here.”
Norwood is one of five people who have filed to run for three open seats on the Johnson City Commission. The filing deadline is noon Aug. 20.
Norwood grew up in Elizabethton and studied peace and social justice at Berea College in Kentucky. She has since moved to Johnson City, and is now a member of the board of the New Generation Freedom Fighters, a Johnson City group pushing for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
She also works for Black in Appalachia and is conducting research on the Douglas School, an historically black school in Elizabethton.
“As soon as I got back from college, the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement started up, and I figured what better way to get involved in my community than to show support for black and brown people,” she said.
Norwood said she was encouraged to run for City Commission by community members she met through local Black Lives Matter protests. She was initially hesitant to run for the City Commission because she hadn’t lived in Johnson City long, but motivation from people she met at community events made her seriously consider.
As a city commissioner, Norwood expects she would push for many of the same changes advocated by the New Generation Freedom Fighters, working with the Johnson City Police Department to implement more inclusive and preventative policies.
“I know in this national narrative the police are getting a lot of flack, but thankfully the (Johnson City Police Department) has been pretty receptive of the changes that the Freedom Fighters and other people in the community are wanting to see,” Norwood said.
Norwood has participated in recent meetings between the New Generation Freedom Fighters and city leaders. Members of the organization have been learning how the city operates and sharing concerns and possible reforms with officials.
“Now ... we’re trying to figure out in an official capacity, ‘What are our goals as citizens and elected officials working together? What are we trying to accomplish?’” Norwood said. “Since this is all pretty new, we’re just trying to be as flexible as possible and make this unofficial committee work and be effective in the city.”
Norwood also wants to see more representation in the city’s public school system and to work alongside the school board to introduce more African American history in the curriculum and recruit more black and brown teachers.
“I think it’s really important for students to be able to see themselves in the people that they’re going to be around, that are teaching them and they may look up to as leaders,” she said.
Additionally, Norwood said policies should be developed to better serve the local homeless population. She’s critical of an ordinance the city passed in 2018 banning camping on public property, which critics say unfairly targets the homeless.
Asked what the city is doing well, Norwood said officials are making a concerted effort to listen to constituents.
“On a national level, we’ve seen the push back from city officials not wanting to listen to their residents, so I’m really thankful that the mayor and (City Manager Pete Peterson) and (Police Chief Karl Turner) are all like, ‘How can we help you guys?’” Norwood said. “I think they’re making an effort to do just that.”