Although he said a proposal to create an equity board in Johnson City appears unlikely to get traction, Mayor Joe Wise expects conversations will occur with a newly formed organization dedicated to fostering diversity, inclusion and equity in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
“I don’t sense that the specific proposal that was brought to us last winter enjoys sufficient support,” he said.
In January, the Johnson City Commission discussed a proposal from Commissioner Jenny Brock to create a community equity advisory board that would “work with city government and community stakeholders to ensure there is diversity, fairness, equity and inclusion throughout Johnson City” regardless of race, sexual orientation or other factors.
After arguing that the proposal lacked specifics, Wise suggested in February that city leaders meet with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to get further guidance.
“People in our city are already working to address the issues of diversity and inclusion,” Wise said on Feb. 18. “A regional diversity and inclusion board already exists and is working on the same type of activities that appear to be envisioned for a recently proposed city board.”
Wise suggested that the commission meet with representatives of that board in the coming weeks to see how their efforts could provide further guidance.
“Perhaps that affords us an opportunity to effectively address these concerns in a regional manner,” he said.
Chris Dagenhart, the vice president of the alliance, is the designated representative for the organization. He said Wednesday he has not had an opportunity to sit down with city officials to talk about the alliance.
Adam Dickson, who is the president of the organization, opted to recuse himself from this topic because he’s a city employee. He also helped develop the equity board proposal.
Dagenhart said he thinks the alliance would support the city creating an equity board, but it’s not a question for the organization to address.
“I think the city has to make its choice about the right path forward,” he said. “We would welcome the opportunity to talk about it.”
What is the alliance?
The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Alliance seated its board in February 2021 and has representation from across the region. It recently received a $10,000 grant from the United Way of East Tennessee Highlands and will focus its efforts on eight counties in Northeast Tennessee and four in Southwest Virginia.
The organization plans to provide assistance to local enterprises so they can attract and retain young professionals and make the region more inclusive to a diverse range of demographic groups.
In a press release, the organization said the region is perceived as unwelcoming to minorities and marginalized groups and faces an overall decline in its population.
“Each of these circumstances negatively hinder the region’s future economic development,” the release said. “The alliance will fill a very important need by improving the perception of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia into one that is welcoming and inclusive.”
The organization noted that strategies focused on diversity, equity and inclusion drive economic development while a homogeneous population slows it.
“Neighboring regions in the Southeast that have experienced economic growth also have significantly greater percentages of diversity,” the release said.
Asheville, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, the alliance said, have minority populations of 22.3% and 38.4%, respectively. Johnson City has a minority population of 15.8%, and Bristol and Kingsport are both in single digits.
Wise said he doesn’t think the proposed equity board is the ideal vehicle for the city to guarantee the well-being of Johnson City citizens.
“I don’t know what a city equity board would do,” he said. “What I hear the proponents say is, ‘You need to hear from different perspectives.’ And I agree.”
He said city officials have gone out of their way to create an appointment and application process for city boards that encourages diversity and increased participation.
“We don’t want to make decisions that affect the municipality that are tone deaf to our citizens,” he said. “I don’t know that creating a new board does that better than ensuring the highest level of participation possible,” within existing boards.
Wise said the end goal of conversations with the alliance is to understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and, if appropriate, how the city could engage with it.
“We want to serve all of our citizens well and efficiently, and so if I can learn something about how to serve our citizens well and efficiently I want to hear from anyone that can help speak some insight into that process,” Wise said.