An Inside Look at Equitable Economic Development in Nashville

This post is part of a series on NLC’s Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship.

Last week, during the Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship program closing retreat, I interviewed Ashford Hughes, Sr., EED fellow from the city of Nashville, Tennessee. Here, Ashford shares highlights from Nashville’s participation in the EED Fellowship — and his own experience in the program.

Ashford Hughes, Sr., city of Nashville

Carlos Delgado: Ashford, we have a lot to talk about during this interview, but before we start discussing equity and inclusion in Nashville, can you tell us about yourself?

Ashford Hughes, Sr.: Carlos, thank you so much for the opportunity to participate in this program. We as a city have learned a lot from our peers, and the support we have received throughout the year has been invaluable.

I was recently appointed by Mayor David Briley to serve as the city of Nashville’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. In this role, I will implement the mayor’s diversity and inclusion goals across Metro government and lead the city’s efforts to attract, develop, promote and retain a diverse government workforce at all levels.

Under Mayor Megan Barry, I served as senior advisor for workforce, diversity and inclusion through the Office of Economic and Community Development. In that role, I sought to engage, convene and lead in developing workforce strategies that would connect residents with training opportunities that were expected to lead to career pathways to success.

Beginning in 2013, I was the assistant business manager and political organizer for the Southeast Laborers’ District Council, an international labor union affiliate of LiUNA! LiUNA! is the acronym for Laborers International Union of North America, which represents both men and women in the construction industry. In this capacity, organizing within 7 southern states and 26 local unions, I was tasked to lead on a variety of issue and candidate-based campaigns while advocating for policies to aid local workforce.

Prior to joining the Southeast Laborers’ District Council, I acted as the political director for the Tennessee Democratic Party. I have always been eager to empower the community through political engagement, civic education and economic empowerment.

CD: Thank you, Ashford, for those kind words and that introduction. I’ve notice you worked with a lot of community organizations and political activists. Both Mayors Barry and Briley have made equity and inclusion a priority under their administrations. Why has an equitable economic development agenda been a priority?

AH: During the 2015 mayoral campaign, Megan Barry ran on a platform of social and economic equity throughout the city. At a time when Nashville was experiencing record growth, economic prosperity and low levels of unemployment, Nashville was also experiencing a 16-18 percent citywide poverty rate. We were also experiencing a 30-35 percent unemployment rate in black and brown communities, as well as high levels of housing displacement across various communities. This needed to be addressed, and at the time Mayor Barry formed the Office of Economic Opportunity and Empowerment to address these needs.

Meanwhile, Mayor Briley believes we are having a moment in which we must perform transformative community work alongside our council and the community.  The mayor has begun to set an early equity agenda to be implemented via my new role as well as through our Office of Economic and Community Development to address three key areas. These areas are:

  1. Growth and development of minority owned businesses: Within his first 60 days in office, Mayor Briley issued an executive order establishing The Minority Business Advisory Council. Mayor David Briley established this council to collaboratively work with the minority business community in an effort to develop policies, practices and processes that increase minority business participation in the economic development of the city. The council will review, discuss and propose strategies to ensure that minority businesses have access to capital, procurement opportunities and technical assistance. Additionally, the council will propose strategies and a framework to ensure the city of Nashville creates a business environment that is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  2. Build business-led talent pipelines: Recognizing that in communities of color our unemployment rates can be upwards of 35 percent, specifically within our Promise Zones, Mayor Briley has asked us to continue to convene and partner with key human resources and business executives, nonprofit workforce development leaders and our Nashville Career Advancement Center to develop direct workforce development training opportunities and job placement programs that lead to full employment. Key industries include hospitality, construction, healthcare and healthcare IT, advanced manufacture and transportation services. We have also been working directly with our Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency to operationalize HUD Section three to be of direct benefit for workforce development opportunities for our residents living within subsidized housing.
  3. North Nashville-based equity strategy: North Nashville represents our most historic African American area of the city. It encompasses the rich history and culture of Black Nashville. Within the borders of North Nashville exist three historically black colleges and universities, as well as the indigent care hospital, Nashville general. We have been working to initiate an anchor strategy utilizing our HBCU’s as the ground zero forces to help rejuvenate and reinvigorate the community. Through policy and programs this anchor strategy seeks to create a pipeline for minority business growth and development as well an anti-displacement housing strategies.

We are really trying to preserve the history and culture of the community while establishing ways to bring back economic inclusion and prosperity to those long-term residents. Also within this North Nashville-based equity strategy footprint, we are working with the community and nonprofit partners on an economic and community strategy to turn the McGruder family Resource Center into a single center that encompass all the necessary resources to enhance the quality of life of those in North Nashville. The center would become a one-stop shop that houses workforce development needs, business development needs, business incubation and supportive services as well as community arts and cultural programming. North Nashville and the McGruder Center sit in our Promise Zone 1, which according to our data has the highest barriers to economic equity and prosperity throughout the city. These efforts have been established to combat and intentionally address these vital statistics.

CD: Following up on Mayor Briley’s equity agenda, can you expand on your new role and what it entails?

AH: Mayor David Briley appointed me to serve as the city of Nashville’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. As many other cities are hiring chief diversity officers, Mayor Briley recognized the importance this kind of role would in incorporating deeper data and policy principles throughout Metro government, and to change strategic systems so that they focus on equity and inclusion.

My role will be to implement the mayor’s diversity and inclusion goals across the Metro government and lead the city’s efforts to attract, develop, promote and retain a diverse government workforce at all levels. Working with our budget and finance department, I will oversee policy improvements to the city’s procurement practices and policies to further increase opportunities for minority- and women-owned companies.

With the assistance of our HR Director Shannon Hall, we will also ensure collaboration across metro departments and continue to prioritize community-focused initiatives that promote and improve economic inclusion for all Nashvillians.

NLC’s Rose Center for Public Leadership team visited a Nashville manufacturing space.

My position was created to ensure someone in city government focuses day-to-day on making certain that Nashville, sometimes called the “It City,” is being inclusive — and that all communities and residents can enjoy the prosperity, resource allocation and inclusion measures that make Nashville “It” for many.

I will continue to work with our economic and community development Team and our housing department to make sure we are coordinated in our efforts to achieve maximum impact. My goal is to make certain that our office is collaborative across all departments in metro government, and to enhance the quality of life for our most vulnerable citizens.

CD: During the EED Fellowship, the Nashville team chose to focus on advancing urban manufacturing opportunities and workforce development training in the Promise Zone. Can you share why this neighborhood was selected? What challenges currently exist in the Promise Zone? And what would you like to see happening there?

AH: We selected manufacturing because 1) it is one of the four largest (and growing) industries of the region, 2) manufacturing jobs pay a living wage, and 3) barriers to entry are lower — and we have local technical training programs that provide relevant training certificates that map into the industry.

We selected the Promise Zone because it covers an area of our city where there is high unemployment (unemployment overall in Nashville is 2.2 percent, but in the Promise Zone it is in the teens) as well as higher levels of poverty and other barriers (lack of personal transportation, low educational attainment, etc.). The goal was to see if we could link people seeking work to the training programs and, ultimately, to the manufacturers and to identify where the links are broken or nonexistent.

We then selected the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, because there are a number of smaller urban manufacturing companies operating there and because it is adjacent to a large public housing development. Additionally, it is a neighborhood that is rapidly changing — many buildings are being converted from manufacturing spaces to offices (with the businesses being pushed out), and there’s increased residential development. It is a microcosm of the challenges we see across the city.

What we found was the need to identify the local manufacturers and bring them together — through the Nashville Made program — to have a centralized resource that connects potential employees to training programs and manufacturers, as well as manufacturers to one another (for contract manufacturing or specialized projects). We are seeking funding to help get this entity off the ground, and my colleague Audra Ladd is spearheading this charge.

CD: As you previously mentioned, Nashville has grown exponentially for many years, but that growth has not been equitable. I personally have learned a lot working with you, the EED Nashville team and your city partners/stakeholders. How important is it to receive recommendations from “outsiders” and what progress have you made since the December visit? What is next after the fellowship?

AH: Our team was a big supporter of outside subject matter experts and peer fellows coming in. This in a sense helped us to be able to bring validation to the equity work that we were — and are — seeking to address.  At times, if you hear the same voices you can begin to tune them out, so to speak, or begin to think it’s the “same ol’, same ol'”. Outside experts can provide a fresh pair of eyes on a challenge. They provided new analyses and ideas to help us sharpen our observations.

Some of the recommendations were ones that we thought of before they came, and some were ideas that we felt needed to be expressed by outside voices and experts in order to give us an extra layer of credibility to take the mayor and say, “Mayor, we need to be doing this.”

Since their visit, we have begun to discuss and put into place a new incentive plan that incorporates more small businesses, as they are the long-term community based job producers. We have set forth opportunities to work with our minority chambers of commerce in order to grow capacity in the same way we contract with our larger Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

While these are two of about three recommendations that we are moving forward with, we were originally provided with about ten total recommendations. It becomes nearly impossible to implement that many quality recommendations when you don’t have a large enough staff to follow and track measurements and results.

As time progresses and we see positive outcomes regarding the above recommendations. we can them slowly look to implement other potential recommendations. Our focus is on measuring success so that it becomes sustainable over time.

CD: Following up on your point about receiving outside recommendations, you were part of the technical assistance panel team in Sacramento. How was that experience for you?

AH: I really had a great experience in Sacramento. It was eye-opening to experience in person the breaking down of an important city issue — not related to Nashville — that Sacramento city leaders sought to address. It instilled in me a great responsibility for myself and other leaders to come in and offer outside advice and support based off of our own specialized expertise. It gave me a sense of how to look at a challenge with an outside perspective and be able to advise another capitol city mayor on important issues. That was very rewarding. And it was very interesting to view how different city governments operate. I was walking around different neighborhoods far from the south, but I realized people are still people and that we all have the same desires: to be heard, valued and respected as a member of our communities and cities.

I enjoyed meeting and strategizing with several of the community nonprofit leaders, community advocates and business leaders. Sacramento is a great city with a lot of diversity, potential growth and opportunity. I hope I was able to aide in their efforts, and I really look forward to staying connected with my colleagues there and seeing their progress in the near future. It was important for me to see that across the country many communities welcome outside input as being validators to what they have been advocating for.

CD: Ashford, it has been really a great experience getting to know you this year and seeing all the great things you are committed to do for Nashville and other cities. Any final comments about the EED Fellowship and why you think peer-to-peer support is critical to address pressing challenges in American cities?

AH: Carlos, I want to thank you, NLC, ULI and PolicyLink for the opportunity to be a part of this program where I have met committed city builders like myself. Even during the difficult times the city faced, we knew we could rely on your advice and support. Prior to 2015 I had never worked in the government arena. My background has been in community, labor and political organizing and leadership roles. This NLC fellowship has connected me with numerous policy experts and organizational leaders in government from whom I have been able to learn a tremendous amount.

The ability to learn from and study alongside peer cities like Louisville and Austin, and to see that other cities like Baltimore, Phoenix and Sacramento are facing many of the same challenges, has been enlightening for me. This fellowship has allowed for me to think outside my comfort zone and to see that as a city leader, I can and I must push the envelope with good, progressive policy that will benefit all.

I know that through this fellowship and the talented people that I have engaged with over the last year, I have developed a much greater sense of what policy directives I can help the mayor and the city of Nashville champion as we usher in a new era of social equity and economic inclusion.

I also cannot downplay the importance of the relationships that I was able to cultivate with my colleagues from other cities. The fact that I am able to to call upon city leaders from across the country to discuss policy and practice is an invaluable resource.

This fellowship is a testament to the fact that city leaders can’t operate within the bubble of our own cities or regions. This fellowship has helped me to not only be better prepared for my role as chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, but it has also given me a national playbook to work with and a set of strategy tools to implement to make economic equity more than just a new buzz word. The EED Fellowship has truly empowered me to think that in this moment in time, in this role, there is no time for me to “play small.”

I am set to empower the mayor and the city to think more about citizens that often feel left behind, and to stand with them in the quest for equity: the just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential, thereby unlocking the promise of the city by unleashing the promise in us all.

Thank you again, and I’m looking forward to continuing to collaborate with you.


About the Author: Carlos Delgado is the Senior Associate for the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at the National League of Cities.