Kate Pett, Executive Director of Thrive Asheville, loves how much our community cares. “People are passionate about this community. Even when we don’t agree, people care loudly about seeing this community thrive. I love that.”
Originally from Detroit, Kate started her career path serving with the Peace Corps in West Africa and Asia, where she was struck by the importance of education. “I was impressed with the ability of education to create community development. So I entered education as an opportunity to shape communities for greater justice and equity.”
Kate returned to the States, studied urban education at the University of Michigan. She worked both in education reform, and as a teacher in her childhood school district in Detroit. Her passion also took her outside of the classroom, where she led experiential and outdoor programs for adjudicated youth.
In the early 2000s, when Kate and her husband were living in eastern North Carolina, they decided to relocate to Asheville. “We felt this would be a great place to raise a family and be a part of a community.” As she settled in to the Asheville community, Kate began to look for ways to put her skills and experience to work.
Eventually, she found it. For 11 years, from 2008-2019, Kate was the Executive Director of the Asheville City Schools Foundation. “Leading the Asheville City Schools Foundation was what I’d always hoped to do: be a partner to education in a community-based organization where I could advocate for kids and teachers and to bring the whole support of the community behind public schools.”
Kate feels strongly about the place of education in creating a strong community. “The primary purpose of public education should be to create greater equity and access to opportunity for all of our students. I think public schools also play a critical role in helping our community know itself. When our schools become segregated, and when some students and some kinds of families don’t participate in public education, we miss the opportunity to understand what our neighbors in the community are experiencing.”
Now, Kate is bringing this holistic view of community to her work with Thrive Asheville. While serving in her role with the Asheville City Schools Foundation, it became clear to her that education by itself couldn’t overcome all of the barriers to student success. “As a result of that I became interested in how we can create cross-sector partnerships that would address all the conditions of students' lives and remove barriers to student success that had to do with neighborhoods, health conditions, employment opportunities for families. All the kinds of barriers that keep students and families locked in disadvantage and privilege other families.”
About that same time, a group of local leaders were looking at ways of bringing the community together to address some of the most complex issues facing our city. This group knew that the only way to accomplish this goal was to bring all the stakeholders together around the common purpose of nurturing growth and change in our community. This was a huge task, as it meant abandoning individual silos, and working with leaders across all sectors, including education, health, business, and economic development. Kate was invited to participate as a leader in education, in part because she was someone who understood the interconnectedness of these issues. Out of these discussions came Thrive Asheville.
“Thrive Asheville was the vision of a small group of leaders who saw the need to understand complex problems and to identify innovative solutions that can be enacted across sectors. Our mission is to bring together people from diverse perspectives, build relationships, study our challenges, and then identify and enact promising solutions.”
Thrive went to work not only seeking solutions, but also digging deeper into what the causes and challenges truly are. “Our goal is to help the community come together around some shared learning. We feel like the increasing polarization that is happening in our country is also happening in our city. We need to bring a group of leaders together and learn deeply about issues so we can agree to a common set of facts. From there we can look across our country and our community and find innovative solutions. And with those we can launch pilot projects that can test out new ideas and show how collaboration can really help move the needle on these difficult problems.”
“I think there is a real hunger for people to work together across sectors. I think people really recognize that this problem exists, that we are trying to tackle these tough problems with one-size-fits-all solutions very often. I think the challenge in doing that is that collaboration and cross-sector work takes time. It takes some capacity of the organization. It takes some glue. And that’s where Thrive really comes in. We can operate as the glue that connects all of these different partners.”
One of their first pilot programs, the Landlord-Tenant Partnership, is an excellent example of how this kind of collaborative innovation can work. Affordable housing has been a serious issue in Asheville for decades, and it's not an easy thing to fix. “People think that the solution to the lack of affordable housing is just to build more affordable housing. But it’s actually complex, like almost all really big problems. It has to do with not only a supply problem, but it also has to do with some of the barriers that have existed. For example, structural racism has prevented people from actually being able to increase wealth and gain access to high opportunity neighborhoods and home ownership and other opportunities that have been afforded to predominantly white people in Asheville.”
However, Asheville’s affordable housing problem needed a uniquely Asheville solution. “Our affordable housing crisis is something that we share with a lot of larger communities. Large cities are experiencing the kind of crisis that we are experiencing in Asheville, but they tend to have more resources than Asheville has. So in some ways, even though Asheville is a smaller city, we’re experiencing bigger city challenges. We needed to look for solutions that will be really cost effective.”
The Landlord-Tenant Partnership launched about 10 months ago as a partnership of the City of Asheville, Children First of Buncombe County, the Asheville Housing Authority, and Pisgah Legal. Based on a similar program in Seattle, Thrive was able to take lessons from that program and adapt it to our local circumstances. The program helps landlords better understand Housing Choice Vouchers and connects them with tenants who want to move from public housing to private rentals. “In the City of Asheville, there are tens of thousands of rentals, and yet we cannot find enough landlords to accept Housing Choice Vouchers to help our neighbors move out of unsafe neighborhoods into better neighborhoods.”
This program was helped by another partnership Thrive made in 2020: WNC Superheroes! “There’s no way to communicate with all the landlords in our community. So Thrive identified this problem, and WNC Superheroes swooped in with resources so that we could create a direct mailing to more than 4,000 landlords. As a result, we have tapped many new landlords who are excited about participating in the Landlord-Tenant Partnership.”
Did the mailing work? “As a result of the mailing, a landlord called us up who had never accepted Housing Choice Vouchers before. He has a rental that is right next door to his residence. He really wanted to find a family that could play with his grandchildren when they came to visit. We walked him through the entire process, and he matched with a mom and her two kids, and now he is super excited about having next door neighbors who have children the same age as his grandchild, and we have a mom who is overjoyed about living in a safe neighborhood with a beautiful yard and is really feeling like she can move forward in her life.”
Last Fall, Thrive also had enormous success with a voter engagement program. “Our strategy was to bring together voting advocates who had been working on this issue for a long time. When we all got together around the table it was easy to identify that there were voices missing. Black and Brown folks weren’t featured as the leaders and the faces of voting. We worked with Aisha Adams Media and created a video series that was viewed more than 30,000 times. That work was led by Black and Brown folks and energized and excited people about participating in the most recent election.”
What’s next for Thrive Asheville?
This spring, Thrive is focused on learning even more deeply about the challenges facing people around affordable housing. They have released a survey that will be used to learn more about how the affordable housing crisis is affecting families in our community. “We are going to tell their stories on video and then in May we’re going to host a virtual convening on what our city can do to better address affordable housing, and specifically to improve the path to home ownership for people who have really been locked out of that opportunity in the past.”
After that, Thrive will be tackling one of the most polarizing issues facing Asheville: tourism. “We know that tourism is a great source of economic vitality in the area, and we also know that it is putting pressure on some of the things that are essential to our quality of life. Next fall we intend to start looking at how we can create a sustainable tourism economy that can increase the resilience and equity of our community.”
How can you get involved?
Kate encourages people to get involved with Thrive Asheville by signing up for the newsletter, and following them on social media. “We really need community support in advancing new ideas and new solutions. As Thrive Asheville learns how we can solve these tough problems, we’ll be calling on the community to join us by advocating for improved policies and by implementing pilot programs. We’ll need community support to do those things. By staying informed and becoming an advocate with Thrive Asheville, the whole community can really participate in this process.”