Creating a Sense of Community in Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia

Diversity & Inclusion throughout the Region

At first, Dwight Berry tried to fight it. He was not expecting to feel this way, but as the 51-year-old from Church Hill stepped onto the grounds of Founder’s Park in Johnson City for the Tri-Pride Parade and Festival this past September, a sense of pride and accomplishment filled his heart. A flood of emotions churned inside and his senses sizzled. Everywhere he looked Berry saw people belonging to the community he had identified with for more than thirty years: gay. Even better, everyone was gathered in a public space proclaiming his/her own proud LGBTQ identity or support for the broader ideals of diversity and inclusion.

From men in makeup and women dressed as men, to the young and old, to black, white and everyone in between, the sheer mass of the local gay pride festival spoke volumes. They were loud and they were proud. And they were an estimated 10,000 strong – almost 10 times as large as the expected turnout. Berry had promised himself he wouldn’t do it, but as forty years of emotions bubbled to the surface; the tears rolled down his cheek. “You don’t understand what this means,” Berry said, standing next to longtime friend, and sometimes drag queen, John “Black Suga” Collins who nodded in agreement. “I’ve been waiting for this day my whole life. It hasn’t been easy. We used to get beat up. We used to get harassed. It was awful. We only had one place to go back then and just getting there was dangerous. Basically we had nothing, no where. Now we’re here. Celebrated. Accepted. It’s just so overwhelming. It’s just so emotional. It’s a dream. Today is the happiest day of my life.” This year the festival is scheduled to take place in Kingsport.

Collins, like his friend Berry, remembers the days of yesteryear when gay men were harassed. “Police officers used to sit outside of the only gay bar in town waiting to write tickets,” he said. Drunken college students often started fistfights with his friends. “It was all about hate in those days,” back in late ’60s and early ’70s, even later, when he and his gay friends had to bond together to protect themselves, he said.

A lot can change in four decades. From constantly fearing retribution for his sexual orientation to a special day recognizing it, there’s no doubt the Tri-Cities region is becoming more accepting of others. So with this unprecedented turnout for the region’s first and only gay pride festival still fresh on our minds, coupled with Black History month quickly approaching, VIPSEEN recently gathered a group of business executives, community leaders, homeowners, historians, and others to examine what it means for a city to not only be diverse in the 21st Century, but to also embrace diversity as a model for its future.

According to the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., nearly two thirds of Americans say an increasing number of people from different races, ethnic groups and nationalities in the U.S. make the country a better place to live. This is good news as Post-Millennials, today’s 6- to 21-year-olds and also known as Generation Z, are on track to be the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet. With a myriad of colleges in the region, one thing is clear: the new workforce and local population in the area is going to be more diverse than ever.

This diversity, though, plays out in a variety of ways. In the workplace, researchers Mckinsey & Co have shown it makes an organization more successful, effective and, even, more profitable. In fact, some research suggests an organization’s success and competitiveness depends on its ability to embrace diversity and realize its benefits. A multicultural community is also known to validate the use and honor of various languages and cultural heritages, especially important for minority children, experts say. “We all need to look at diversity from outside ourselves. We need to see how without it we are worse off, but with a diverse community, a diverse workforce, we are stronger as whole than we are as one,” said Eastman’s Director of Global Public and Community Affairs CeeGee McCord.

Local business leaders seem to have taken note. In early January, leaders convened in an exploratory session to launch a diversity committee: one intended to look at the region and diversify the community. The idea is to take a snap shot of the area’s current diversity rankings in order to develop, if possible, a scorecard and then determine ways to improve it. While just the first such meeting, the room was packed with representatives from Kingsport’s Fun Fest, East Tennessee State University (ETSU), Kingsport’s Chamber of Commerce, First Tennessee Development District, and even BWXT, an Erwin-based nuclear fuel company, among others. “The economic impact is what gets people’s attention. That’s how we enter this conversation,” said Lottie Fields Ryans, director of workforce initiatives for the First Tennessee Development district. “Having the top of any administration taking an invested interest in diversity initiatives is critical.”

Although determining a diversity index is difficult, many companies have diversity initiatives and/or tally the amount of resources in the community for such populations. “We’ve just begun to see the interest of the employers in the area taking notice regarding diversity recruitment and retention,” said Dr. Jeffrey L. Alston, director of student affairs at ETSU. “That’s a key place to start. It’s the beginning. It’s the start. But it’s the long game.”

For Alston, one draw to East Tennessee was its geography. In other words, its closeness to areas with dense African-American communities such as Atlanta: a city less than five hours away but a world apart in terms of demographics.  According to the latest census data in 2018, Tennessee’s African American population represents less than one-fifth of the state, or roughly 17 percent. In Georgia this demographic represents about a third of entire state, or just slightly more than 31 percent. For the African American community, Alston said, the idea that in less than a day’s drive, someone can be in the majority rather than the minority is a big draw and “one that should be played up when recruiting others to this region,” he said. Just knowing how close he lived to his family in Atlanta was a fact he couldn’t ignore: It helped him “get through and sustain” moving to and living in the Deep South, he said.

Combined with the fact that, at least anecdotally, the research on post-Millennials entering college is more diverse than ever before, Alston believes the Tri-Cities area has a lot to help feed the diversity loop. It’s there, on campus, in a mixed environment, where Alston works and where he feels the safest. Outside of campus the story is different. Karen LeBlanc Sullivan, director of corporate relations and university advancement with East Tennessee State University still sees a lot of the close-mindedness coming from outside the campus constraints. “I don’t know how to fix these things. I don’t know how to make them go away,” she says.

The idea of “going away” has competing meanings throughout the Tri-Cities. For many, “going away” means tossing out traditionally restrictive ideals stuck to the Deep South. For others, it means a mass exodus of talented folk leaving for more accepting cities and states where race, sexual orientation, religion and other ideals play second fiddle to the one notion that truly matters: community.

The idea then, many community and business leaders said in exclusive interviews for this piece, is to showcase the Tri-Cities as a “We-want-your-talent-and-will foster it-regardless-of-your-background-or-skin-color” kind of place. Jill Ellis, graduate of Douglass High School, Kingsport’s formerly all black elementary/high school, put it another way in a recent media report. “African-American students of professional business have not found a reason to stay here. Their energies have carried them away to other cities,” Ellis was quoted as saying. “Now they come back home to Kingsport to visit the older ones still here.”

Elaine Washington, an African American executive at Eastman, is trying to change this. Several years ago, she looked around the community and wondered where all the people that looked like her were. She decided to do something about it and ramped up a recruiting campaign to attract more African American women to the area. She mentors, networks, and does both external and internal outreach to hire other African American employees: including targeting schools where her skin color is an asset. “It’s a simple statement but its an important statement,” she said. “These people look around and say, ‘Oh. Wow. There are people here that look like me.’ That’s a big deal.”

Washington agrees that the community has made significant progress, “but there’s always more work to be done,” she says. In the end, the entire diversity conversation is going to take bold words, from bold men and bold women taking bold steps. Jonesborough Alderman Adam Dickson, who chaired the diversity meeting mentioned earlier, has made the first steps. “How bold is it to address the systematic segregation, racism, homophobia inside (local) organizations?” asked Dickson. “And in doing so create a culture where diversity is embedded?”

George Chamoun is one of these bold men. For nearly a year, the chemical engineer plotted, planned, and developed every last logistical detail (alongside 30 to 40 volunteers) for the first annual Tri-Pride festival this past September. The September 15th Tri-Pride event was designed as a celebration of all things LGBTQ. It was an event aimed at connecting a population that for years operated in the shadows, often afraid of repercussions that might surface for coming out and proclaiming their gay pride so loudly in a conservative Appalachian region. On the event’s cloudy and cool Saturday, it was as if a ray of sunshine still beamed down and, for Chamoun, it was more than a celebration of diverse sexual orientations: it was about rewiring a community psyche.

Ultimately though, it was also about curbing a mass exodus of local talent leaving for more accepting cities. “If you look at every big city that now has a regular acceptance of the LGBTQ community, they started with a big pride event like this,” Chamoun said. “We’ve noticed that people are moving away to places like Asheville, Knoxville, and Nashville. We want to stop this exodus. We want to show this community that you can live here. That you can stay here, build a life here, and prosper. You don’t have to move away, because this is your home too.”

In other words, events like these are significant in changing a community’s fabric. They are a must when one wants to diversify the quilt we all sleep under. “It’s time for an event like this. It’s been time. It’s time to shine a spotlight on and for this community,” said Ella Youngman, 23, of Johnson City, a heterosexual woman who supports a diverse community. “We’re here celebrating love and equal rights. We’re here with thousands of friends we don’t even know. We’re here to show the world — and any protesters — that love trumps hate.”

While no area in the Tri-Cities has hosted an LGBTQ event of this magnitude within memory, Johnson City had already been identified as one of the top seven cities in Tennessee for LGBTQ people to live. Johnson City, according to the most recent census data, is home to Tennessee’s fifth-largest LGBTQ population and, according to, is the second-best city to live in out of seven, falling behind Clarksville, and ranking above Chattanooga, Franklin, Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville, in that order. Color and sexuality aside, there are additional aspects that contribute to the Tri-Cities diverse population.

With just his wife and two-month old in tow, Puerto Rican native and recent Ph.D. graduate Humberto Collazo, looked around his new hometown in Kingsport and realized this city was nothing like his home. The then 23-year-old had just been hired at Eastman after earning his chemistry doctorate. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity. But here he was a stranger in a strange land, a place with rolling hills, four seasons, a laid back country feel of life, a church on every corner and a population where most everyone’s skin tone was several shades lighter than his. Not to mention there was virtually none of the Hispanic food he grew up eating. The landscape, the seasons, and the way of life were all so new and so different. He’d relocated his entire family thousands of miles away, to a different continent, and now a sense of worry crept in.

Today, nearly 30 years later, these memories are as sharp and crisp as if it was this morning and Collazo likes it that way. These memories feed him. In 1990, Collazo helped organize and run Club Latina Americano, a 501c3 for the Tri-Cities aimed at helping new families primarily from Puerto Rico, Columbia, Mexico, and other South American areas meet, get settled and acclimate to a life in East Tennessee. “We’re the welcome wagon,” he said, adding the organization offers a variety of services, everything from translators and school tutors, to organizing cultural festivals complete with music and food. “When I got here we were isolated,” Collazo said of first settling in Kingsport. “It was really hard to be on your own, away from your way of life. I didn’t see anybody that looked like me. They were here, but there weren’t many of us. We were scattered. We didn’t know where everyone was and people weren’t connected like they are now: there was no Facebook.” Club LatinoAmericano helped to get people connected. It, and similar organizations, “created critical mass,” Collazo said. People gathered, pooled resources, and helped each other. Just this past Thanksgiving between 30-50 people, who are Kingsport transplants, gathered for food and worship; giving thanks to their new lives.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of Hispanics living in the area today, but 2018 census suggests about two percent of the Tri-Cities population is Hispanic and Collazo sees anecdotal evidence of a rising population. When he first arrived here, for instance, there was one restaurant serving Hispanic food. Today they’re nearly on every corner. When St. Dominic’s Church in Kingsport started a special mass at 3 pm on Sundays, Collazo says there were about 15 Hispanic people attending. Today there are 150, a more than 2,000 percent surge, and so many attendees, in fact, the church had to relocate the services to bigger accommodations. Other churches soon caught on. “Now, virtually all of the bigger churches in the area offer Spanish services,” he said, “This place has changed. The Hispanic population is very large and it’s just getting going.”

Courtney Holmes, 30, of Bristol, Tennessee understands that change starts with each of us. Although she identifies as heterosexual, she wanted her daughter, Aida Pendergrass, 5, to witness the Tri-Pride event.  “If we want to change the future, if we want to change social issues, we have to start young,” Holmes said. “Our kids are the future. It’s hard to explain these things to them, though. So just exposing them to the new normal when they don’t know any better, you can erase hatred and negativity before the seed is planted.” Former Johnson City Mayor David Tomita, who walked the grounds meeting people, shaking hands and laughing; said if he’d known such a turnout would be so large, he’d pushed for a big event earlier.  He marveled at how, just like business leaders had already said, diversity could bring such an enormous impact to the area. “We’re all in this together. If you want to attract people to this community, you’ve got to show them they are welcome.”

It is with this welcoming attitude in mind that the Chambers of Commerce in Bristol TN/VA, Kingsport, and Johnson City/Jonesborough/Washington County are adopting Diversity and Inclusion statements. Bob Feathers, 2018 Kingsport Chamber Chairman, for example, is one of just a few business leaders who will be adding inclusion statements above the doorways of their businesses. Mr. Feathers is adding the statement above the entrance of his East Coast Wings + Grill establishment and above the entrance to Workspace Interiors. The statement reads, “This is a safe place. We value your color, class, creed, gender, and orientation. Anything less will not be tolerated.” The same statement will also soon grace the doorway of the Kingsport Chamber, and many other business establishments around the Tri-Cities area, because the idea it encompasses is vital to the growth of our region. The acceptance of diversity and the inclusion of everyone are ideas here to stay: anything less will not be tolerated.

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