Still Pushing: The Local Political Legacy of Ashford Hughes

Ashford Hughes
Ashford Hughes

Imagine being in a conversation with a Nashville Voice writer describing the work you did for two mayoral administrations, and the reality is you only came to Nashville to attend TSU for a degree in Marketing. Do you think about how you arrived at this point of being a husband, father, and continuing to push a public policy that addresses socio-political issues with black folks in Nashville? Even though you no longer work at the same place that you constructed many ideas and solutions for economic and equity issues does it mean your work stops now? These are many of the questions Ashford Hughes gave answers towards on an afternoon phone call about what the Nashville community should remember about his work in the Mayor’s office. With the changing of a new guard in Nashville leadership, Hughes may have left the local administration, but it doesn’t mean he is leaving the fight for Black Nashvillians in continuing their plight for economic advancement in the “It City”.

Ashford came to Nashville as a Tennessee State University student. He had his mindset on what he wanted to do after college. While in his matriculation, one of his friends was killed in a violent incident… and then another friend, too. Another friend landed himself in federal prison. This left Hughes wondering how he could be involved in effecting policies that worked for blacks instead of against them? Hughes changed his major to Political Science and began working through how politics could address many of the issues he not only witnessed, but also experienced.

Many of his early efforts included working for Labor Unions, the Democratic Party, and managing political candidate campaigns. A move that catapulted him into the Mayor’s office began by Hughes serving as the campaign manager to the then Vice President of a healthcare organization, Megan Barry. He successfully helped her not only get elected as Councilperson at Large, but he also helped her win reelection. Megan Barry would later become the 7th Mayor of Nashville and making Hughes, Senior Advisor for Workforce Development. His responsibilities were around a promise that Mayor Barry made to Ashford of him working directly around policies around Housing, Labor, and Business Inclusion for Black Nashvillians. This mattered specifically with high levels of Black unemployment and poverty issues within the city.

Mayor Barry would later resign after pleading guilty to felony theft related to an extramarital affair, making Vice Mayor, David Briley, the mayor of Nashville. Hughes said, “After Mayor Barry resigned, I stayed on the Briley administration because I realized the systemic disparities among black Nashvillians would not be easily solved, and the office still needed a person actively advancing equity and inclusion for black and brown people. I wanted to finish the work.” In the Briley administration, Ashford was promoted to Chief Officer of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. While Hughes enjoyed his roles and was passionate about producing measurable outcomes, he worked long hours Sunday through Saturday, and leaves disappointed that he never was able to grow his internal policy team to help improve many of the disparities facing minorities. In essence, Hughes was a one man team fighting a system of inequity, in a city populated with over 680,000 residents. It is hard to be successful in any career without a strong support system.

Hughes said, “Because of an abrupt resignation and multiple elections, I was never able to hire the needed DEI office policy staff. I was left to project manage multiple issues on my own or with other colleagues who were also maxed out as Nashville is facing many challenges with growth today.

The Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer needs to be a permanent and a civil service protected position within the metro government. This position must continue to work alongside the Human Resources Department, other city leaders, and the Mayor’s communication team.  With the Cooper Administration, I hope the DEI office remains a focal point and the senior level position in which I served is made permanent through the civil service commission.

As of now, very early in his tenure, Mayor Cooper hasn’t communicated his thoughts on DEI that specifies how he seeks to address issues of racial inequity and social mobility via public policy. Unless there is an actionable equity agenda, the black community and other communities of color will never experience economic inclusion nor social upward mobility. We need a cohesive and collaborative transferral of power. We need to have shared power amongst the three branches of the local government and the community. I applaud Mayor Cooper’s hope for a Nashville for Everyone, but without addressing racial inequity, it will never be an equitable Nashville for communities of color.”

While Chief Officer of DEI, it was Hughes who worked with Purchasing Agent, Michelle Lane, who commissioned the 2018 Nashville Disparities Study.  The study found mathematically significant disparities in ​Metro Nashville’s contracting efforts with firms “likely caused by the gender and racial status” of the firms. One interesting fact is over five years, the disparity in contract allocation amounts to a ​$377,173,467​ loss in business opportunities for Minority and Women-owned Businesses. This says much of why Hughes and his position was of great importance to the black and greater Nashville community. Questions were asked for him to reflect on his time in the Mayor’s office and what the future holds for Nashville:

Briley Administration vs. Cooper Administration?

“During his tenure, Mayor Briley came into a situation where the public trust capital in government was at an all-time low. He needed to better communicate his vision for the city and explain how the everyday Nashville resident fit into that vision. He and our administration needed to establish a more robust and inclusive community engagement process. So many complex issues were taking place in a short period of time that Briley didn’t have the capacity to get out ahead of every issue. Parking modernization, NFL Draft, Cherry Trees are examples of those communication pitfalls that we needed to get out front of so people wouldn’t speculate as to what the administration was hiding or lying about. He could have taken greater steps to communicate to residents the key performance indicators the staff was working towards. We needed to communicate better with Metro employees about the steps being taken to enhance their pay and quality of life. We didn’t communicate well what the Mayor was doing to address the issues specifically in the black community during his 18 month period. And we were doing our fair share. Examples are the behind the scenes negotiating for the  Community Benefits Agreement for Nashville Soccer Club, financial support for General Hospital, Metro Employee Raises, and the Equal Business Opportunity Program in his 1st year.

What will be lost in a Mayor Cooper administration if he doesn’t fill my position with an innovative person that has a fundamental understanding of DEI work, that has the ability to advocate for change in Metro Policies, Business Inclusion Policies, and Inclusive metro workforce Recruitment? A lot of hope and progress will be lost for many communities. If the Cooper Administration does not make racial equity the number one issue to address then we will experience more faux-progress without addressing real systematic disparities and inequities.

An example of faux-progress is how Nashvillians will say that we celebrate being a diverse and inclusive community but we don’t champion equity in MNPS resource allocations to schools that serve the majority black and brown students. We don’t champion equity in capital spending for deteriorating school buildings that house black and brown students. The way in which Dr. Sean Joseph was unceremoniously bought out of his contract after fighting to address equity in MNPS. Mayor Briley did what he thought and felt best in showing support to  MNPS’s First African American Schools Director Dr. Joseph and many education progressives showcase their displeasure with the Mayor’s support. For this, Briley needed to learn more about School Board Members, Dr. Sharon Gentry and Christian Buggs for guidance and support.

Success & Failures?

“I know I pushed the needle in the Mayor’s office. I did get pushback on some stances I suggested we take, but I stand by everything I stood for. I advised both Mayor Barry and Briley to address various issues and policies that addressed systematic disparities. While working with many national cohort partners, I advocated within and outside of the Mayor’s Office, that we implement an equity lens whenever policy decisions were made. I fought for all marginalized people, for minority business owners, for disabled residents and seniors. I fought to address police shootings, police body cameras and 21st-century policing practices.

What people don’t understand about my position is I was one person out of 28 mayoral staffers, many of whom themselves were working on a variety of important policies and programs. Even as I served as 1 of 12 senior staffers, at the end of the day the Mayor is elected to make the final decision. There were times I advised the mayors to push the needle further and they may have decided otherwise. That comes with the public policy territory.

This wasn’t just a job or a position to hold for me. Rather this work is purpose-driven, a spiritual calling that went well beyond the hours of 9 AM – 5 PM Monday through Friday. I took the work home with me. In a majority-white southern city, this work can test your levels of perseverance, it can be lonely, stressful, and thankless.

Any Future Political Endeavors? Will run for office?

I plan on staying involved and staying in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consulting space. I plan to stay involved in public policy because we don’t have strong black-led public policy organizations or black led think tanks addressing economic equity and wealth creation. I am looking to either create a firm or join a firm that makes equity and inclusion a priority for communities of color. I may think to run for office in the future, but for now, I’m focused on building economic opportunity, creating wealth in marginalized communities and developing more leaders to do this DEI work in both the public and private sectors.”

Last words?

“This system is hard to change. It’s that way for a reason and we all know why. It’s like turning around the Titanic 360 degrees. Black people and brown people need to lead this movement around Economic Equity and Economic Mobility. Black space and place are needed to support each other. At various times we tear each other down if we perceive certain areas of change not happening fast enough. It is during these movements we miss out on opportunities for our families and our community to unite and organize around common causes and goals.

Communities of color need to continue to champion the Equal Business Opportunity Policy as well as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy Roadmap.  Because of the relevant data and process already in place, we do not need to start over from scratch.”

With Hughes’s candid thoughts around local government, he hopes Mayor Cooper has a wide variety of Black Voices he listens to from a global perspective around business, communications and DEI. He hopes his staff is diverse, and most importantly that Cooper’s senior staffers are diverse beyond gender. Even while leaving the administration, Hughes isn’t going anywhere. Below is a list of his accomplishments in the Mayor’s office.

Diversity Business Enterprise Inclusion

  • Equal Business Opportunity Policy Change​: Public policy establishing the Equal Business Opportunity Program. This historic legislation for Nashville is aimed at leveling the playing field in Metro contracting, taking race and gender goals into consideration on all projects.
  • Funding African American, Latino, Hispanic and LGBT Chambers​: In 2018 and 2019 budgets, for the first time in Nashville, these four chambers were awarded a total of $100,000 in direct appropriations.
  • LGBT Inclusive Procurement​: Public policy-making Nashville the first Southern city to begin recognizing and counting LGBT-owned businesses within its procurement practices.
  • Living Cities, Procurement Equity​: Nashville was awarded $50,000 and chosen to be a part of the Living Cities, a national foundation cohort to address the disparity in Procurement Equity in Metro Government, with the goal of scaling this work for business inclusion.
  • Minority Business Advisory Council​: The Mayor Minority Business Advisory Council was established by Executive Order. MBAC is a guiding force in understanding national minority- and women-owned small business trends with the goal of creating more access to opportunity and inclusion within the Metro Government and in the overall business community.
  • Nashville Business Incubation, Minority- & Women-Owned Business Support​: For the first time, the 2019/2020 budget awarded $100,000 to the Nashville Business Incubation Center to focus on capacity building.

North Nashville Economic Investment

  • McGruder Center Community Engagement​: $15,000 Annie E. Casey Foundation grant award to work on community engagement and community consensus-building around economic opportunity in North Nashville, tied to the McGruder Center.
  • McGruder Center Investment​: $2.2 Million in capital spending awarded to the McGruder Family Resource Center for a build-out to help the Center serve as an economic opportunity hub for North Nashville. Additionally establishing a working model to increase economic opportunity in traditionally Black Nashville, including: Workforce Development, Arts and Culture, Community Engagement, Youth Opportunities, Entrepreneurship, and Family Enrichment.
  • North Nashville Equity Platform​: Establishment of a North Nashville Equity Platform to use an HBCU Anchor strategy to address three core community wealth building issues:
    1. Anti-Housing Displacement
    2. Workforce Pipeline and Career Development
    3. Minority (Black) Business Development and
      Entrepreneurship Growth

Investing in Underserved People & Communities

  • Preservation of Morris Memorial Historical Site​: Convening a preservation committee to determine Metro’s role in the historic preservation and economic renovation of the Downtown Morris Memorial building. Recommendations have been made and a capital spending budget and community engagement plan are under development.
  • Improving Representation of Race, Ethnicity and Gender on Metro Boards & Commissions​: A formal process for improving representation on Metro Boards & Commissions is under development.
  • My Brother’s Keeper Initiative​: Re-establishment of this initiative creates access to opportunity for Young Men of Color by expanding early learning access, grade retention strategies, and increased college access support.
  • Nonprofits Addressing Youth Violence​: For the first time, the 2018/2019 budget awarded $50,000 to nonprofit organizations focused on youth violence reduction. Funding also supported The Center for Nonprofit Management, providing nonprofit technical assistance for awardees.

Metro DEI Scope

  • Metro DEI Office Expansion​: In 2018, after Metro issued its first Workforce Employee survey, efforts around Equity and Inclusion lead to an expansion in the scope of the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion to encompass all DEI efforts within the Mayor’s office and the Metro workforce. There is now an authored roadmap to equity public policy for the metro government.

Workforce Development

  • Construction Projects, Workforce Development Mandate​: This public policy requires all Metro construction project bids to include a workforce development plan.
  • Nashville Construction Readiness Partnership​: Housed within the Nashville Career Advancement Center, this workforce development pipeline provides access to training and job skills development surrounding the Nashville construction industry.

To read the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Roadmap please click. 

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