Redefining the History, Color of Appalachian Poverty with OpenDoors of Asheville’s Jasmine Middleton

| By Lauren Stepp |

The War on Poverty might just be the longest battle these mountains have ever faced. Officially declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, the campaign has featured artilleries of federal aid and failed bootstrapping ploys that have long surpassed any other skirmishes in the southern campaign. It has waged alongside battles in faraway places like Iraq and Vietnam and outlasted them both. Yet Haywood County native Jasmine Middleton’s private stake in the offensive isn’t as timeworn, stretching back only one generation.

OpenDoors Kids. Photo: Katherine Brooks Photography

Middleton grew up going back-and-forth between here and Virginia, but she’ll admit that her story doesn’t match most hackneyed representations of Appalachian poverty. Her relatives aren’t disenfranchised coal miners, and neither is her younger brother, William. Instead of a rural town framed by railroad tracks, she takes up residence in urban Arden, and instead of hardship, her grandmother’s narrative tells of a middle-class upbringing. Unlike the generalized depictions put forth, her family’s history with poverty traces back years rather than decades.

It started with her mother, who, as a convicted felon, struggled to provide. Turned away by employers despite an otherwise clean record, she moved her children into Hillcrest, a low-wealth neighborhood. “One small incident limited her access to opportunities,” says Middleton. “And you need income to put the whole picture together.”

Though affordable, public housing defined Middleton’s academic life. At Asheville High School, she remembers there being a “functional divide” between kids from the “projects” and kids from more affluent areas. The latter were perceived as precocious. They registered for honors courses and excelled in extracurriculars. Many didn’t face what Middleton calls “bumps in the road,” like an empty pantry or unreliable transportation. “There weren’t daily barriers,” she says. “They had mom and dad looking out for them.”

Meanwhile, it wasn’t easy for low-income African-American students. People like Middleton were often reduced to their address – seen for their poverty rather than their potential. She felt especially “overlooked” in the eleventh grade when tensions mounted, and a physical altercation got her expelled. She can’t quite remember what exactly gave rise to the fighting but knows it had something to do with the “box” teachers and peers put her in. “I was recognized as just a ‘black girl from the hood,’” she says.

Jasmine Middleton. Photo: Katherine Brooks Photography

Too focused on the day-to-day to navigate the “bigger picture,” she dropped out soon after her expulsion. From there, Middleton found herself sleeping in late, hanging around the neighborhood, and toughing the job market sans diploma. That’s when she met OpenDoors of Asheville.

OpenDoors is a nonprofit dedicated to helping youth break the multigenerational cycle of poverty through providing them with a network of support. More simply, the organization’s staff and volunteers pull people out of poverty and into sustainable lives through providing local kids with anything they might provide for their own child. TeamLeaders schedule medical appointments and attend parent-teacher conferences. They advocate for educational intervention plans and summers away at camp. They even help secure first jobs and first cars. They are there when guardians may not have the privilege to be and help build intentional communities for decades to come.

For Middleton, staff intervened with the intention of “connecting the dots.” It was agreed she secure a GED and enroll in A-B Tech courses. For employment, OpenDoors reached out to community partner, Green Opportunities, a not-for-profit set on placing low-income WNC residents in meaningful positions, and in 2015, she left public housing. Middleton likes to say OpenDoors helped her “grow wings.”

Now, despite only being 23, she has a clear trajectory. “I know what I want,” she says. “I don’t need to be rich or famous; I just want to live the American dream comfortably.”

Yet getting off the ground is still a challenge for young minorities living in Asheville. As Jennifer Ramming, OpenDoors executive director, explains, hardship discriminates. Though Caucasian families are often heralded as the face of Appalachian poverty, OpenDoors has had only five white students referred to them in the last seven years.

“That tells you a little about who is impacted the most severely by poverty in our hometown,” says Ramming. “There is clear disparity based on race, as seen in the population of color greatly over-represented in those who apply and qualify for subsidized housing, who lack access to adequate transportation, and which students don’t make it across the stage to achieve their diplomas.”

Middleton is fighting to “beat those statistics.” She hopes to finish her four-year degree, maybe even her master’s, and own a business or hold a high-level managerial position. Though again, both race and gender put her at a disadvantage, since most leadership positions in the area are reserved for nonminority men. “Being in Asheville, women are expected to be nurses or secretaries,” says Middleton. “I don’t want that – I want equal opportunities.”

But for the time being, she’s taking it one day at a time. She now serves on the board at OpenDoors and is a staff member at the Buncombe County District Attorney’s office, helping first-time offenders clear their record and rebuild their ethos, an opportunity her mother never had. She’s also taking time to focus on 10-month-old son, J’Sion. “Without OpenDoors I would be stuck. I wouldn’t be able to provide him with security and stability,” says Middleton. “And security and stability are things I never had.”

To support former students like Middleton, OpenDoors puts on an annual fundraiser-turned-art gala. This year, “Art Affair 2017: Urban Canvas” will be hosted on Saturday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. in The Foundation on Lyman Street, the trendy new home of 12Bones and Wedge Brewery. The event showcases donated artwork from over 75 artists, along with craft food and beverage provided by 25 local dining establishments.

“It’s truly a community affair, and anyone who wants to help strengthen our community is welcome,” says Ramming. “Dozens of generous artists and volunteers make it possible to come together and bridge divides caused by misconceptions around race, class, culture, age, and ability.

But for many young adults, including Middleton, the event means a chance at breaking the cycle – a chance at putting an end to their own private War on Poverty.

General admission to “Art Affair 2017: Urban Canvas” are $100 each, with VIP tickets available for $150. For more information about OpenDoors and to reserve tickets, go to opendoorsasheville.org.


Lauren Stepp is a local writer with bylines in publications like Bold Life, Carolina Home + Garden, and the Hendersonville Times-News. Contact her at lstepp98@gmail.com.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker