An Interview with DeWayne Barton of Hood Huggers International
CJJ: What originally inspired you to start Hood Huggers?
Barton: I wanted to get young people investing in their community early, the same way I was. My family has been in this area for over 4 generations, and I wouldn’t be doing this work if I hadn’t been taught early in life to always contribute to my community. After co-founding Green Opportunities, I decided to create Hood Huggers as a way to work with kids throughout the city in their neighborhoods, train them up, and create that pipeline that would eventually guide them to start their own business or define their own work out in the world.
CJJ: Where did you get the idea to create Hood Tours?
Barton: Coming out of a nonprofit world and wanting to go into a social enterprise, I needed to create a business that would support it. Grant money is good, donations are good, but how were we going to create security and sustainability if we were to start a business? Tourism is such a thriving industry here, and I didn’t see the African American community represented in the way they should be, based on the sacrifices they made to build this city. I decided to go into the tourism industry as a way to support the overall work, offering Hood Tours.
CJJ: Many people are familiar with Hood Huggers Tours, but some may not know how you have developed the Community Accountability Plan (CAP) that drives everything you do, including this new initiative, the Blue Note Junction. Could you describe your overarching vision through CAP and explain your latest project?
Barton: CAP is a framework for revitalizing and building resilience in historically African American neighborhoods at the grassroots level. It’s all about creating a culture that is sustainable and economically just. The Blue Note Junction is a continuation of the work that started in the Burton Street community when we created the Peace Gardens, trying to improve the neighborhood. All the work that went into cleaning up and beautifying the Peace Gardens has had a tremendous impact, not only on the neighborhood but for the people who visit. Around 2009, the Department of Transportation said they were going to run a highway through there, after all the work we had put in to clean up the neighborhood. We got together as a community and created a neighborhood plan to make our case for what we wanted to build here – a business incubator, an open-air market, and expansion of the Peace Gardens into backyard gardens in the community. Several elders allowed us to plow up their yards in order to grow food. We wanted to scale up to meet the needs of the community. There is a long rich story about the sharing of agriculture that was a foundation of our community.
We wrote up another plan to do similar work in the community center. It included putting in a commercial kitchen so we could offer value-added products and expand the garden. Even before then, we had a relationship with St. Paul Church to use part of the land where the old Blue Note was located. The Blue Note was a general store built by E.W. Pearson in the 1920s. He was a prominent leader in the Black community who founded the Burton Street neighborhood in 1912, among his many other achievements.
The Blue Note Junction carries on the momentum of the vision that we have been building over time. All of the proposals we have written up over the past years have been to try to get space and land. In fact, we’ve been looking at this spot where we want to put The Blue Note Junction for probably 5 or 6 years. It has changed owners since then, and the new owners have given us until the end of the year to raise the money for the land. So, that’s what we are focused on right now, just trying to get the money for the land.
Our plans for the new space include a buy-local retail market featuring local BIPOC makers and growers, Hood Tours, a community co-working space including business incubation, indoor and outdoor performance and teaching spaces, greenhouses and teaching gardens, a neighborhood spa, a commercial kitchen, and 3rd floor housing and art residency spaces.
With the Blue Note Junction, we wanted the young people to help build the space. Then we could plant a deep seed in them about how they played a role in building the infrastructure of this healing space for their community. This project will benefit many businesses not only in the Burton Street community, but in surrounding communities around the city. And importantly, following the CAP framework, the synergy of businesses, nonprofits, community volunteers, and government agencies is led by the vision and plans of neighborhood leaders instead of prescribing solutions from outside the community. This is also an opportunity to raise awareness for visitors from around the world on how a neighborhood can empower itself. The CAP framework was designed to be scaled up and shared.
CJJ: How can we help?
Barton: If you go to our website, the “Practice with Us” link allows people inside and outside the neighborhood to list their skills and interests. We also welcome any and all donations through our fiscal sponsor, Asheville Creative Arts, to help meet our goal to purchase the land before the end of this year and begin our 5-year plan to open by the end of 2026.