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Using Our Strengths: The Grassroots Leadership of Becky Anderson

by Lynda McDaniel

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Photo of Becky Anderson

Becky Anderson has traveled many roads in mountainous western North Carolina. This is her home, now and always. She grew up here, in Canton, the daughter and granddaughter of strong women who taught school. (Her mother later opened the first woman-owned and -operated business in Canton.) She raised her daughter and son here, and she has worked here among the people for nearly four decades.

Anderson has a deep sense of belonging here. She recalls times when residents of communities where she was working left cups of coffee in her car or followed her down off the mountain to make sure she was safe.

"And it's the same now," she adds. "People tell me or my staff to call after a meeting to make sure we got back okay. It's a sense of being a part of these mountains. And I truly love it. I do it day and night and weekends, because I have this great sense of being cared for in the region."

Since 1994, Anderson has served as executive director of HandMade in America, an Asheville-based nonprofit organization with a mission to celebrate traditional and contemporary crafts and protect the resources and communities of this 23-county region. In that time, she and her staff have published two guidebooks to the handcrafts and gardens and farms that thrive in western North Carolina; helped to promote hundreds of artists and farmers; established craft curricula in regional schools; and cooperated on the creative use of methane to fuel craft studios and greenhouses.

HandMade in America's success stems from Anderson's unflinching resolve to involve whole communities in whatever she does, says Wayne Martin, folklife director for the North Carolina Arts Council in Raleigh. "She does grassroots planning as well as anyone I know. It makes a big difference when you speak to people throughout a community, not just the elected decision makers, and find out their ideas and then implement them in creative ways," he says. "Becky was also one of the first to put a living cultural resource at the center of heritage development. Up to that point, much of heritage development had been focused on historic preservation or recreation, such as rivers, mountains, and old houses. Becky broke that wide open and brought attention to the fact that the region's living culture is perhaps one of its most important assets." Living cultural resources are at the heart of HandMade in America's mission to celebrate and support working farmers, artists, and artisans currently flourishing in the region.

Anderson's leadership role at HandMade in America rests on years of experience in the public-service sector. After graduation from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, in 1962, Anderson began her career of service by heading one of the first federally funded day care programs in Asheville. Later, she would oversee housing rehabilitation and write grants for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. While working with the city of Asheville and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce in downtown and industrial development, her uncanny ability to realistically assess any situation and see it for what it is—not what it ought to be or how the community would like it to be—helped her envision a new approach for the region. It is the same approach that has helped make HandMade in America a success. Anderson looked at the region realistically and saw its strengths.

"Our land base in this region cannot support large industry, and we needed to see that we are really an economy of small businesses and small manufacturing," she says. "Even though we did put 17 industries in place over a seven-year period, people were furious with me for saying that we needed to start thinking differently about industrial development. But technology is just one of the new economies. I believe America will eventually be made up of a whole basketful of sectoral economies."

HandMade in America plays to these regional strengths. In 1994 a three-year grant from the Pew Partnership for Civic Change helped the organization get off the ground. To date, HandMade has received additional funding from more than 30 organizations, including the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). HandMade now employ six full-time and two part-time employees.

"We set out to develop an entrepreneurial economy, using our strengths, which for our community are craft objects and the farm or garden," Anderson says. "That works for us because we have a history of agriculture and crafts, and we have an education base for it. You cannot lay claim to something if you don't have that educational base, and we have the universities, community college system, and private craft schools such as the [John C.] Campbell Folk School and the Penland School of Crafts."

HandMade's first book, The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, documents 350 historical sites and inns, galleries, and artists' studios (many never before open to the public) as truly handmade in the North Carolina mountains. To date, the book has sold 40,000 copies, and a third edition is slated for early 2003. HandMade's latest book, Farms, Gardens and Countryside Trails of Western North Carolina, sold 1,200 copies in the first six weeks.

The impact of these guidebooks on the local marketplace has been significant. In traditional craft and agricultural marketing, artisans and farmers take their products to market. These books bring the market to them. "That way the craftspeople and farmers can keep working—they don't lose time going to market," Anderson explains. "I think this will be a trend in the future because of demographics—the baby boomers who are still energetic and adventurous and have time to explore—and the mood of the country—seeking something that resonates as a simpler time."

Anderson's love of this region and its way of life are expressed in such other projects as the Small Town Revitalization Program. With grants from ARC and other organizations, this program has helped 12 towns that are too small to qualify for the national Main Street Program to renew and restore their main streets. In addition, HandMade's reputation as an inclusive organi-zation (its bylaws mandate partnerships) encouraged people like Stan Steury, coordinator of the Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development Council, to share their ideas. He approached Anderson about ways of using what a feasibility analysis determined to be a 10-to-12-year supply of methane fuel from an abandoned landfill in Yancey County, north of Asheville.

"We took our plans down to show Becky, and we got an immediate response," he recalls. "She was so excited about the whole concept and told us our parking lot was too small because more people would be visiting than we could imagine. She energized the project with her enthusiasm, and is the most dynamic and hardest-working woman I have ever met."

At the resulting EnergyXchange campus near Burnsville, four greenhouses and a craft business incubator with glass-blowing furnaces and pottery kilns are now heated totally free, an average savings of $1,000 a month for a glassblower or potter. The greenhouses, which grow endangered native plants, have opened new opportunities for tobacco farmers and allow on-the-job training for high school interns. In early 2003, a greenhouse for aquaponics—a symbiotic relationship between plants grown hydroponically and fish grown indoors—will open on the campus.

Steury says they did need to enlarge their parking lot because the project has attracted national attention, as has much of what Anderson has envisioned and accomplished over the years. Her work has garnered numerous awards and honors, such as a 2000 award for environmental sustainability from Renew America, Inc.; the Regional Citizenship Award from the Land-of-Sky Regional Council in 2000; and in 2002, the National Park Service's National Outstanding Partnership Award for Education, received for work with the Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative. In 1999, Anderson was also cited as one of 18 "American innovators" by U.S. News and World Report.

Anderson is at home in front of an audience, patient yet eager to share how the HandMade model can help any mountain community whose extraction-based economy—whether it is coal, timber, steel, tobacco, or textile—is no longer thriving. Like her grandmother, who was a circuit-riding teacher in North Carolina and a role model for the lead character in the movie Christy, Anderson has traveled throughout every mountain region in the United States, except for the Ozarks. She recently met with people in Missoula, Montana, challenging them to rethink their situation from a different perspective.

"They started telling me all the things they didn't have, and I told them I didn't want to hear that. I want to know who they are and what their strengths are," she says. "I told them that we cannot wait on the outside world to save us. One, it isn't going to. Two, we don't need it to. And three, it won't do nearly as good a job as we can do ourselves. Within a few hours we had a long list-timber homes, metalworking, fireplace screens, gates, doors, brands, all kinds of restaurants and log lodges. That's Missoula, Montana, and that's what it should be."

As several new HandMade institutes for the creative economy, such as the Community Solutions Institute, attract people to western North Carolina, Anderson hopes she will be spending more time at home in Asheville, where she lives with her husband, Ed. "We want to bring them here—just like the guidebooks do—and teach them by example. They need to be in our small towns. They need to meet the people. They need to see it in action and learn how we did things, step by step," she adds.

Other future plans include the promotion of small tour packages that link bed-and-breakfast inns, local chefs, gardeners, and farmers in creative "getaway" weekends; and cooperation with the North Carolina Arts Council on the publication of two new tourism guidebooks that explore traditional music of the Blue Ridge and the traditions and history of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Anderson is enthusiastic about helping communities realize their potential. It's something she's done for decades, only now her skills are even sharper, says Ken Michalove, former city manager and mayor of Asheville.

"Becky has worked in a variety of service areas, and all that experience has now come to fruition in the service to HandMade. She has a unique gift for taking those former experiences and blending them into what she's doing now," he explains. "She is so original in her ideas and has the ability to work with people and get them excited about where they can go and what they can do themselves."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Virginia.