If Asheville crowned a reigning native queen, Libby Kyles would certainly fall into the city’s royalty. She has lived all over the city, led educational efforts here as a teacher, administrator and nonprofit leader and been an unwavering voice around inequities she pins on race. In this conversation, she explains how the Asheville of today is different than the city of her youth. We get her thoughts on the city’s reparations process and run through her life’s work as seen through the vital programs and community resources she has helped create.
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Libby Kyles: I spent some time living in Deaverview apartments, some time living in Lee Walker Heights. My grandparents owned houses on Velvet Street. And from teenage on, we lived on Melbourne, which is off Montford. One of the beautiful memories that I have about my upbringing is again, my grandparents house at 13 Velvet Street. We, the kids, the grandkids were there generally every weekend and almost all summer long.
And what was so beautiful about my upbringing is that I felt. Love. I felt secure and I felt safe. So we would build go karts and have races downhill. We'd walk to the library. We weren't concerned about. Any of us getting hurt because we knew that everyone who saw us knew who we were and who we belonged to.
For example, if we did something we shouldn't, we knew by the time we got back to my grandmother's house, someone would have let her know because everybody knew who we were, right? It was very... Kind of like picturesque. We didn't know we were poor. We didn't know what we didn't have. We didn't know in many ways we were sheltered a little bit other than being in school.
We were sheltered from the harshness of the racism that exists within our city.
Matt Peiken: Did your parents intentionally shield you from that?
Libby Kyles: I don't know that it was intentional as much as I believe that when we were home, we were just loved and that, that is what we were surrounded by in our communities.
We were surrounded by love. We embody that saying that it takes a village to raise a kid. I can remember doing things, and literally, before I got back to my apartment in Deaverview, at least three adults had reprimanded me on whatever it is I had done. And it wasn't a harsh reprimand. It was like, and I'm gonna let this person know, and blah, blah, blah.
But we knew that there was accountability for us. We knew that the adults were Watching and taking care of us and yeah, it felt good to be a kid in Asheville. Let me
Matt Peiken: ask you, do you think your experience was typical among other youth of color in your neighborhood? Or were you, do you think you were, you and your siblings were outliers that other kids didn't have that same experience?
Libby Kyles: I don't think that we were outliers. I think that there were communities of folk who lived that way that it's a part of the lineage that we come from that everybody raises the kids like if not Me and mine, but it's us and ours
Matt Peiken: Do you think that has continued or have things changed have things evolved and eroded that sense of community
Libby Kyles: family?
I 100 percent believe that it has been eroded. I believe that there is a, there's a difference in being a kid in Asheville today versus being a kid in Asheville in 1975. What
Matt Peiken: do you think are the differences?
Libby Kyles: I think there's a multitude of reasons one of which is
structural violence. And when I say structural violence, that system that Keeps people in a place where they are under resourced that definitely played a part. I believe that urban removal played a part, breaking families streets apart, placing people in public housing with the promise of them being able to get back and have a home at some point.
I believe all those things have played a part in the displacement of people of color in Asheville. And when you're displaced, you're broken apart from the people that you are used to and the community that you've been a part of. Did you
Matt Peiken: see that displacement happening in real time when you were
Libby Kyles: growing up?
What I'll tell you is that in 1979, I left Asheville for maybe four years. Yeah, I think four years, four or five years. I think I left in... Third grade came back in the eighth grade and the Asheville that I came back to was not the same as the Asheville that I left. That's really remarkable
Matt Peiken: because it's not that large of a span of time.
Why do you think there was such an accelerated erosion? And I ask that because you alluded to earlier that the racism that was all around you, you were shielded from, but yet it was still happening. What changed when you came back? What were you observing? What had changed so fast?
Libby Kyles: The first thing that I observed is that the house that I had been a part of my entire life was no longer there.
My grandparents homes were taken via eminent domain by the city. The city purposed to help people find houses, but my granddad said to us that what they were showing him was worse than anything we had ever had before, and so he took it upon himself and found a house off Montfort, which is where the house that I came back to and even when I came back, like there was still some security because it, the area that we lived, again, Much of the folks living in the housing were black folks who, and again, that whole piece where I know your mama, I know your grandma, we take care of each other and things like that.
Some of that was still there, but it was nothing like what it had been before. There were changes happening downtown. When I was younger, growing up in Asheville, You saw black people all over downtown, whether it was at Woolworth's, whether it was at Kim's Wig Shop. All of these places we were very comfortable in.
When I came back to Asheville, I did notice a difference. It wasn't quite the same. There weren't as many people of color present in the downtown area. And then when I left and came back from college, it was like non existent.
Matt Peiken: What's really interesting about that, you grew up. In the vapors of civil rights and that obviously in the South people in the South weren't Aligned with the Civil Rights Act or at least why a lot of white America wasn't necessarily Yet you were shielded from that or you didn't notice that early on you're saying when you were growing up, that black people in Asheville were very integrated into all parts of town and walking around.
Yes. Why do you think in the late 70s, early 80s that changed? That's really interesting to me that you would have thought that a dozen, 15, 20 years after civil rights, we would have warmed into the integration. You're saying that there became a disintegration.
Libby Kyles: I can only speak from my experience and my experience as.
At 7, 8, 9, 10 year old walking from Velvet Street up Eagle Street to Haywood for the library. All I saw were black people. I saw white people when we got to, I think it's called Finkelstein's oh, the pawn shop. Finkelstein's. That's when we began to see white people like, but all up Eagle street, that was totally black owned.
And so I can't really say what other folks experience might've been, but for me coming back in 1984, I went. From being in a place where I saw myself often or people who look like me and represented me often to only seeing those people on my street when I got out of school.
Matt Peiken: How did that stamp what you wanted to pursue in college?
Did that at all make a mark on you in terms of your direction?
Libby Kyles: Actually, what made a mark on me in terms of my direction was my interactions in school. In Asheville, prior to moving to DC, all of my teachers were white. And that is the one place where I could feel the difference in how I was treated.
I went to I. R. B. Jones Elementary School for the first, few years of my life. And, in Johnson Elementary School. And in those two places, I was usually one of two black kids in the classroom. And... I could see a stark difference in how I was spoken to and how I was treated. Fast forward, we moved to D.
C. and I'm in a school where 90 percent of the kids are black and a good portion of the staff was black. It's called H. D. Cook Elementary. Okay. So I went to H. D. Cook and Lincoln Middle School and there was a huge difference.
Coming back in 84, going to Asheville Junior High, once again, All my teachers are white. There are more black students, yes because some other things had transpired in my absence, but the sense that I wanted to see somebody that looked like me. I wanted to hear from people who had my experiences. And so I knew early on that I wanted to be a teacher.
I had already fashioned in my mind that I wanted to be an example for other black children.
Matt Peiken: So that's what you pursued. You went
Libby Kyles: to school to get to become a teacher? I did. I went to Western Carolina University and obtained a degree in teaching. Did you know you
Matt Peiken: wanted to remain in this area in Asheville and make a difference here as opposed to moving to back to DC or go elsewhere?
Libby Kyles: you know what? I did not know that. I actually moved to Lincolnton. I taught, my first teaching job was in Lincolnton. My father brought me back to Asheville when he got sick and I came back to Asheville in 2004 and I was flabbergasted to be honest. I was sad. I was disappointed And I didn't see my city anymore
Matt Peiken: what particularly were you saddened by you were alluding to even back in middle school?
You were in elementary school. You were noticing these changes when you came back from you know You got your degree and you came back here what surprised
Libby Kyles: you? There were several things. So first and foremost, my street had completely changed. So we lived on Melbourne and a lot of the neighbors were different, houses were being sold.
And people were being priced out of this area. The other thing that really broke my heart as a teacher coming back to this area was seeing the lack of, oh, this sounds so harsh, but for me it felt like a lack of concern for the welfare of black and brown students within our system. And I'm not saying that all teachers didn't care.
I hope that no one takes it that way, but what I will say is that this system was set up to do a specific thing and it was working really well to do that thing, and that thing was not the education of black and brown children. Can you give me
Matt Peiken: some examples of what was different about how The system was treating white students versus how you felt the system was treating students of color.
Oh, how much time do
Libby Kyles: you have? We've got as much time as you want. We could take this one for a long ride. I'm going to speak from my experiences coming back as a teacher in Asheville. I was startled by the fact that a lot of what was happening in terms of discipline was not equitable, right?
And I'll give you several examples. You have two, two children, a black boy and a white boy. Black boy says or does something and he's aggressive. A white boy says and does the same thing, and he's just being a boy. Black boy ends up going to the office, getting some type of consequence, sometimes suspension.
White boy gets talked to, possibly a phone call home, and then everything goes back to normal. So I went to college twice. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. But before I taught, I was an assistant and being an assistant and watching teachers send kids on errands during instructional time because those kids needed more support.
You're sending them out of the room on an errand during instructional time.
Matt Peiken: You're saying that was routine in some ways that the students of color were sent out in the time when they needed to be in the classroom.
Libby Kyles: Exactly. And not, and sometimes it was. To run an errand and sometimes it was just kids repeatedly, the same children walking the hall day after day, and I'm going to change their names, but I will tell you, it was Mickey and Sharice that motivated me.
To take myself back to school and finish my degree. I watched those two fifth graders walk the halls every day.
Matt Peiken: So noticing what needed to be changed, at least from the inside, you went back, finished your degree. Did that double down your commitment to working in education? Or did you eventually say, I can't change this system?
Libby Kyles: No, it doubled down. And I'll be honest and tell you that I left teaching not because I don't love the profession. I left teaching because I could no longer be in a field of study where my voice was not heard. I left teaching because I could not watch a system destroy little bodies, right?
And I purpose to Open the school to work as hard as I could within the community. And I've been working in community for a very long time, but in 2019, something clicked for me and I knew that life wasn't going to be the same. I absolutely knew that a part of me doing what I'm supposed to do and my calling was to be a disruptor and to be in community and to say the things that sometimes people want to say and because of whatever reason, whatever fear, whatever insecurity, they might not have the courage to say.
Matt Peiken: you have a sense of that voice early on in your life? Were you encouraged or did your parents, were they also disruptors? Were either of your parents or your grandparents disruptors? Where did you get that sense?
Libby Kyles: So I, I don't know that I would call my parents disruptors.
What I will say is my grandmother, if you met her, People would think she was just hard, this hard rock. But what I knew of my grandmother was this amazing nurturer. I knew of my grandmother, this person who wanted to make sure everybody on the street was okay. And for me, I think that's where my voice began.
I've been told all my life. I talk too much. Join the club. You know too much for your own good. Yeah, all the things. And so I'm not sure where it came from. I know I feel like I've had it since I've been on this earth.
Matt Peiken: You were channeling that voice of disruption from within the schools. You decided to leave.
It was 2019 when you left. Did you know what you wanted to do? Did you have a sense of where your calling was taking you then, or did that take a little time?
Libby Kyles: I've always known what my calling was. When I left in 2019, I actually became the CEO of the YWCA. And for me... As long as I can remember, in my head, in my experiences with school, I've always known that a part of my calling was making sure that we created systems change so that our children could be better educated, and then being in specific communities, I saw all these things happening around me with police brutality.
I saw all these things happening with inequities in economics. And so for me, it's always been this thought I know we deserve better. How do we? Make it so that the children coming up behind us don't have to experience these same struggles. I don't want my daughter, who turns 14 next week, I don't want my daughter sitting in a seat like this 30 years from now talking about how she had to fight.
Matt Peiken: it's interesting That you went from directly working with kids to trying to work within other organizations that helped kids and worked with kids. And you are doing, you are involved in so many different things and I want to run through those things. You first were the CEO of the YWCA for a while, then did you next co found Youth Transformed
Libby Kyles: for Life?
So Youth Transformed for Life came first. So in 2014, what I noticed was that our kids were aging out of typical programs like after school and some of the summer programs and initially I worked with someone else on a summer idea, but things fell apart during that and three people, myself.
Tony Shivers and Yashika Smith. We were like, there's got to be a better way to do this, right? So we wanted to create programming that parents could rely on where they weren't being charged a fee because what we experienced that summer was that most parents couldn't afford the fee. And so we were very intentional about creating programming specifically.
for teenagers. So YTL started out with a focus on middle and high school, and then from that, parents were like what about this? And what about that? So we bumped down to third grade, and we were doing third, and then parents were like what about my kindergartner? What about my first grader?
Matt Peiken: Give me a sense of the programming that YTL
Libby Kyles: does.
YTL training program does several things. We have summer programming, we have after school programming, and we have advocacy. During the summer we run two different programs, Grace for Teens and Roses and Moss. Grace for Teens is meant for kids that are 6th grade and up. And Roses and Moss is kindergarten through fifth grade.
What do they do
Matt Peiken: as part of these programs, like in the nitty gritty day to day? Oh
Libby Kyles: yeah, so every day, Monday through Thursday, they have two hours of academic support. And that doesn't mean that every student that we have is struggling, but we do academic support and enrichment. They do STEMs programs.
So generally the morning is all about academics and science and things of that nature. And then in the afternoon, they do typical summer stuff. They go swimming. Like right now they're on a bus headed to South Carolina for a water park. They go to museum, they go to things like the breakout room. We take them to the library, get them library cards.
They go to the river arts district, clay works and fire it up. And then we really try to instill in them a sense of self. This year our teenagers embarked on a journey to learn more about specific HBCUs. They created logos at the beginning of this week they created shirts to represent the universities that they had studied about, we also do after school programming for both of those same age groups, and we do advocacy, so we have people who, whose sole job is to connect with families and teachers to make sure our kids have the resources that they need. One of the
Matt Peiken: things I really love about what you described is that it's a very holistic approach to education.
It's not just, okay, you have the academic support. But then, seamlessly blending into a cultural experience, blending into having fun outside and exhaling in that way, bringing in nature.
It seems like it's all really wrapped in together.
Libby Kyles: That's what we try to do, but it's not perfect, and we make mistakes, and we just keep trying, right? Our goal is to create a safe, enjoyable place where kids are happy and they have fun while they're learning.
Matt Peiken: How many kids are you serving in this program at any given
Libby Kyles: time?
Oh, whew! We can serve anywhere from 50 to 75 is what has been typical in the last two years.
Matt Peiken: Now, I know you are also instrumental in developing the Peak Academy. And I want you to talk about the Peak Academy and how it relates to YTL in terms of, is it an extension of the way you work there?
What does, what was the reason for founding Peak Academy? And talk about the school.
Libby Kyles: Peak Academy was founded specifically because our kids. were not and are not being served effectively in the other school systems, Asheville City or Buncombe County. So people love to talk about Asheville City schools as if it's the system, but it's not just Asheville City, it's Asheville City and Buncombe County.
And getting together with like minded people who also felt concern around the fact that our, the test scores and the achievement gap or opportunity gap, whichever one you want to call it seeing that. Hispanic children could come to this country and within two years they can catch up and surpass black children.
That's startling, right? That is absolutely startling. So It was really a concern around the fact that our major school systems who I'm assuming feel like they're doing the best that they could do were not servicing the needs of black and brown children effectively.
Matt Peiken: Let's pause on that because that mirrors what you were observing as a teacher.
Exactly. And so are the reasons the same? From your observation, are the reasons that schools here are not adequately and equally serving and equitably serving black students, are they the same today as they were back when you were noticing it as a teacher?
Libby Kyles: I think it's a little bit different, actually. So again, I can only speak from my experience when I talk about the system being doing exactly what it's required to do or what it's set up to do. Even the way we think about how we educate children is oppressive. We don't take into account culture.
We don't take into account environment and we expect all kids to be cookie cutter models to walk through a door and all do the exact same thing and learn the exact same thing. Yes, we talk about kinesthetic versus visual learners and things of that nature. But we, what we never really bring into account is the cultural piece.
And when you have, teachers and teachers, I'm one of you and I love you dearly. But when you have teachers who grow up in a society where they have been socialized to believe that a certain group is less than, then it makes sense that in the classroom, you see that same group as being less than it makes sense that you see Taekwon's.
Attitude and actions as aggressive, but Michael's attitude and demeanor is just being a boy. Because in society that's what's portrayed to us. These are things that boys do, but when they say boys, they're thinking specifically about white boys. But then when you think about these same things with black boys, then they're aggressive.
Matt Peiken: I can't help but think that some of that, and you tell me if I, if I'm off base on this, that there is a general white fear. Yes. That black boys are going to turn into quote unquote criminals, quote unquote trouble, that, you know, predators, that any sign of this as a youth needs to be nipped in
Libby Kyles: the bud.
I definitely think you're on track with that. And I will also say. There is and it's not just black boys. Now. It's also black girls Like there is it's very intentional and I oh, I'm about to say something. I want y'all to go with me It's very intentional how black children don't have childhoods.
It's very intentional And when I say that we don't have sexualized
Black boys are seen as aggressive and predators. It is a, it is historical. It stems from the system of slavery. So it is not surprising that we live in this country where we have yet to restore and repair what was happening to black children and black families through this system of slavery. to here we are in 2023 and much of the same things that were happening during slavery are still happening to black families, black children, black mothers, black fathers today in 2023.
The difference is we aren't in chains and we're not called slaves, but we live under the exact same conditions.
Matt Peiken: taught in public schools. Of course not. And so is that what, at the founding of Peak Academy, was to offer a completely different lens on history and culture?
Libby Kyles: It wasn't just about offering a lens on history and culture.
It really was about creating a space, creating a place where black and brown children feel safe, secure, loved, and most importantly, encouraged kids will do. And they will live up to your expectations, or they can live down to your expectations. And the premise behind Peak Academy is that we were creating a place with high expectations, with nurturing, caring adults, who were there to uplift and give children the belief that they aren't getting in other
Matt Peiken: places.
You must have incredible demand to get into this school. I can't help but think that there are a lot more families who want to see their kids in the school than there are space. Is that true?
Libby Kyles: Of course, that's true And I i'm a founding member of peak academy. I'm not with the school at the moment but I would venture to say that there's always Going to be a higher demand than there is space that can be had within peak academy peak academy is going to grow it is going to flourish And hopefully we'll be able to get the support that peak academy needs for it to move into a bigger space And do what it?
Had been intended for. I want to talk
Matt Peiken: about the other things you're involved with. Talk about CoThink. I I thought it was interesting the very nature of it. And you were at the founding of this as well, weren't you? So talk about what CoThink is and what the impetus was behind
Libby Kyles: it.
So CoThink is a Giving Circle founded by Tracy Greene Washington, and again, 2014 was a very impactful year. We were coming together and really thinking about how do we, again, do things differently. And when you think about co think, one of the things that's important to know is that at the, premise of CoThink is, how do we highlight the amazing work that is being done in our communities when we know this work is not amplified or spotlighted in any other area.
So you go to these things like these awards at the Chamber of Commerce, you very seldom see black folks being recognized. You very seldom see the work that's done in community being recognized. CoThink is really about amplifying the work that's being done within our communities, highlighting the leadership that's going on in our communities, and letting people know that they are seen, that they are heard, that they are valued.
I also know
Matt Peiken: you are part of now. You are the CEO of the, is it Tzedek social justice fund?
Libby Kyles: Yeah. I'm the executive director.
Matt Peiken: And how did you get involved with that? Cause I know you were not the founder of that. How did you, and talk about the work you're doing
Libby Kyles: there. So Tzedek social justice fund. Used to be the Amy Mandel and Katina Rhodes Fund.
Amy Mandel is the founder. And I actually met Amy and Jennifer from Tzedek in 2015. And originally my relationship with them was through CoThink, right? So that's how I met them. We got to know each other through CoThink. And then They did this amazing thing. They supported YTL, so YTL became a grantee.
Matt Peiken: Which fits, really, a lot of Jewish social justice movements and working with communities of color.
Libby Kyles: Yes, and so Tzedek as an organization has been instrumental in the past 10 years of supporting lots of grassroots organizations that are really working to better the community, right? Organizations like YTL, organizations like POTA Emma, organizations like Youth Outright.
All these different social justice organizations that are doing some intense work on the ground. And what is beautiful about the funding that we do is it's all operational. So we don't tell our grantees what you need to spend money on. We trust that grantees know the work that need to be done and they know how to best allocate their funds.
And so at the heart of what we do at Tzedek is trust-based philanthropy. Trusting that the people that we are granting money to understand the issue. Much better than we do because they're proximate to the issue. What's
Matt Peiken: great about that is it's general operating funds. And you see a lot of times in the granting world, in the nonprofit world.
Organizations have to write grants so specifically so as to get the grant, and so it's not it may not conform to the work they really want to do, but that they have to write the grant in certain ways. So that's great that you have such an open operating general fund grant. And
Libby Kyles: So here's the crazy thing.
First and foremost, I never thought I would be a part of philanthropy. Now that I did not see on my trajectory, that was not my goal, but it is amazing to me being in spaces with funders and having these conversations, like everybody wants to fund the program. Everybody wants to. fund this specific thing without the realization that in order for the program to happen, there has to be the people, right?
In order for this specific thing to work, there's got to be the people around it working it, right? So I'm so excited about the work that we do at Tzedek. First and foremost, because it feels really awesome to know that we're putting hands in the money of the people that are most proximate to the situations in community, and that we are working as partners together to alleviate some of the things that have been lingering in our communities for a very long time.
Matt Peiken: if you weren't involved in so many things, you're also the board chair of the Asheville Buncombe Community Land Trust. So talk
Libby Kyles: about what you're Wow, listening to this makes me tired.
Matt Peiken: I don't know how you're not. Talk about the work you're doing with the land trust and what the focus is
Libby Kyles: there.
So Asheville Bunker Community Land Trust really is a land trust that sole purpose is to help people with affordable homes, right? And there is an emphasis on focusing on folks who have been displaced during urban renewal. And in all of my work, there's some connectivity they're connected in multiple ways.
The social justice part of who I am is evident in the different types of work that I do. So Asheville Buncombe Community Land Trust, as A black person growing up in the 70s and 80s in Asheville, seeing the decline in home ownership amongst black folks. When I went to the first meeting at Stephens Lee around the land trust, I was sold.
I didn't intend to be sold, but just hearing the numbers and recognizing that Asheville and our population the African American population in Asheville has declined tremendously. As a kid I want to say We might have been somewhere between 14 and 16 percent in population. Today, I believe we're at 6 percent.
Matt Peiken: low? I thought it was about half of that, but still, that,
Libby Kyles: Don't quote me, but I believe we're somewhere between 6 and 8 percent. Yeah,
Matt Peiken: that's, that, why do you think that is? We've talked about a lot of systemic biases that happen and some of the Disintegration that you saw happen in real time in Asheville, do you think those are reasons or are there other reasons that black Asheville has lost its
Libby Kyles: population?
I think it's that. And then some I think that people have been forced out folks who want to stay Buying a home in ashville is incredibly expensive And the economic track in ashville has fallen well behind The homeownership track, meaning people don't make enough money to be able to afford rent or housing a home in Asheville.
And so a lot of folks who want to stay here are on the outskirts because it's so expensive trying to live in Asheville when you have, folks who can come from new york and all these other places And up the housing market like a house that was three hundred and forty five thousand They pay four hundred and twenty five thousand because they can and that gets them over the bidding whatever it's really hard for people to compete against that and while
Matt Peiken: that affects everybody When we connect the dots to the wage biases and education deficits that happen.
So it's all connected as to why black Asheville has had a deficit here in terms of housing. Last thing I want to talk to you about is, now I know you're not on the city of reparations committee, right? But you're deeply involved, I'm sure, in talking about what's going on. What, from your, from the very close proximity on the outside, looking in at what's happening or not happening with reparations, are you happy with progress and what's being talked about or are there gaps and things that you think are not as much on the tables as should be?
Libby Kyles: I think it's all of that. So I'm happy that the process is happening and I am trusting that the people who are on the commission are doing their very best to make sure that our voices are being heard. And when I say our, all of black community. I know you've heard we are not a monolith and we're not.
And so what is important to me with This reparations process and with any process is that we get a multitude of voices in the room, right? We get those people that are most impacted by the injustice in the space to be able to say the things to be able to. put out in public view what we want and what we need for us to not just survive in Asheville.
Asheville should be a place where our families are thriving. The one thing that I would say most that I would like to see happening more is those meetings being held where people have more access. So that if you're not actually on the commission, there's a public comment and you can speak your truth into the space whether you're on the commission or not.
What has been a sad reality is knowing some of the research and participating with Organization like RJC that did a walk to walk campaign where they walked neighborhoods and found that many people Didn't even know what was happening with reparations You mean
Matt Peiken: even like currently that people in black Asheville don't know that there's even this
Libby Kyles: process happening today because this walk to walk what's happening in 21 22.
So I don't want to mischaracterize that, but I would venture to say that there are probably still black folks within rural parts of Buncombe County who have no clue. And it's our responsibility. It's our responsibility as a government. That we get out to, and I'm not a part of the government, don't mistake that, but that we get out to the people who are most impacted and make sure that they have an understanding and that they have opportunity to give voice.