ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) — Terrance Jackson likes it here a lot — enough to stay, the Sarasota, Fla. native reckons. That said, he would like to be able to get a haircut closer to home — and to continue feeling more welcomed as a Black man in a very White region.

“The tricky part is, because of the lack of diversity in the region, that makes it difficult for me to consider staying long term,” the actor and Barter Theatre’s creative community specialist said. “Because of Abingdon having a 3% minority rate, 2% Black and African-American. That’s shocking.”

Because he has grown to love much about the region since arriving fresh out of college in 2013, and is so connected to his Barter community, Jackson gladly accepted when the region’s DEI Alliance asked him to speak for one of a series of short videos called “I Belong.”

“I want to promise you that I was not camping before I moved here,” Jackson said with a laugh. “I’m taking what this region has to offer and trying to use that … to explore new things … just like hitting the trails, biking. If you’d like to be outdoors you want to be in Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee.”

The I Belong videos, featuring people of color and members of the region’s LGBTQ community, will debut at Thursday’s DEI Alliance Summit at the Meadowview Marriott in Kingsport. The “Regional Call to Action” is the alliance’s first major event, and while it’s aimed more at the business and large employer community, that community is sharply focused on broadening its talent pool.

“This area has come a long, long way but we have so far to go,” said Rachel Taylor Lee, who co-owns Cranberries Restaurant in Johnson City and returned to the city after about a decade away. “There’s not enough visibility, especially for people of color here to feel that they have something to aspire to.”

Rachel Taylor Lee returned to the region after a decade away and intends to stay — but says there’s still room for improvement in diversity, equity and inclusion.

In a place like the Tri-Cities with a small minority population, that makes attracting and retaining people like Jackson and Lee important for companies like Eastman Chemical Company.

Eastman’s a major sponsor of Thursday’s event and its vice president for global talent and inclusion said there’s a simple reason for that. Having an organization like the DEI Alliance “is very important to Eastman and to other companies as we seek to recruit and retain strong talent for our businesses,” Eryn O’Brien told News Channel 11.

Eastman, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, Nuclear Fuel Services and a handful of other big employers got behind the Alliance’s first major endeavor with money and other support.

Thursday, they’ll hear from Nika White, a Greenville, S.C. native and nationally known leader in the area of diversity and inclusion. They’ll hear from Natalie Overton, a New Yorker who’s the senior manager for diversity and inclusion at Better, a digital mortgage company.

The two Black women will be joined by Tyler Engle, an Erwin native who’ll talk about entrepreneurship, rural communities, young professionals and how those tie in to recruitment and retention of people of color and LGBTQ people in an area where 90.2% of Northeast Tennessee residents still identified as “white only” on the 2020 census — with a higher percentage in Southwest Virginia.

“We want the Tri-Cities to grow,” O’Brien said. “And I know there’s been a period where there’s been some concern about, ‘are we growing in the way that we need, that we want?’ Because it’s important that our community thrive.”

Indeed, those census numbers showed the News Channel 11’s 16-county viewing area in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia lost about 17,000 residents from 2010-2020, led by a staggering decline of 27,000 people in Southwest Virginia, or nearly 9%.

It has to extend beyond the workplace

O’Brien said while companies need to continue focusing on making sure people from diverse backgrounds feel like their employers value, include and respect them, the region’s path to population growth will have to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion on a broader level.

“There’s no excuse for LGBTQ-plus team members and LGBTQ+ family members (straight) team members to not feel 100% accepted and included in our local communities, and I would say the same goes for any member of any historically underrepresented team members and their families,” O’Brien said.

“I believe that our many differences are what make Eastman stronger and more innovative and I believe that within society as we learn about our many differences (and) embrace each other, that will lead to the greater understanding and respect that makes both society and our community stronger.”

Terrance Jackson, Barter Theatre’s Creative Community Specialist (Courtesy Terrance Jackson)

O’Brien said the DEI Alliance is set to play a very important role in efforts to make the region more and more attractive to people like Lee and Jackson. She said groups like the Alliance can help spur growth in the region by “creating forums and space” for people to learn more about one another, regardless of their apparent differences.

“Real progress is going to come from engaging each other with respect and empathy and kindness, and creating those opportunities for meaningful dialogue to break through some of the rhetoric,” O’Brien said. “That’s what’s paramount to breaking down barriers and creating stronger inclusion.”

Jackson agreed.

“I think it’s really smart of them to do that, especially with the idea of trying to retain and attract more diverse people,” he said. “I think it’s huge … I can’t wait to see what I learn from the summit. We’ve got some incredible speakers coming with incredible backgrounds and I think the title of “A Regional Call to Action” is just really brilliant.”

Jackson, Lee note improvement — say greater numbers would help

Jackson said he’s seen positive change since he arrived in 2013. He said there are still streets he won’t walk down, afraid of the potential reaction to a large Black man in an unfamiliar area — but he doesn’t condemn people for fearing the unfamiliar.

And he’s seen an improvement in visibility of people of color, citing “Black and brown people” populating billboards for Eastman Credit Union as an example.

“I did not see that when I first got here in 2013,” he said. “Just that is a huge example, and I applaud Eastman Credit Union for their work and their visibility with trying to be accessible to people. So absolutely, I definitely think change is happening, and slowly, but I think with the DEI Alliance and summits that we’re having, that change will happen quicker than we think.”

Whether it will happen quickly enough to retain Jackson is a question mark, as even he admits. The lack of a robust small business infrastructure catering to Black culture is one deficit, he said.

“I have to go to Bristol or Johnson City to get a haircut,” Jackson said. While that may seem minor, he said it’s the type of thing that can cause a person of color to begin looking at their stay in a place like the Tri-Cities as transient.

“Having a barber is community, you know what I mean? And that is what helps people retain. It’s not even what someone does at their job, it’s community building. Having a barbershop, having a salon that someone can go to to get their hair done is huge and I think those things matter to the Black and brown experience, to the LGBTQ experience — that experience is huge.”

For her part, Lee said if people like her and Jackson don’t choose to stay, the changes may not accelerate like Jackson said they have begun to.

“I would tell anyone that is in this area, ‘if you leave, who’s going to shine the light and who is going to be that difference?'” she said. “If we all were to exit what is that going to leave our community with? The same thing that we’re trying to combat.”

Lee hadn’t even heard of the DEI Alliance before this week, but said she supports its work and can see change occurring in front of her eyes.

“It’s really exciting for me as a woman of color to see … we have more females running for judges,” Lee said. “We now have someone who’s entering the race for (state) Senate who is part of the LGBTQIA plus community, and if even if they don’t win, they are shaking it up and people are realizing, ‘wait a minute, it is time for a change.'”