by Jordan Green
Those who have worked with High Point Human Relations Director Al Heggins say she made impressive accomplishments in a variety of arenas. But her involvement in mentoring students in challenging white privilege and facilitating uncomfortable conversations about police accountability might have been too effective for some members of city council.
When a Bhutanese refugee distraught over a chronic health problem and mounting financial troubles took his own life in High Point, a young community leader named Dev Bhandari took the man’s widow to meet Al Heggins, the human relations director for the city of High Point.
Bhandari, who owns the Himalayan Bazaar store on South Main Street and serves as vice chair of the Society for Bhutanese in High Point, recalled that Heggins responded positively to his community’s plight. When Bhandari broached the idea of calling a community meeting to address the problem of depression, Heggins promised to locate a mental-health professional to attend.
The meeting wound up being postponed because people in the Bhutanese community were distracted by responding to the earthquake in Nepal, where many had previously lived in refugee camps.
In late June, Bhandari started working on rescheduling the community meeting. Around that time, City Manager Greg Demko placed Heggins on paid leave, after she said she feared for her life because of racial tensions and institutional racism in the city. Since then, she has been suspended without pay, and has returned to work for a second time. Heggins has a federal discrimination complaint pending against the city, and her lawyer has said the city manager is looking for a pretext to fire her. Tony Lowe, a program director in the department, was also temporarily placed on leave, but has now returned to work.
“Something went wrong in the office, so whoever we were expecting from the mental health [field] we were not able to get,” Bhandari said. “I emailed her, but I did not get a response. I’m still trying to get in touch with her.”
Ralph Rodland, a substance abuse treatment provider and member of the volunteer human relations commission, said Heggins and her staff had already printed posters for a High Point Immigration and Refugee Information Summit. Free food, a fashion show and opportunities for cross-cultural exchange were all part of the plan.
“There was actually the disruption where she was removed from the building,” Rodland said. “Very soon after there was to be a public event with [the refugee] community. That did not occur as a result of she and Tony both being separated from the city. We were not provided access to the computers so we couldn’t handle it ourselves.”
The turmoil in City Hall has also disrupted a series of panel discussions co-hosted by the High Point Human Relations Department and the YWCA called “Front Porch Conversations,” said Paul Siceloff, a former chair of the human relations commission. Siceloff said he went to the YWCA to attend a panel discussion about federal discrimination law on Sept. 17 but the YWCA’s executive director told him the event had been canceled because the city had been responsible for lining up the speakers. Siceloff said he contacted Heggins, and she told him she had been ordered to cancel the event.
Former and current commissioners and others interviewed for this story lauded Heggins, who was hired by the city in August 2004, for her expertise, initiative and energy in addressing a host of challenges in the community.
“I couldn’t be a bigger fan of Al Heggins,” Rodland said. “She has provided exemplary leadership, ever since I’ve been involved with human relations commission, which is over two years ago. She has a mastery in what the department is supposed to be engaged with, and has always provided exemplary support to the human relations commission.”
Heggins’ outreach to immigrant and refugee communities in High Point was part of the reason she was one of 10 people selected as a “Champion of Change by the White House in 2013. The White House citation credits Heggins with initiating three programs to implement her vision for an equitable and inclusive community: affirmative fair housing, the High Point Student Human Relations Commission and the civic engagement project.
“Al’s department later applied and was selected by UNC’s Institute for the Study of the Americas and Latino Migration Project for the Building Integrated Communities initiative,” the citation reads. “BIC’s best practices and research-based approach aligned perfectly with her vision. Supported by BIC, human relations convened a series of community focus groups comprised of immigrants and non-immigrants, culminating in a 16-point strategic plan to seamlessly integrate its culturally diverse residents. The launch of this plan added two working committees under the city’s human relations commission (the interfaith affairs committee and the international advisory committee) and sparked a partnership with the national Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative.”
One of Heggins accomplishments was persuading High Point City Council to pass a local fair housing ordinance in 2007 that empowered staff to investigate and mediate housing discrimination complaints.
“We worked really hard to bring that to High Point,” said Paul Siceloff, a former chair of the human relations commission. “It happened while I was on the commission. It was a big deal. We had to push to get it in place.”
The current city council voted during a special meeting earlier this month to scale back the city’s involvement in fair housing enforcement.
Heggins’ work training high school students to be leaders might be her most important contribution, Rodland indicated.
“The gem of the human relations commission is the work of the student human relations commission,” he said. “Navigating one school would be something, but she has been working with several schools to train the students. She got them to a point where student commissioners were selected to be presenters at the White Privilege Conference. This is a national conference where the students were presenting alongside PhDs. They were talking about institutional racism and systemic barriers. These kids gave us so much inspiration. It’s what we’re supposed to be doing with our young people — instilling them with a sense of social responsibility.”
Heggins’ effectiveness and dedication to her job appear to have gotten her in trouble when they challenged the city’s power structure — namely the police department and members of city council. Rodland emphasized that Heggins did not initiate the “Black and Blue” conversations about police-community relations.
“That came from the human relations commission in response to looking at a country where that is popping up in all sorts of cites,” Rodland said. “We never wanted to be a city where people said, ‘That would never happen here.’ We wanted to be proactive.
“The whole campaign that says Al was trying to run fiat and have her own way could not be further from the truth,” Rodland added. “There was nothing that occurred without our consultation and coming out of conversations that have occurred in the community.”