Our values are to honor our history and legacy, be committed to the Black community, stewardship of all funds entrusted to us, transparency in the way we communicate our actions, and accountability to honor our commitments. 


Initially branded as “The Young Men’s Institute”, the more commonly known YMI Cultural Center is one of the oldest, most unique and beautiful Black cultural centers in the United States. The YMI is a local landmark within the City of Asheville, North Carolina and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Our founders, Mr. Isaac Dickson, the first person of color appointed to the Asheville City School Board, and Dr. Edward Stephens, principal of Asheville’s first public school for African American students, envisioned an organization similar to a YMCA to support Asheville’s African-American community.


Dr. Stephens, frustrated with the racial discrimination he witnessed and the perception from white Asheville residents that black people were not capable of being self-reliant or assuming the responsibilities of citizenship, connected with other black community leaders and strategized.


They then, in 1892, approached George Vanderbilt (founder of the Biltmore Estate) to provide the funding needed to establish an institution for the black construction workers employed at the Biltmore Estate “to improve the moral fiber of the black male through education focusing on social, cultural, business and religious life”. Moved by Professor Stephens’ plans, Vanderbilt loaned the institute $32,000 for an 18,000-square-foot building designed by Biltmore architect Richard Sharp Smith.


The YMI’s doors opened. 


After efforts of the African American community, the Vanderbilt estate was paid $10,000 for the building. 

the next 3 years

The center, known as the Young Men’s Institute or YMI was the true center of the civic, cultural and business life of Asheville’s black community. It featured a public library and classes for children and adults, dormitory, and athletic facilities. It served as a social and spiritual center and included office space on the ground floor for a doctor, pharmacist, barber, undertaker, and restaurant.


By 1910, the organization had its own orchestra. The multi-use building was the center that Churches, schools and civic organizations used for gatherings, and a variety of businesses and institutions kept offices in the building, too. 

1960s & 1970s

This was a period of decline, as the YMI felt the ripple effects of Urban Renewal, that destroyed African American communities and displaced families across the City and County. 


In 1980, A coalition of nine black churches, with the support of both the black and white communities, bought the YMI. The building was restored and re-established as the YMI Cultural Center. 


1981 – 2000s, the YMI Cultural Center has developed a variety of cultural programs and exhibitions of art and artifacts from Asheville to Africa preserving the heritage of African Americans in Buncombe County.


Under new leadership and with a new vision, the YMI Cultural Center offers educational, cultural, civic and social activities, leadership and economic development programs. We also offer events, meetings, exhibitions, offices, commercial, Co-working, and Co-Creative Art spaces.    


We are working to fully restore the 127-year-old building and re-establish ourselves as the Center for Black life in Asheville and WNC.

OUR staff



Executive Director

"The YMI Cultural Center is a historic icon to me. As a fourth-generation native of Asheville, I grew up participating in programs and services offered by this organization. I am honored to be the Executive Director of this great institution and to build on the legacy of its founders. In 1892, our founders had the vision to elevate African Americans through education, economic development, civil and social engagement. Now, in 2020, we are still trying to fulfill this vision. Given the racial issues that still plague the Black people of Asheville, Buncombe County and the world, I am committed to expanding the vision for true Liberation. It's a new day at the YMI and there is a strategic focus on impactful action. Every day, I ask myself with every decision, 'how do our actions impact the Black community that we are mission-driven to serve?' The YMI is dedicated to providing space and resources that promote black economic solvency."



Operations Manager

Tonia Donay Plummer came to the YMI after retiring from the health can industry in 2015. She moved back to North Carolina to be a caregiver to her mother. Tonia knew she could not sit in a rocker and watch the world go by, she had to be active. She’s been Executive Assistant for over five years and loves the history behind the Block and the YMI. Tonia loves connecting with people from all walks of life and enjoys making new friends.



Board Secretary & Program Director 

Nina Marie Ireland is an Asheville native and loves the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. She is a dedicated wife and mother to her four young children. As a UNC Asheville alumni and over nine years in Medicare Insurance, Nina is excited to return to her love and passion of outreach and service to her community. Originally joining the YMI as Board Secretary in January of 2019, she became a part of the staff in March of 2020. As the new Program Director Nina is committed to bringing community engagement back to the YMI.



Equity Director 

Alexandria is a native New Yorker with over 25 years of experience as a social entrepreneur, focusing on businesses that celebrate the lives of women, youth, and African Americans. After 16 years as the founder and directress of a Montessori school in Charleston, Alexandria moved to Asheville and now collaborates on several projects— Noir Collective AVL, Building Bridges of Asheville. She also co-leads a women’s spirituality group, and offers educational support through Sawubona Learning Project. Alexandria brings her skills as facilitator and educator with Collaborative Organizing to be the coordinator for YMICC Partnerships In Equity program. Through it all, she draws strength and inspiration by marveling at the bold choices of her two children.



Economic and Workforce
Development Director

Philip Cooper is a Western North Carolina Native and an accomplished reentry expert, criminal justice reform advocate, and regional change agent. He is the Director of Economic and Workforce Development at the YMI Cultural Center and the founder of Change Agent Cooper LLC, where he provides program development and supervision for Community Health Workers and Peer Support Specialists. Philip believes that those closest to the problem are the closest to the solution and this is why he is fully committed to teaching people how to leverage their lived experience to change the world. He is an MLK Service Award Recipient and Appalachian Leadership Fellow. He holds a Human Services degree and is Global Career Development Facilitator. He serves on the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and is the Vice Chair of the Just Economics of WNC Board of Directors.



Building Manager

Theordore “Mann” Philson has worked for the YMI Cultural Center for over 18 years primarily as Building Manager. He’s seen it all come through the YMI from weddings, class reunions, lecture halls and more. Theordore has led numerous events from small to our largest, Goombay where he enjoys seeing people from all over the world. He ensures occupant safety standards are met, maintains, repairs perform some cosmetic work on the building as if it’s his own home. Whenever usage of the building is happening outside of normal hours you can expect to be greeted by Theordore. Theordore is excited to see the future of this organization.



Board Member

The YMI board of Directors would like to welcome Tiffany Flunory DE'Bellott to the team. Tiffany comes to us from NYC and has been active within the city of Asheville for many years. She has sat on various board of Directors such as, Green Opportunities, The South Side Community Advisory Board, Hood Talk, and Young Struggle Inc. She currently is the Chair of the Human Relations Commission of Asheville and an active member of Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community. She has over 15 years of experience in youth development, family engagement, and community organizing. Tiffany is excited to join the YMI team and looks forward to supporting all efforts made by the YMI.



Board Member

I am a daughter, sister, mom, a board member of YMICC 2019-2020. Some of my skills include event planning, volunteering, organizing and leading successful community events. I like public speaking, strong people skills and a good leader. I joined Just Economics in 2012 along with this came training and leadership opportunities like,  serving on the Executive Board in 2016-2020, Leadership Training with Voices, Grassroots Leadership Committee, Transit Committee - Better Buses, and currently serving as Treasurer of the Executive Board. In 2017, I became President of Just Folks. Some of the experiences I have with them include, City Permit Acquisition for Events, organizing and Planning major events including; Kids Day, Fish Fry Day, Gospel Sundays, Special Events to Feed the Homeless (one held at YMI), and Community Yard Sales.



Board Member

I have been a part of the YMI Cultural Center’s board since 2019. I am the proud mother of my daughter, A-iah. I am also an author and local playwright. I am the C.E.O and owner of Winnieschild's Production. I am also on the Board at Our Voice which advocates for victims of sexual violence. I am also an advocate for the speechless in domestic situations. While working at the JCC, I worked on the Taskforce (advocating for my cohorts to make a better work environment), Diversity Task Force (Advocating for diversity amongst the staff, children, and parents), OLE Task Force (helping to redesign the outdoor learning environment or playground for our new center). I also coordinated the Community Market/Block party to help raise money for our scholarship program for low-income families, also helping to bridge the gap with diversity.



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