The kind of discrimination that Allan Parnell and Ann Moss Joyner find can be hard to see – subtle divides drawn between black and white neighborhoods with water lines and city borders.
But the husband and wife team have made it their life’s work to bring those lines to the forefront, showing juries, judges and others where municipal policies have hurt minority populations in ways such as failing to provide city services and locating toxic waste near their homes.
The work of their nonprofit, the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities, has made national headlines for using sophisticated mapping technologies to expose discrimination. It’s been cited by Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee as a novel use of big data, and was lauded in The New York Times as a high-tech way to help vulnerable populations.
Their key innovation is maps that layer the racial makeup of an area along with information such as the location of sewer lines and land use zoning – at times surprising even the residents who suspected discrimination with the stark contrasts.
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“You kind of know but you don’t really know until you see it laid out in front of you,” Parnell says. “People don’t know where the water lines are, and it’s hard to see the city limits.”
Here they are in Mebane with this tiny staff, and their work has made a huge impact all over the country.
Elizabeth Haddix, staff attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights
Elizabeth Haddix, staff attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, has worked with Cedar Grove on several North Carolina cases, including one that prevented a landfill from being placed near an African-American community in Brunswick County.
She says their way of organizing complex data in understandable ways has been crucial in her cases and many others nationwide.
“It’s a rare niche they have and it’s a much-needed one,” Haddix says. “They produce these visual depictions so that people can see very clearly what’s happening. Here they are in Mebane with this tiny staff, and their work has made a huge impact all over the country.”
Cedar Grove, along with the couple’s for-profit business, McMillan & Moss Research, relies on their combined talents. Parnell, a demographer by background, can crunch data, and has a talent for presenting detailed information in court.
Joyner, who has worked as a developer and a reporter, understands the intricacies of local government and delights in telling the historical stories of the communities they study.
I don’t think either of us could do what we do without the other one.
Ann Moss Joyner
“It was just serendipity,” Joyner says of the business. “There’s this great confluence of our skills. I don’t think either of us could do what we do without the other one.”
Married for 35 years, they live in a farmhouse on 40 acres in Orange County, where they also keep horses. They work in a 100-year-old church building that they moved to the property and renovated.
Joyner grew up in Myrtle Beach, went to Florida for her undergraduate degree, and earned an MBA from UNC-CH. She’s held a wide variety of jobs – nanny, newspaper reporter and management consultant among them.
She started in the development business with a project near their own land and expanded. Over two decades ending in 2010, she developed more than 2,000 acres in Orange County with subdivisions featuring hiking trials, conservation easements and other amenities, including the Covered Bridge and Hannah’s Creek subdivisions.
Parnell grew up in Raleigh, and says his interest in demographics started during his youth, when the longstanding black-white racial dynamic was being disrupted by new arrivals. He remembers in particular the shock over his first Chinese classmate.
“I remember the lunch ladies asking her where she was born, and when she said Florida, that just blew them away,” he says.
He earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from UNC-CH, honing his focus throughout on studying demographics. He’s had stints as a demographer at the University of Hawaii and with the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Population.
Returning to the Triangle in the late 1980s, he held positions on the faculty at Duke University and as a researcher at the Carolina Population Center at UNC-CH.
Passion for the work developed
It was through the Carolina Population Center that Parnell received the call that would launch Cedar Grove. Community organizers in an African-American neighborhood outside Mebane wanted help fighting a bypass planned through their neighborhood.
The community had long tried in vain to obtain city services, and Parnell ended up creating a series of maps that showed that the city limits had been drawn to exclude historically black neighborhoods.
Without being annexed, these areas were still subject to the city’s land use policies, but lacked city services and a chance to vote in the municipal elections. He was surprised by the results, but drawn to this new area of research.
With Joyner on board, he worked with advocacy groups and other communities to study similar disparities across the state, helping many of them to get city services. In some cases, cities voluntarily annexed areas once the issue was raised.
Neither he nor has wife had a great sense of activism before they founded the business, but were drawn to dig deeper.
“We developed a passion,” says Parnell. “You get the wins, and you get to help people.”
A 2004 conference on their work at UNC-CH titled “Invisible Fences” garnered national attention, and the pair soon started taking on clients nationwide.
In Modesto, Calif., they found more than 20,000 people living in small lots outside the city who lacked access to water and sewer services. In many cases, their septic systems were failing.
In Zanesville, Ohio, the town government refused to run water lines to black neighborhoods, even though their land was too polluted from coal mining to drill wells and water lines had been extended further from town.
Those residents were collecting rainwater from their roofs and hauling it from the water plant in barrels. In court, the residents’ lawyer presented maps produced by Cedar Grove showing the race of the owner of each house in relation to the water and sewer lines. The groups were awarded nearly $10 million.
Joyner says they use all manner of charts and storytelling, but the maps tend to be the most persuasive.
“It’s such a powerful visual image, people can understand it even if they don’t understand statistics,” she says.
Their work has moved beyond annexation issues, covering housing, education and the environment. They recently conducted a study for the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP showing that coal ash was being moved to basins in low-income areas.
Last year, Parnell was an expert witness in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed that communities can win lawsuits against local governments for unfair treatment even if they can’t prove that it was intentional.
The ruling brought the couple a rush of new clients in a dozen states across the country including Nebraska, Texas, New York and Wisconsin – many of them potential lawsuits that were awaiting the ruling.
In most cases, they say, discriminatory practices date back hundreds of years, to a time when racism was embedded in public policy. Often, the officials continuing these policies aren’t aware of their impact.
In other cases, however, officials seem well aware. In the Ohio case, one public official said that even current residents’ great-grandchildren would never have access to water service.
“After your jaw drops a few times, you stop being so surprised,” Parnell says.
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Ann Moss Joyner and Allan Parnell
Born: Joyner: April 1954, Conway, S.C.; Parnell: August 1954, Dunn
Career: President (Joyner) and vice president (Parnell), Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities; vice president (Joyner) and president (Parnell), McMillan & Moss Research
Education: Parnell: A.B. geography, M.A. and Ph.D. sociology, all from UNC-CH; Joyner: B.A. liberal arts, New College of Florida; MBA, UNC-CH
Awards: Appreciation Award, N.C. Fair Housing Center, 2004
Family: Daughter Hannah Joyner
Notable: Both Parnell and Joyner had what she calls “failed starts” at college, followed by successes. Parnell briefly attended Pennsylvania State University, while Joyner left high school early to attend Stephens College before eventually earning her degree at New College.