Darris Upton: Profile of a listening leader

Sandra ClarkInside 640, Our Town Leaders

Darris Upton is not a self-promoter. In fact, he probably would dispute being designated in “Our Town Leaders.” But in his low-key way, Upton is making an impact for good in Knox County.


He goes to work every day as Knox County’s diversity development manager – one of two new positions created by Mayor Glenn Jacobs. He also recently joined the Board of Advisors for Project GRAD. Upton is a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who recently completed his master’s degree in social work at UT. His father was an ironworker who helped build the City County Building.

Ronni Chandler, executive director of Project GRAD, called Upton a “strong advocate for the students served by GRAD.” She credits his leadership in the development of the new GRAD/IACMI (advanced manufacturing summer institute) which will launch next summer after being postponed this year by COVID-19.

And she said Upton was the catalyst for creating more than 10 different GRAD Hands on the Future summer internship placements with Knox County.

Darris Upton

Mike Donila, communications director for Knox County, said Upton has a number of good ideas he’s worked on during his first year, “but he’s also taking initiatives to meet and work with minority employees.”

Upton said the coronavirus pandemic has “put stress on a lot of people.” He wants county staff to know he’s there for them. “It takes a whole lot for a person who looks like me to talk to a person who doesn’t look like me. If we’re honest about that and do the hard, hard work of listening, we’ll be in a better place.”

In announcing his hiring, Jacobs said the diversity development manager will work to create equal economic opportunities for small, minority-owned, women-owned, veteran-owned and serviced-disabled veteran-owned businesses.

Upton previously worked in community relations with the city of Knoxville’s Office of Neighborhoods, as well as a student intern for the Knoxville Community Action Committee.

“If there are groups out there that are doing certain things, and those things are successful, there’s an opportunity for Knox County to say, how can we as a county be of help?” Upton said. “How can we can take that and maybe make it better?”

While a student, Upton was a leader of the Master of Social Work student organization (MSWO). In addition, he has worked with CSW’s Dr. Shandra Forrest-Bank developing a Social Justice Innovation Initiative project designed to encourage voter registration in Knoxville communities, Donila said.

While he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Tennessee, Upton is also an alumnus of Pellissippi State Community College.

A goal of Mayor Jacobs is to make Knox County more inclusive in its purchasing and personnel and to build better relationships between underrepresented communities and the county mayor’s office. Darris Upton is out front in this effort.

He and his colleagues work on solutions to problems such as workforce transportation and the disparities in technology access. Upton also works with private sector companies as they seek to build diversity and inclusion in their organizations. In addition to Project GRAD, Upton also serves on the boards of Centro Hispano and The Muse.

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today.

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