First published in the July 2016 issue of the Urban News, Sheneika Smith shares her perspective of Asheville, the work she is doing to enhance the cultural identity of black communities, and the need for cultivating black leaders in Asheville.
My Return to Asheville
Five years ago, circumstances brought me back home to Asheville from Charlotte, NC (by way of Winston-Salem). It was not long before I noticed the utopian aura of downtown was quite perverse when experienced through my lens as a “returned Asheville native.” This was no place for a single black woman to find success and raise children, let alone find a decent man to date! I was petrified.
Date My City
In 2012 I set out to revive Asheville by bringing some soul to the party! I started an initiative called Date My City. The name was sexy and marketable; the cause was simple and non-threatening. Once a month, I hosted a group of friends on “dates” with the city, specifically downtown. I thought it would be beneficial for the city’s culture. Diversity would be more visible in the public square, and we blacks would feel a greater sense of belonging and interest in frequenting downtown and other local spaces. In the end, however, the events were fun and thoughtful, but ill-attended. It was obvious that I needed to do some deeper searching.
Easier than my quest to find black presence outside of limited and concentrated areas like neighborhoods and churches, the answer was readily available, flagrantly apparent. I learned that downtown was not a place where blacks—poor, working-class, or otherwise—would choose to spend their dimes or time, due to feelings of disrespect and invisibility on multiple fronts. My thoughts and intention turned back to “The State of Black Asheville,” and I reevaluated the tenets of my initiative. I found that this thing was bigger than I thought: the pain of people and the purpose of Date My City.
Today, Date My City’s vision is to be a motivation of hope, to spearhead initiatives that reestablish cultural values and increase the collective decision-making responsibility around critical issues in minority communities. Up until now, we’ve primarily been building our base by hosting social events and offering opportunities for networking and cultural connectivity. Now we are ready to unveil another dimension of our organizational goals: to centralize local black leadership and ideals in a way that shapes our collective voice! One of our first steps in this direction will be to host a retreat.
Cultural Sabbatical and Leadership Retreat
In the movement for social and racial justice, a common thread that frequently runs throughout our work are episodes of burnout where one loses the physical and mental capacity to continue the work. In the southern regions of Appalachia, community activists face insurmountable external barriers to their work including limited resources, blatant white supremacist ideologies in the dominant culture, structural racism, extremely poor social conditions in communities of color, and lack of involvement from victimized communities due to internalized racial oppression and hopelessness, all of which impede progress and debilitate effective movement forward.
For this very reason, Date My City has prescribed this black leadership sabbatical and retreat. We will lead a caravan of 15 black community leaders (sojourners) from our home in Asheville to a lakeside retreat in Saluda, NC, for a fruitful one-night and two-day respite and development of a new leadership paradigm.
The retreat was held in August 2016 and was a huge success that provided the respite and inspiration for those who attended.
Now in 2017, Sheneika is running for a seat on Asheville’s City Council where she wants to “bring necessary racial and social justice leadership to the political forefront and champion equitable, inclusionary city advancements.” To read Sheneika’s article Black Leadership Now in its entirety, visit Date My City’s blog. To learn more about Sheneika’s campaign for Asheville City Council, visit sheneikaforasheville.com.