By Sheneika E. Smith –
Black Leadership NOW
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.
Vowing to focus on the positive and prioritize the wellness of myself and my children, I didn’t allow myself to ruminate on how white Asheville was, but whenever I ventured into the heart of the city I scavenged to count more than 20 black faces, falling short each time. I felt my life slightly crumble tighter.
My frustration opened my curiosity. One day I found an old radio in my daddy’s basement. When I turned it on it was already tuned to WRES 100.7 FM, and I heard the booming voice of a savior, Elder John R. Hayes. He was making an announcement about a “State Of Black Asheville” forum at Mt Zion Missionary Baptist Church. I had to go.
I arrived at Mt. Zion to hear Drs. Dwight and Dolly Mullen discuss their tragic findings about the State of Black Asheville. Now, more observant than ever, I scanned the church in disbelief: there was a sea of whiteness that seemed to be following me! Nevertheless, to my relief, the 20 black people that I was rummaging through downtown to find were sprinkled in the crowd. The small number of blacks in attendance was not the only crippling part; the fact that most of ALL attendees, black and white, were over the age of 50 was heart-wrenching to me.
I was duly mortified by the statistical information and buried deeper in grief by the public comments made by black elders in attendance; they were well-intentioned, but so deeply scarred by the horrors of urban renewal and the failures of integration that innovation or creative solutions were impossible and inertia inevitable. God Bless! My only defense was to draw from my spirituality; praying for answers and receiving in part. Asheville was overdue for a revival; a cultural revival that older blacks would appreciate and younger blacks could engage with!
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 frequently runs throughout our work is 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 will address:
- Self-Care and Holistic Regeneration
- Collective Trauma/Collective Healing
- Black Leadership in the 21st Century
- Tribal Leadership/Shared Leadership
The retreat will be held August 27- 28. The cost, which includes room and board, will be $75 per person, and scholarships are available. If you are interested in being a part of this retreat, please email me at datemycity.AVL@gmail.com.
For more information about Date My City, visit datemycity.net.