The Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund (AMKRF) has announced that its first Tzedek Brilliance Awards will be bestowed on two Asheville women, City Council member Sheneika Smith and writer and film director Nicole Townsend.
Smith is an Asheville native “who passionately seeks to utilize her leadership, spirituality and creativity in order to shape a Black renaissance across Western North Carolina.” She came to public attention after founding Date My City (DMC), a social organization that seeks to enhance the cultural identity of Black Asheville by fostering social cohesion, increasing civic participation, and centralizing black leadership. Through DMC, Smith discovered that by curating racial healing events and experiences, deeper connection and trust set the stage for sustainable black unity programs and collective liberation action.
In 2017, Smith was elected to the Asheville City Council. She sees her victory as part of a wave toward black leadership, including the birthing of a major 2020 movement. With funds from the Brilliance Award, Sheneika Smith plans to sustain her family (housing, healthcare, life insurance), develop her personal and professional capacity as a business owner and spiritual leader, address the unique educational and socio-emotional needs of her daughters, and to grow and scale Date My City.
“The last eight years of life, since we returned to Asheville, my daughters and I have seen some lean times,” Smith says. “Yet we continued fighting with and for the community, believing that hard work and self-determination would bring us much success. This award is a wonderful testament of faith and perseverance which my girls will never forget!”
Nicole Townsend has been organizing in Western North Carolina since 2010. Her introduction to queer organizing spaces came in 2010 after a string of hate crimes took place in Asheville. She began to use poetry and spoken word as a medium to connect folks to the work that needed to be done to combat the phobias and isms.
In 2012, she directed a film entitled “Color ME Brown: Conversations with unmuted voices”—which uplifted the voices of black and brown folks navigating through Asheville. Since then, her organizing work has been heavily rooted in WNC and has focused on environmental justice, sustainable food policies, police accountability, and Queer & Transgender liberation. She currently serves as a Regional Organizer at SONG, where she co-leads The Black Mama’s Bail Outs and supports the leadership of Queer and Transgender folks in Buncombe County and across the South. Nicole is on the board of Asheville Writers in Schools and Community, and serves as a member of the Human Relations Commission of Asheville.
The Tzedek Brilliance Awards are designed to sustain ongoing efforts to transform Asheville into a community where everyone thrives. These awards support impactful, intersectional approaches to dismantling systemic oppression which are focused on racial justice, LGBTQ equality, and combating anti-Jewish oppression.
AMKRF founder Amy Mandel says, “The brilliant community work happening here is both humbling and awe-inspiring. Each self-nomination reflected such deep passion and commitment to Asheville. I am so inspired by the sheer dedication of local leaders working toward making this a place where everyone can thrive.”