Story by Jim Murphy | Photo by Paul M. Howey
After several years away, Sheneika Smith returned to her hometown of Asheville two years ago and says she was profoundly disappointed at what she encountered.
“I came downtown and found no one that looked like me, who shared my interests. I saw there wasn’t any diversity in Asheville that the tourists could see.”
Determined to confront the issue, Sheneika created an organization called Date My City, and issued a call for local African-Americans to meet downtown and enjoy the social and cultural ingredients of the city. “At the beginning,” says Sheneika, “it was simply to go downtown, ‘date the city,’ and get to know some of the lost narratives down here.” But these pleasant get-togethers soon evolved into events with a bigger message. “(From) coupling being out and hosting events at a wine bar, I went to incorporating our story and celebrating our history.”
She rattles off several moments of local history that involved the black community—stories that are now mostly forgotten, such as the closing of Stevens Lee High School. For four decades, Stevens Lee was the only high school for African-Americans in all of Western North Carolina. It was closed in 1965 as part of Asheville’s desegregation plan. “The irony here…” She pauses, shakes her head. “Black educators in the city, after integration they lost their profession.”
Rising to her topic, Sheneika leans in to make her point. “Over time as culture changes, some of the history just becomes history and we push it away and we are not reminded of who we are and where we come from and who were achievers and who were thought provokers. That information is lost. We have to keep it alive. It enables us to hold tight to our culture and our pride.”
That first stage of evolution—adding an educational component to an essentially social gathering—developed relatively quickly. But evolution is an unrelenting force, and it pushed a second stage, which she says is still taking shape.
“At first, I saw culture as a magnet. Now I see it as a healer. When people come together, I see a lot of community organizers frequent my events. I see them laden with a burden of trying to accomplish something good without adequate funding. So my next event will be a cultural sabbatical, a retreat of healing for the healers. We’re holding it in Saluda at the end of May, and we want to empower them to come back to Asheville and do great work.”
It would not be a stretch to suggest that Sheneika could also use a sabbatical. Born and raised in Asheville, she went to college in Winston-Salem and remained there as a reporter for a local TV station. Now she’s back home with two daughters, a job as case manager with Green Opportunities, and an avocation as director of Date My City (the organization as well as its website: datemycity.net).
She says she works about 15 hours a week on Date My City to produce at least four events a year. First, she says, she has to choose a theme, and then “Do research, think about balance between entertainment and education. Then I have to find a venue, like the Wine Bar on Walnut or the Fine Arts Theater, and a restaurant afterwards. I have to find people to present the story. Then I have to do the flyers, get them printed, put out the word on the Internet.” Her voice trails off, thinking of all the little details. She can’t even estimate how much cash she’s put into the effort. She’s begun applying for grants to help with the cash flow, and she’s hoping to find a computer savvy person to help upgrade her website.
And still the evolution continues. Now all her events contain three components: “Entertainment, education and a call to action.”
That third component has moved Date My City from informal, congenial outings in downtown Asheville to what she calls a “social movement to be a motivation of hope, an arm of advocacy, and a way to enhance our cultural identity.”
Considering those evolutionary steps that have expanded the goals of her organization, Sheneika grins at her good fortune to be in Asheville. “You can try a little bit of anything here,” she says. And considering all those changes, I asked what she might name her organization if it were starting out today with its advocacy purpose.
“I have the answer,” she says after a moment of searching. “The black population in Asheville is just under 12 percent. I’d call my organization, Empower the 12.”
Jim Murphy, of East Asheville, is a retired television news reporter and former copy editor for the Los Angeles Times. He can be reached at jimurph41@ gmail.com.