Fear of imminent death is Mayor Esther Manheimer’s earliest memory of Asheville.
It was the summer of ‘88, and the Manheimer family had just arrived to the mountains of Western North Carolina by way of Washington, D.C. At the time, the city’s future mayor was en route to a dinner party on Sunset Mountain. Her father drove. She and her two siblings were in the back. “I had never been on narrow mountain roads,” she says.
The family’s previous stints out west had conditioned her to wider pathways along the Rocky Mountains. In Asheville, she discovered tight turns without guardrails. “I just thought: We’re all going to die,” she says.
For City Council member and native Ashevillean Sheneika Smith, her earliest recollection of the city isn’t quite as dramatic. “I remember Bele Chere,” she says. The annual music and arts street festival launched in downtown in 1979; the final celebration was held in 2013. “That was the big to-do in Asheville for years,” Smith continues. “People paraded down the streets … and kids were free to stay out late because everyone knew where their children would be.”
On Wednesday, March 21, Manheimer and Smith will be the featured speakers at The Eclectic Lives of Two Asheville Women. The free community forum will take place in the Lord Auditorium at Pack Memorial Library, in celebration of Women’s History Month. Along with sharing their individual experiences as youths in Asheville, the two women will address their lives as mothers, professionals and what led them to enter public service.
Zoe Rhine, the event’s organizer and North Carolina Room staff member, says she sees the talk as a chance to explore the city’s more recent past. “Anytime we have a chance to learn more about Asheville’s previous decades, it’s an important thing to document,” she says. “And here, we get to view it through two different lenses.”
Rhine also hopes the event will give audience members a greater appreciation for the various paths to public service. “I think Sheneika and Esther are prime examples of how strong and honest women wear many hats and can be instrumental in shaping our city,” she says. “This program seemed like a good avenue to highlight this.”
‘Like landing on Mars’
Manheimer’s life journey had many stops prior to Asheville. She was born in Denmark, where her father was working toward his Ph.D. in philosophy. By the age of 3, her family returned stateside for a brief stint in San Diego. This was followed by stretches in Olympia and Spokane, Wash., and later the nation’s capital before the family’s treacherous journey up Sunset Mountain. “Somebody asked me if I was an Army brat,” Manheimer says. “I was like, ‘No, I guess maybe more like a university brat.’”
Meanwhile, Smith’s upbringing began in the mountains. Her great-great-great grandfather, born in 1899, arrived in Asheville from Orangeburg, S.C. The date of his arrival is unknown. “But he planted a church on the northside of Asheville, which was a very audacious thing for him to do as a black man in the 1950s,” Smith says.
Both women attended Asheville High School. As a new arrival to the South, Manheimer remembers the cultural shock that marked her senior year. “It was like landing on Mars,” she says. Certain elements of this strange new experience were benign: Manheimer wasn’t used to strangers saying hello as they passed. Other aspects were unsettling. “Asheville High was a segregated school within a school,” she says. “I think for older folks who’ve lived through desegregation in the South … there’s a lot of things you assume as normal. … But when you’re just new to it, it’s very strange.”
Manheimer graduated in 1989. Three years later, Smith entered her freshman year. “Being that Asheville High is the only [public] high school in the city limits, it brings a lot of different communities that are packed in Asheville together,” Smith says. Students from both thriving and struggling communities shared the same hallways, she notes, but the classroom dynamic was far different. “The AP classes and gifted students [were] somewhat isolated or segregated from the mainstream students,” she remembers.
Neither Manheimer nor Smith claim that academics were a top priority for them. “I have to say, I really kind of stumbled through that whole year,” the mayor says. “It wasn’t enough time for me to totally understand what the hell was going on.” Still, both hold fond memories of Asheville High. Manheimer took up field hockey and joined the school’s sorority. Smith was a regular at football games and remembers “the pride that came with being a Cougar.”
The path to public service was not self-evident to either woman. The mayor describes her own experience as a multistep process. “I wasn’t class president; I wasn’t valedictorian,” she says. “It took me a long time to figure out that I had anything to contribute.”
In 1993, after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Manheimer returned to Asheville. At 22, she held the title of volunteer coordinator at Meals on Wheels. Part of the job involved delivering food to public housing throughout the area. The position, she explains, exposed her to parts of the community of which she’d previously been unaware. The experience also raised questions she hadn’t considered. “How does this happen?” Manheimer remembers wondering. “And how does it change?”
Following graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, Manheimer worked at the state legislature in Raleigh before returning to Asheville in 2002. Seven years later, she ran for and won a seat on City Council. “For a long time in my life, I felt like other people can do these things, but I can’t,” she says. “Even when I worked at the legislature and I’d look at these people who were elected to office and sitting on these committees and voting and changing laws, I’d think, ‘I’m definitely not qualified to do that.’ Even though, of course, I was advising them.”
Leading from a lived experience
For Smith, interest in city government had never been a bright spot on her radar, but a passion for neighborhoods and communities had. After graduating from Asheville High School in 1996, she headed east to attend Winston-Salem State University. Following college, she spent several years in Charlotte, where she worked first in television and then at a behavioral health facility.
In 2011, Smith returned home. What she discovered was a changed city. “Growing up here, there was still pronounced black communities and more black businesses that were visible and operative,” she says. That was no longer the case, and the noticeable shift inspired her to launch Date My City in 2013. The social organization promotes cultural advancement of the area’s minority communities.
From there, her community involvement continued, leading to her winning a seat on Asheville City Council in last November’s election. Lived experiences, says Smith, are just as valuable as learned experiences when helping shape a city. “Having a person who is part of the black community in Asheville will make a difference in some of the policy outcomes and how we approach conversations,” she says.
Like Rhine, Smith believes the upcoming talk at Pack Library offers a unique opportunity to showcase the multiple paths toward civic engagement. “I look forward to having more conversations with young women who are politically savvy and on top of the issues, as well as individuals who are more community-oriented and deeply passionate,” she says.
Smith notes it can be intimidating at first for those who fall into the latter category, especially when it comes to grappling with policies and the inner workings of local government. But both types of leaders, she adds, are necessary and influential, “not only in Asheville’s future, but in the future of female leadership.”
‘Exploit your passions’
Manheimer says her interest in participating in the upcoming talk stems from a sense of responsibility to Asheville’s female youths. “I want to make sure that young women see opportunity in their life. Yes, I have a lot of academic credentials at this point in my life, but I feel like anyone can do this if they’re determined and if they’re interested,” she says. “Exploit your passions.”
For Smith, a similar motivation exists. “I think there is a lot of momentum around females and people of color getting more involved in leadership positions,” she says. The forum, she states, “will hopefully just continue the conversation and will help other women make that decision to take things to the next level when it comes to their own community involvement.”
WHAT: The Eclectic Lives of Two Asheville Women
WHERE: Lord Auditorium at Pack Memorial Library, 67 Haywood St., avl.mx/4ji
WHEN: Wednesday, March 21 at 6 p.m. Free