Asheville activists honored with life-changing grants

SPARK OF GENIUS: Local activists and community organizers Nicole Townsend, left, and Sheneika Smith have each received an unrestricted $200,000 Tzedek Brilliance Award. The prizes, inspired by the MacArthur “genius grants,” are envisioned as a way to reward and sustain grassroots activists who are also members of marginalized and oppressed groups. Photos courtesy of Townsend and Smith

Nicole Townsend was in a dressing room trying to find something to wear.

Sheneika Smith was sitting in her driveway, having what she calls “one of those recurrent moments as a single mother when you’re cemented to the seat with the seat belt on, trying to build enough strength just to walk into the house.”

Neither woman could have known she was about to receive a phone call that would change her life.

When her call came, Townsend broke into tears, but she remembers trying to “keep it controllable” so other shoppers wouldn’t be disturbed. Smith, meanwhile, says she screamed — “Loud! My neighbors probably thought I lost it.”

The caller, Marsha Davis of the Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund, told both Townsend and Smith that each would receive a pilot Tzedek Brilliance Award: an unrestricted $200,000 grant paid over two years.

The awards were inspired by the MacArthur Fellows Program, popularly known as the “genius grants,” Davis explains. “The question for us was, what would it look like if we honored the genius that exists in Asheville? Especially the ones that are working on the grassroots and community level.”

Changing the rules

Best known in Asheville for its Tzedek Social Justice Fellowship, the fund, which was established in 1991, supports racial justice and LGBTQ rights and combats anti-Semitism. By 2011, however, it had begun focusing more on Asheville-based organizations, including Nuestro Centro, the Center for Participatory Change, Hood Huggers International, Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción, Youth OUTright WNC, the Asheville Jewish Community Center, Youth Transformed for Life and CoThinkk. The fund, says Davis, distributes about $2 million a year.

In 2018, Asheville-based consultant Desiree Adaway conducted an equity audit of the fund’s work. According to Adaway’s website, “The audit is a process that will assess your organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion practices in relation to racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, sexuality justice, immigration, language and accessibility. … Basically, we assess what’s working and what’s not.” The results, says Davis, highlighted a situation that’s not unusual: An organization dedicated to boosting the lives of people experiencing oppression was being led by economically privileged white women.

To shift that dynamic, the fund hired Davis — who was then the chief program officer for the YWCA of Asheville — and began exploring new models of grant-making that would put more control in the hands of marginalized communities.

“For us, we’re realizing that there’s this assumption that those with the most money have the most expertise and have the answers for the community,” Davis explains. “That’s just not a value that we hold any longer as an organization.”

The Brilliance Awards represent the fund’s first foray into community-based grant-making. The selection committee consisted of Davis and Heather Laine Talley, the organization’s co-directors, plus three community members. That means the majority of the group comes from outside the foundation. “We keep them anonymous, so that they can maintain authentic relationships in the community,” Davis explains, “but all three identify as women of color, two identify as queer women of color, and all three are involved in social justice movements in some way, shape or form.”

A history of giving

Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis have been together since 1991. They moved to Asheville in 2003 and were married in Massachusetts in 2008. According to the website for their namesake fund, 75% of the money it distributes comes from Mandel’s parents’ foundation; the rest is from her personal trust.

Amy’s father, Morton Mandel, was born in Cleveland in 1921; his parents were recent Jewish immigrants. With his two older brothers, Morton built Premier Industrial Corp., which grew to become one of the largest auto parts and electronics distributors in the U.S. It merged with a British company to become Premier Farnell PLC in 1996. Eventually, a portion of the wealth generated by these businesses was channeled into a family foundation. In the late 1980s, Morton and his wife, Barbara, began directing a portion of their charitable giving to each of their three children for their own philanthropic use.

There’s no catch

In addition to reflecting the judgment of communities that have experienced oppression, the grants are unusual in that they come with no strings attached. “Nowhere in this region will you find [another] funder that seeks to strengthen the local social change movement by awarding unrestricted funding,” says Smith.

The logic behind that, says Davis, was a desire to recognize “that Asheville’s survival and its ability to thrive is being supported by all these community members who are doing this work for free — and have been doing it for a very long time.”

The awards, she continues, “are essentially meant as back pay. Unlike other grants, where you do extensive reporting and there are restrictions on how the award should be used, these were very much decided based on past work and past achievement.”

Beyond acknowledging the long-term impacts of Townsend’s and Smith’s work, the foundation hopes that other grant-making organizations will be inspired to support similar efforts or perhaps throw money into a common kitty to fund future Brilliance Awards. “Because there are definitely a lot more brilliant leaders in our community than we can fund ourselves,” says Davis, noting that her group received 39 applications for this year’s two awards.

Search for stability

“I feel honored to be trusted with such a lot of money,” says Townsend, whose early life was spent in poverty. By the time she reached school age, her family had clawed its way up to the working class, but “We’ve always only been able to do the bare minimum,” she reveals. Townsend says she hopes to leverage part of the grant to create greater financial stability in her life.

At the same time, she’s full of ideas for ways “to invest in individuals who may never get an opportunity to get any kind of funding,” particularly queer and transgender people.

As exciting as it is to have the means to assist others, however, Townsend says the shift in her circumstances has also triggered some paradoxical reactions. “I’m sitting with a lot of grief, and it’s overwhelming. Every day, people in Asheville are getting kicked out of their homes. There are families who are literally starving in Asheville, people sleeping on the street.

“I have grief that the amount of money I have cannot change that for everybody,” Townsend explains. “In the world of social justice, $200,000 is very small. For an individual, it’s a ridiculous amount of money.”

Townsend defines her work as community organizing around such issues as the cash bail system, police accountability, the racial achievement gap in education and wealth inequality. A regional organizer with Southerners on New Ground, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, she previously worked with the Dogwood Alliance and The Cindy Platt Boys & Girls Club of Transylvania County. In addition, Townsend serves on the board of Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community, a local nonprofit. She’s also a poet and spoken-word artist.

Political meets personal

Like Townsend, Smith sees herself as a community organizer. She’s known for founding Date My City, a social group that aims to increase black leadership and culture in Asheville. Smith added another dimension to her role as a civic convener when she was elected to City Council in 2017. But balancing activism, government service and parenting two young children has taken a toll over the past few years, she admits.

“We had to deny ourselves a lot of things desperately needed in order to cover basic living expenses,” says Smith. “It’s been a sacrifice that children shouldn’t have to make!”

In addition, she maintains, “Taking care of yourself is an important part of leadership. This award will allow me to focus more on my physical, mental and emotional health.” That will include things like massages, exercise, healthier food options and taking ceramic arts classes. On the fun side, she’s looking forward to a weeklong vacation with her daughters and to buying some gifts for family and friends. Another planned purchase is “a legit laptop.”

More broadly, Smith is looking at options for what she calls “smart money management” to maximize the award’s benefits for herself, her family and the community.

And while Smith expresses deep gratitude to Mandel and Rodis and the philanthropists who work with them, she says her awareness of other committed change agents who were considered for the award weighs heavily on her mind. “Just before I sent my application, I sat at my computer and was met with a surge of emotions, knowing that only two people could receive this award, leaving many stuck in survival mode. It’s rough to navigate, but I have been receiving so many uplifting words and praise from a lot of them.”

Beyond lip service

Asked about the fund’s future plans for the Brilliance Awards, Davis says there are various options on the table. “We’re about to go into a strategic planning process. We’re hoping to hear feedback from the community about the impact of having these awards land in Asheville,” she explains.

The organization’s main goal has been to experiment with trust-based philanthropy and community-based decision-making, says Davis. Another of the fund’s programs, the Impact Awards, makes grants of $100 to $3,000 to social justice leaders to support professional development and skill building. “We’re experimenting on multiple levels,” she notes.

Although community reactions to the Brilliance Awards have been mostly positive, the effort was initially met with some suspicion.

“I think what a lot of community leaders have seen is that folks will say they want to help marginalized communities, but then the funding will end up going to white leaders who are doing work in those communities,” says Davis. “So there was definitely this skepticism that folks of color or LGBTQ folks would be rising to the top as part of this process.”

Davis finds that wariness understandable. “It doesn’t come out of nowhere: It’s a lot of folks’ lived experience, and the burden of proof was on us,” she says.

For her part, Smith praises Mandel and Rodis for their “vulnerability and bravery” in pioneering a new model of nonprofit funding in Asheville, and Townsend says she’s excited to see where the community-centered philanthropic trend will lead. “Movement work is hard,” she says. “People don’t take care of themselves; all the money goes right back into the work.”



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16 thoughts on “Asheville activists honored with life-changing grants

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    A previous press release stated that the Brilliance Awards chose to invest in Smith’s ‘spaciousness’. Does anyone know what that means? Ms. Smith did not respond to the inquiry. Still it’s nice that she can enjoy the money with massages, ceramics classes, vacay, and a laptop … and then Ms. Townsend seems embarrassed and ashamed to accept such curious money… I don’t blame her…

    • OzarksRazor

      The previous headline also touted “winning major cash fellowships” as compared to “life changing grants”.
      I guess the first write up wasn’t public friendly enough?
      I congratulate Ms. Townsend and am happy for her grant. She is a gifted writer, speaker and activist for sure.
      However, its less than impressive that Ms. Smith “won” when she is a part of the Tzedek foundation as a “Social justice fellow for Green Opportunities” as noted in a previous write up about her community affiliations.

  2. Curious

    What is Ms. Smith’s profession and her accomplishments?
    On a website, this is listed: “For several years, she was a mental health counselor in a healthcare facility for juvenile sex offenders. Through this venture, she witnessed this critical population of young men work responsibly with therapists, clinical nurses, counselors and their peers to engage the power of restorative justice. Smith relocated back to Asheville in 2011 finding her purpose; assisting in the preservation of the African American interest and quality of life.”
    Could MountainX publish the applications these two women used for the grant? Or their current résumés?

    • Enlightened Enigma

      Yes, this publication should request the applications from both women for public view! Excellent idea!

  3. C-Law

    Will these two still be eligible for the reparations too, or does this count? The article mentions one of the founders viewed the money as “back pay.”

    Way to go though to both womyn for getting some dollas out of a wealthy Yankee lesbian whose family made their fortune in the furtherance of the dirty fossil fuel based US auto industry, causing pollution and climate change!

    • Enlightened Enigma

      C-Law…great post! yeah I read about the Mandel brothers…very successful and RICH!

  4. OzarksRazor

    Must be one of those cognitive dissonance perks to be in a position that controls a fraction of the local media and calls our NCGA “the most racist General Assembly in the United States” (when there are at least nine people of color in the state senate) and get rewarded for it.

  5. Jonathan Wainscott

    Voter registration of African-Americans in Asheville fell from 7,702 in March 2017 to 7,099 currently. That an 8% decline with African-Americans making up only 10.17% in the city of Asheville, down from 11.14% two years ago.
    source: Buncombe County Election Services

    • OzarksRazor

      Facts, Mr. Wainscott… they hardly matter. Though many of us do appreciate your data analysis and disproving the theme of “racial gerrymandering” that has divided our community. Still, its odd to us that Ms. Smith is part of a media outlet that helped spread that falsehood and isn’t being held accountable for it.

      • Diana

        There is nothing “odd” about it. Ms. Smith was “selected” for her compliance to the status quo.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      I am glad that minorities are finding better opportunities in other bigger cities! AVL should always encourage local students to broaden their horizons away from the cesspool of sin…

  6. Diana

    Wow. It is simply stunning that a public official can be the recipient of $100K grant and publicly state she’s going to get massages with it. What exactly has Ms. Smith done to deserve this money? On city council or in her life? How is this not buying her vote?

    • M. Meadows

      HaHa. She is a leading advocate for POC in WNC. HaHa. What have you done in your life to help your community? Your comment seems petty, jealous and has racial undertones.

      • Diana

        I’m a community activist who has spent many years advocating for all people in our community against the very system that Ms. Smith has sold her soul to. Further, you have no idea what color I am, so your comment is the one that is racist.

        • M. Meadows

          No that isn’t how that works.HaHa. Tell us what you have done. Claiming things anonymously is shameful. I’m not sure you understand the word “undertone”. Color had nothing to do with my comment, Haha.

  7. Diana

    Um, whoever you are, you write like an unhinged child, so this will be my last response. I owe you no explanation. Many activists in the community know what I have stated about Ms. Smith/her place in the system is correct. My credentials in making my statements are irrelevant. I do not hold elected office. Ms. Smith does and her record speaks for itself. Please find something else to do with your time.

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