Q&A with Nnweyna Smith, founder of Sankofa Market AVL

GENERATIONAL FLOW: Nnweyna Smith named Sankofa Market AVL after the Akan people of Ghana’s word for “to retrieve” — also symbolized by the mythical Sankofa bird that moves forward while looking back, holding in its beak an egg that represents the future. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nnweyna Smith frequently spoke with her stepmother, Beverly Peppers-Smith, about the need for a safe place where Asheville’s Black small-business owners and entrepreneurs could showcase their goods and services.

“I think she thought…not that I was crazy, but she’d look at me, like, ‘She’s so youthful and idealistic,’” Smith says.

But with the increased community interest in racial equity following the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 and new efforts undertaken by Black entrepreneurs to help grow their numbers — including Black Wall Street AVL and Noir Collective — Smith felt inspired to see her dream fulfilled. She launched Sankofa Market AVL in June.

Taking its name from the Akan people of Ghana’s word for “to retrieve” — also symbolized by the mythical Sankofa bird that moves forward while looking back, holding in its beak an egg that represents the future — the pop-up market has been held every other week at YMI Cultural Center’s Impact Center, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

A new location and November market dates were still being finalized at press time. In the midst of those changes, Xpress spoke with Smith about launching the endeavor and the impacts she hopes it will have on the community at large.

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

Are you originally from this area?

I moved back to Asheville from Philadelphia — September made it two years. I’m trying to find my footing here, building a place where we could elevate local Black businesses. Sankofa Market is that. We’ve been trying to create a pop-up shop type of atmosphere where we can move around, showcase some artists or showcase services and also provide a safe place for African American people to showcase their work in Asheville. Because there’s not a lot of that here.

What is your background in?

Nonprofit management, mostly youth development work. I love working in the community, working with youth. But when the recession hit, I got laid off because a lot of the nonprofits lost grants and funding. I’ve always had a skill of doing what we call natural hair in the Black community, so I specialize in locks and healing work like Reiki and readings. When I got laid off, it was an opportunity to grow my business, so I’ve been mostly doing that — natural hair, healing work and some contract work as far as youth development and event planning. I feel like Sankofa fits right into that — all the culture and event planning, putting everything together and putting it out there.

Did you major in business in college? Or something similar?

My bachelor’s in criminal justice, and my master’s is in human behavior with a concentration in addiction behavior. So, I have more of a clinical type of background, because in the beginning I wanted to be an FBI agent. I always thought I could go undercover, but because of my background and the neighborhood I come from, I was told by my professor that it wasn’t really a good fit.

Instead, I chose to do more in youth development work. I did an internship in a community-based prison for the last coursework of my undergrad. At that time, I was thinking I would go into parole and probation work and build up to the FBI. But when I worked at the community-based prison, it just tugged at my heart so much, and I realized I need to work with the youth so they didn’t end up there.

Who has helped you get Sankofa Market going?

Bernard Oliphant [a community leader and retired federal civil service worker] has been instrumental. The city had an initiative called the Community Engagement Academy, and we participated in that. Shemekka Ebony [Stewart-Isaacs, founder of Black Girl Magic Market] was brought in from Raleigh to implement the program. Elder Bernard actually goes to the same church I was raised in, but we met in the Academy.

Shemekka asked me one day, “Nnweyna, what is it that you want to do with this?” And I said, “We need a Black market.” That’s what I called it then. So she said, “Well, you need to talk to Elder Bernard and see what he thinks.” And I talked to him, and he said, “Nnweyna, this sounds like a great idea. Let’s do it!” So, we had the wheels going, and I felt like if I could get the buy-in from the community and the elders, maybe it can come out into the bigger picture of the city.

And [Peppers-Smith] has helped a lot. She knows everybody in the community. I needed some people who understand what’s going on with the pulse of the city so that they could talk good about me, but also tell me the do’s and don’ts.

Why is Sankofa Market a good fit specifically for Asheville?

It’s heartbreaking to know that there were so many thriving Black-owned businesses in Asheville [before urban renewal efforts between the 1950s and ’80s] and there aren’t that many now. And this city is so beautiful — we could all have somewhere to shine and share our culture. That’s what Asheville is definitely needing: a place for sharing multicultural activity.

Is the plan to bring in vendors from across the community, or is it important to keep the focus on Black entrepreneurs?

We’re not excluding anyone, but we want to elevate the community that’s being underserved and lacks resources, and also give ourselves an opportunity to build some generational wealth. That’s the No. 1 thing: homeownership, business ownership, building wealth and supporting our community. I want my community to know that I’m here, I’m ready to work and I’m ready to elevate anyone who’s ready to partner.

What other goals do you have for Sankofa Market?

We need Black pop-up shops every weekend, all over the city, because there’s enough space for all of us. And if I can get at least 12 vendors to travel with me throughout Asheville, maybe across Western North Carolina, and have sort of a traveling Sankofa Market, that would be great. Then I would feel like I hit the mark.

For more information, visit avl.mx/aph.


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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