From Dec. 1-5, Xpress’ website will feature profiles of the eight people we selected as Asheville influentials for 2016. You can also view all eight in this week’s print issue.
Our area sees its fair share of awards and recognition ceremonies. And many dedicated individuals receive well-deserved attention for the work they do to make our community a great place to live.
But it often seems a small group of movers and shakers get all the glory, while the energy and talent of legions of other contributors remain hidden in plain sight.
So, in the spirit of our mission to build community and foster civic dialogue, Xpress set out to find some of those lesser-known folks who are quietly doing important work in the Asheville area. We put out a call for nominations and received a total of 41. From there, our editorial team conducted background research on the nominees, including interviews with colleagues and collaborators. Gradually, over a series of meetings, the list was narrowed to eight outstanding influencers.
The nominees, overall, embodied a high degree of the qualities we were hoping to celebrate. That’s the calling card of a committed community: We have an abundance of passionate citizens mobilized to make a difference in the Asheville area. We realized, through the course of this project, it only scratches the surface of all the active, influential people in our region. As such, Xpress hopes to revisit this concept in the future.
Xpress applauds the work of those profiled here, and we hope you will be as inspired as we have been to learn more about their motivations and contributions.
— Xpress editorial staff
There are two ways to view the Q&A: Either click the graphic below or scroll down to see text version of their answers (some text versions have more information than we could fit in the graphic).
Steph Monson Dahl
- Riverfront Redevelopment Office Director, city of Asheville
- Leads interdepartmental team for RAD redevelopment
- Facilitates work on the Wilma Dykeman Riverway Master Plan
- Actively applies for grant for riverfront redevelopment
- Looks for ways to make the riverfront accessible for everyone
“She will be the first to tell you that it takes a team of amazing people to move projects forward. However, none of these projects would move without her collaborative leadership style. Her work has quietly helped to move this body of work into reality; after a decade of planning, construction will begin on these projects in 2017.”
Riverfront Redevelopment Office Director for the City of Asheville. Urban Planner and Program/Team Manager.
I spend most of my working time around a lot of people in a fast-paced and complex environment. So in my downtime I nourish myself with low-key activities where I can fly solo or recharge with my dog or one special friend; that looks like long walks, gardening and cooking.
What books, music or other media influenced you as a kid?
Very early on, my thoughts about what I could be and do in this world were formed via repeated viewings of the movie Free to Be You and Me, the wearing-out of my mom’s 8-tracks of the Beatles (c-lunk), and the reading of Choose Your Own Adventure books. I am also a child of MTV; to clarify, I got my MTV in 1981, when I was 9 years old, and it was the only TV I watched for a good four or five years. What I heard and saw fed my interest in the arts, history and the larger world around me. But what influenced me most as a kid were the cultural landscapes (urban planner jargon alert!) of my hometown, in particular, the Erie Canal and its palette of locks, lift bridges, scum jumpers, the towpath, black water, compact villages and railroad tracks.
Who were the three most influential people in your life as a kid?
My family was very influential in ways they weren’t trying to be; everyone’s family is. For instance, my mom inadvertently taught me that not everyone is dealt the same lot in life, but you need to keep going and try some things, darn it. And you need to keep your head up because you are worth something; and if you add in some luck, and have or quickly knit for yourself a small safety net, you can probably make it. She pulled my family out of some pretty awful circumstances when I was young. So I strongly believe life is approached best with a healthy mix of being accountable and stepping up and also realizing some of life can be the pits or is out of your control. My sister being six years older than me—and crazy smart—forever influenced me as well. I wanted to be her.
What books, music or other media influence you today?
In the last decade, I think the work of LCD Soundsystem, Buraka Som Sistema, and Hamilton (original Broadway cast recording) have brilliantly reflected pieces of history and culture through the glorious medium of music. Creativity, Inc. by Ed. Catmull and A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander are books that continue to shape me and my approaches to work. I am currently reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and it is helping me frame additional views of the immigrant experience. I am also a fan of the podcast “About Race” – which is hosted by black, white and brown folk who are unabashed in their dissection of current issues through the lens of race. I think the art and craft of the future, at least for me, is comedy. What Louis C.K, Chris Rock, Ali Wong, Amy Schumer and all their lesser-known colleagues do is brave, totally weird and world-changing.
Who are the three most influential people in your life today?
I am lucky to have a lot of people in my life that help me grow. Some of the most influential body of people in my life today are the Riverfront team members at the city of Asheville. I have learned so much about the best and worst parts of myself through working with this team on a shared vision. I have learned from people outside the city too, of course. So let me take advantage of your theme of influencers and recognize Tim Schaller. The fact that that he is such a big influence on me might be hidden to him. I have listened and watched him for many years, and he has had to make some hard decisions. He is industrious, funny, a family man, in love with Asheville, honest, adventurous, philanthropic and not afraid of making hard decisions.
What is your favorite quote?
“Know who you are and be that on purpose.” I think that is attributed to Dolly Parton.
How does Asheville influence you?
It’s the vortex. No, but really, Asheville and the Western North Carolina region have so much raw material that is awesome, it is just downright common to be inspired and passionate about this place. I’m just like everybody else; I love the national forest, the history of (mostly?) rejecting the Confederacy, The Block, the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers, Halloween in West Asheville, WRES and Asheville FM, old tobacco barns, ballad singing and the trees on Church Street. It seems like there are more spectacular glass and ceramic artists here than any other cities near our size. And I have an office in a piece of art: Asheville City Hall.
What makes you passionate about Asheville?
Where I might be different than some of your readers is that I embrace the tourists that are such a big part of Asheville’s current identity. Not to ignore the complexities of the issue, but I believe there is something to be said about tourism being in Asheville’s blood , and figuring out ways to make it work for all of us seems like a key to equitable economic growth. But that is a deeper conversation. What I can talk about in relation to that topic is there might be a need to work together to develop free (or low-cost) and family-friendly options for recreation and learning that provides great value to the citizens that live here and are inspiring. I believe public facilities can help define and celebrate a place, and support the making of memories for our citizens that will last a lifetime. The best places to live are places that people like to visit.
Is there a defining moment or experience in your life that led you to be the community-spirited person you are today?
There are two things that happened to me in my late 20s that completely changed the way I participated in my community. First, I got tired of being poor and taken advantage of and brought a lawsuit against my landlord for withholding my security deposit. I represented myself and my roommates and won; after that amount of effort, I was pretty keen on figuring out how I could improve the way life worked for not only me but other people. So I decided to enroll in college. I saw restaurant workers in my neighborhood dumping grease into the sewers. And guys with chainsaws reducing our street trees into stumps. I called the city of Atlanta and tried to find out what was going on. No one answered my calls. I told someone at Georgia State about it, and they said, “How would you like to know how government works? Why don’t you get your degree in public administration?” So I signed up.
If you had $50,000 to spend on your project, how would you spend it?
I would spend it on community engagement activities and on more in-depth communications that help tell the story of what the city is doing in the riverfront (or all over the city) and how they will benefit from it. We have an awesome communications team at the city, and as you can imagine, they work on a mean and lean budget. And you don’t really see grants for communications. However, communication is always a critical issue: If the government doesn’t do it well, they aren’t really transparent enough for the citizens to trust that tax dollars are being stewarded; and it’s an equity issue, if you don’t know what your city is up to, you cannot benefit from what they are doing. Second place is I’d spend it on a tree plan for the riverfront. But we’ve already submitted a grant for that (cross fingers!).
What keeps you awake at night?
The usual stuff. Figuring out ways to keep costs down. Thinking about how to get more funding for what the community wants. And for sure wondering about how this country is ever going to smooth the divide between rural, urban, black and white and all the other labels.
What can the community do to support your work and efforts?
Make a commitment to visit the artists and businesses in the River Arts District as construction of new roadways with bicycle lanes, rain gardens, sidewalks and street trees is happening over the next three years. You love local? Show them. Work with us to ensure these businesses, and the new ones on their way, have the opportunity to still be there when the construction is over.
What would you like your work’s lasting legacy to be?
I get to build on the work of many others, including visionary women like Karen Cragnolin, Susan Roderick and Pattiy Torno, and the result will be amazing. So that part is easy, and it’s a shared legacy. And I am positive we’ll be doing more placemaking in Asheville for years to come. The harder part: I’d like to help people feel heard and figure out how to make government more accessible to those that don’t quite know how to plug in; and I’d like to help the community see the value of local government not only providing core services like trash pickup and pothole repair, but making targeted investments in special districts, like the River Arts District, to improve quality of life throughout the city.