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Congratulations to the 2022 third-round winners of the Tzedek Impact Awards! The Tzedek Impact Awards honor individuals who have engaged in systems change or community healing work in the Asheville region using the wisdom gained by directly navigating systems of oppression. We are deeply inspired by the work of these leaders and are honored to celebrate their past achievements.
For Alydia Yvette Monahan, volunteerism sparked activism. As a high school senior, Alydia volunteered as a tutor with El Centro Comunitario Hispano-Americano of Transylvania County, a local resource hub for Latine students and their families. This service deepened her understanding of the complex social, political, and cultural challenges confronting Latine communities. Alydia has since leveraged her experience as a bisexual, biracial woman to fuel her advocacy and outreach. Alydia’s collaborative, judgment-free allyship centers youth education and voter engagement, including partnering with the Democracy Project of Transylvania to inform, improve, and increase youth voter participation.
Ash Timmons is a trans, nonbinary human resources (HR) professional committed to anti-racist, intersectional approaches to advancing workplace Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) and second-chance hiring initiatives. As the HR Coordinator and EDI Council Co-Chair at MANNA FoodBank, Ash co-founded and co-led the LGBTQ+ Affinity group, the first of its kind at MANNA. Additionally, Ash implemented more equitable HR policies and practices by cultivating meaningful partnerships with local change agents, including Inclusive Hiring Partners, the Land of Sky Regional Council Workforce Development team, and the Aisha Adams Media Group. Rooted in community, Ash’s HR leadership merges the professional and the personal in search of the transformational.
Nonbinary, transmasculine artist, activist, and stylist Crain Cutler-Gutiérrez has modeled an innovative, interpersonal approach to LGBTQ+ and racial equity advocacy. As part of the Strands for Trans network, Crain provided free haircuts to queer community members. He routinely offered no-cost styling to persons arrested during social justice work, trans or queer youth, and BIPOC individuals as part of his commitment to reparations. Crain founded Queering the Arts and volunteered with the Campaign for Southern Equality, including facilitating the Southern Equality Studios’ monthly “Queer Artist Meetup.” Additionally, Crain served on the Revolve Board of Directors and as The Steady Collective Board Co-Chair.
Afroindigenous, queer, femme-bodied visionary Ember Phoenix started a healing collective to directly support community building, resilience, and resource sharing amongst local Black, Indigenous, Latine, and other folks of color. Ember integrated sacred ancestral teachings and practices as key to unraveling the traumas inflicted by colonization and the ongoing effects of white supremacist culture. Using an interdependent “I am because we are” model, Ember helped create a deep, intentional space for the Collective to learn, grow, grieve, and thrive together. Many people and organizations have contributed to this community success story, including Southside Community Farm, Shiloh Community Garden, Yesod Farm+Kitchen, Asheville Writers in the Schools, Word on the Street, Oye Collective, and Asheville for Justice.
Kit Molina-Nauert is a queer person of color whose commitment to antiracist activism has brought her to the frontlines and sidelines of affordable housing advocacy efforts targeting gentrification and displacement in Black legacy neighborhoods. Kit has been an active member of the Just Economics Affordable Housing Strategy Team, Asheville Buncombe Community Land Trust, and CoThinkk. She also volunteered as a Housing and Community Development Committee watcher with the Racial Justice Coalition and served on CoThinkk’s Annual Event Planning and BIPOC Decision-Making Committees. Similarly, Kit’s talents supported the Keep It Moving Coalition’s core organizing team in providing continued racial equity learning for Racial Equity Institute and Building Bridges participants.
KP Whaley joined the Asheville FM team in 2017 after jumpstarting his community/public radio career as a volunteer producer of news and queer talk programming 13 years earlier. As part of the Asheville FM team, KP continued to highlight queer, trans, and BIPOC stories, including amplifying these voices with the June 2022 launch of Sweet Tea, a queer radio talk show celebrating everything LGBTQ+ in Asheville. Off air, KP and his husband, Ed, own and operate Tiny Bridge Farm, a small organic farm in Hendersonville. The couple partnered with Tierra Fértil Coop to build and feed community. KP’s ongoing investment in community collaboration involves a long list of WNC social justice partners, including the WNC Food Justice program, Blue Ridge Pride, and the WNC Black Business Expo, to name a few.
After personally struggling with the disease of addiction and ills of institutional racism infecting U.S. judicial systems, Matthew Bacoate III dedicated over 30 years to improving recovery options and experiences for communities of color. Using a 12-step framework, Matthew created Life on Life’s Terms – an Asheville-based, POC-centered, intensive, residential recovery program using peer mentoring and job placement services to improve success rates. The initiative became the first Community Re-entry program in the state and the first to receive Governor’s Crime Commission support. The program served over 6,000 individuals and families and spurred additional program and intervention development, the impacts of which remain today.
For Michelle Cervantez, what began as a breakdown ended as a breakthrough culminating in the co-founding of the Angel K Love Project (AKLP), a farm-based non-profit organization whose mission is to provide love and healing to kids in need of holistic models of therapy. After suffering the loss of her girlfriend Karina in 2012, Michelle confronted the grief, shame, and fear she held as a Hispanic lesbian navigating a society scarred by racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since then, Michelle and her wife Amy have walked the path of healing by helping others. As the Executive Director of AKLP, Michelle centered LGBTQIA+ youth, BIPOC communities, and others pushed to the margins. Over the last two years, AKLP has spread its impact and reach through community collaborations with Under One Sky Village Foundation, Lake House Academy, Bullington Gardens, and Bliss Your Soul.
Empress Nnweyna Smith identifies as an educated, Black Queen and single mother working for racial justice in the South. By day, Empress Nnweyna served as the Associate Coordinator of Helpmate’s Rapid Rehousing Housing Program, providing safe housing access to survivors of intimate partner violence. By night, this cultivator of positive change pursued sustainable solutions to elevate local entrepreneurs of color, including creating Sankofa Market AVL as a platform to showcase Asheville’s Black-Owned business sector and build community cohesiveness. Empress Nnweyna served on the YWCA Asheville and Parent Next Door boards and as a member of the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and the Human Relations Commission of Asheville.
As a licensed acupuncturist and co-founder of The People’s Acupuncture of Asheville, Sam Soemardi prioritized community health and collective healing over profit. His innovative spirit has proven essential to The People’s success. Sam implemented a sliding-scale community acupuncture care model to ensure access to affordable, long-term Chinese medicine services. He also established the Acupuncture Free Clinics of Appalachia (AFCA) to provide free acupuncture treatments in BIPOC communities, including serving unhoused people at the Haywood Street Church as part of local COVID-19 relief efforts. Additionally, he held three on-site clinics for La Esperanza Building occupants and staff as part of La Milpa’s 2022 Self Care and Art Salons pilot project.
Stephanie Hickling Beckman is an artistic trailblazer who founded Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective to challenge deeply ingrained structures and systems of oppression rooted in Asheville’s performing arts community. Stephanie’s theater-based activism has spotlighted the methods and impacts of systemic racism while simultaneously improving compensation, opportunities, and support for local BIPOC artists. Stephanie was honored as the recipient of the 2018 Evan Mahaney Champion of Civil Liberties Award. She has served on the Montford Park Players, Magnetic Theatre, Asheville Community Theatre, Western North Carolina AIDS Project, Youth OUTright, and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of NC’s Western NC Chapter boards of directors, as well as on the YWCA’s Stand Against Racism Committee and as an in-class Arts mentor for Asheville High School and Drama-UNCA. Her racial and LGBTQIA advocacy work continues to evolve in her role as ArtsAVL’s Arts Equity Committee Chair.
At just 17 years old, Stephen Smith was handed a conviction that landed him in prison for the next 16 years. He seized the opportunity to get educated, motivated, and inspired. This experience revealed how lack of wealth and mass incarceration hindered Black community progress. In 2009, he emerged as a man on a mission to break the recidivism cycle responsible for cannibalizing generations of Black bodies and families. Smith started “Returning Citizens,” a reentry program aimed at bringing awareness to the lack of assistance afforded to formerly incarcerated individuals in hopes of addressing these gaps. Smith’s program has since evolved into what is now the Buncombe County Reentry Council. As a Black business owner, Stephen partnered with Buncombe County and the City of Asheville to address racial disparities in local government contracting. His long list of community collaborators also includes Weed and Seed, Mountain Bizworks, Carolina Small Business Development Fund, and Green Opportunities.
Since 2016, Tanya Rodriguez has stretched yoga to new limits during her weekly classes at Black Mountain Substance Abuse Treatment Center for Women. Each class was designed to be a safe, compassionate, inclusive space where residents could deepen their awareness, explore new perspectives, and open their hearts to appreciating differences. Her skilled use of mindful debiasing techniques helped balance the inherent challenges of navigating inherited and outdated cultural narratives regarding race, supremacy, and recovery. As such, Tanya crafted a responsive program to uplift and support women affected by and recovering from addiction by sharing the knowledge and language needed to speak out and stand up against injustice and oppression in their lives and communities.
If you are down with solidarity, Cousin TL Allen is ready to welcome you into the family. TL, better known as Cousin TL, is an Asheville FM DJ, host, producer, and commentator committed to advancing human and civil rights in and across Western North Carolina. While TL’s Stank Free Radio show highlights his love of good music and great times, his outreach extends beyond the airwaves. When COVID-19 quarantine hit, TL produced a second radio show to aid those struggling under pandemic conditions by offering a space to connect while also providing information on how to access food, mental health support, and other essential community resources. Additionally, TL has served on the Friends of Community Radio board and as a volunteer with Beloved Asheville and MANNA Food Bank. TL leveraged his platform to promote local community organizational efforts, including sharing Our VOICE events and public service announcements to spread awareness and increase service utilization.
Sincere thanks to these Impact Award recipients and to the countless others who have poured their hearts into the myriad of brilliant, beautiful efforts to make Asheville a more equitable, inclusive place where all people and communities can thrive.