Photo by Brett Villena. 

How did you get into this work?

I’ve spent most of my career serving marginalized populations primarily at the intersections of race, class, ability, and also age, and doing so within the human services field, law enforcement, public health, education, and the court system. 

It was particularly the work that I did in St. Louis, as the diversity, equity, and trauma director for Education Plus. Initially, I was hired to do community building, culture and climate work, and I realized that before we could really focus on belonging we had to address the fact that there were diversity issues. Within that community it is extremely segregated, and so I could not address culture without addressing issues related to race and oppression. 

How did you end up in Chapel Hill?

Last year, I was missing family and wanted to get closer to North Carolina. And then the pandemic hit, and we were all sitting still, and we watched George Floyd’s agonizing and protracted murder unfold on TV. I grieved holding space, and providing opportunities for people to experience community, and so I began looking for opportunities for diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Chapel Hill … was … moving in the right direction. They were forming the Reimagining Community Task Force. Town manager Maurice Jones really assured me that he was committed to this work and I was sold.

What do you see as some of the biggest goals or needs for Chapel Hill ?

I am learning … the Chapel Hillian way, if you will. The Town, like most municipalities, has to follow a framework, and so when I think about the most pressing needs, they have to go in this order, thinking about it from the individual, institutional, and structural level. 

At the individual level, we have to normalize the conversation around race. That is uncomfortable for people, it can be, and so part of my role is normalizing that process. 

For the organization, I’m tasked with creating a strategic equity plan. We need a framework, infrastructure, tools that will help us to uncover and address biases within our policies and practices. 

Most pressing, if I had to rank them, I would definitely say inclusion. How do we make room at our existing tables, or create more tables for historically marginalized people, to have voice and choice in developing strategies that change what we uncover, and how they help us to uncover those things? 

How does it feel to be the first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer in the town?

There’s lots of identifying and creating and developing, and that’s the benefit and the burden of being the first.  

Here, we’re building things in the process, and that’s exciting. I wake up feeling incredibly blessed and determined to show up as an authentic Shenekia Weeks, ready to face those challenges. 

And there will be challenges, but those challenges will ultimately bring about community healing. Racial equity, social equity, social justice—that’s healing work. Inequities cause oppressive conditions, and that harms people. Oppression is, for certain, a formidable foe. 

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