The Home Team Advantage
Stevie Brooks finds community in the place she already was
Shelby is like a lot of small towns in North Carolina– a sweet tree lined downtown with small shops, twinkling light bulbs on the old theater marquee, the smell of hickory and pork from Bridge’s Barbeque Lodge hanging in the air.
Nestled into the Foothills, it’s idyllic here — rolling hills, folks who say hey y’all when you walk past them on the sidewalk. No wonder Shelby is known as “The City of Pleasant Living.”
But, like so many Southern towns, Shelby has a sinister history: This is the hometown of Thomas Dixon Jr. whose books romanticizing the Ku Klux Klan were adapted into Birth of a Nation, the film considered responsible for the hate groups second resurgence. Fortunately, Dixon’s 1916 proposal to erect a statue of his Grand Dragon uncle– complete with a white hood– in downtown Shelby was rejected, but the town did put up a statue of a Confederate soldier on the court square which remains to this day.
Does this monument at the center of town really represent Shelby? Is it true that this is a place where nothing changes? Stevie Brooks, for one, doesn’t think so.
Stevie has lived in Shelby almost all of her life. “Growing up it was somewhere to get away from,” she explains. “All my friends wanted to go to Eastern Carolina University because it was near the beach, or get away to New York City. We left when we could. We tried to eliminate our accents. It was always about stripping away anything to do with Cleveland County.”
Stevie left Shelby for two years but has since returned to raise her own family here. “When I came back it was out of necessity. I had a daughter. It was a recession, so I came home.” Coming back was hard for Stevie and her husband– even with degrees finding decent, well paying jobs was difficult. He worked in retail and she worked in a restaurant to make ends meet.
Despite the hardship, the town itself drew Stevie back in. “I started to love how great it was for everyone to know me and care about me. I thought it could be really enriching for my daughter. Everyone could know her, too. That’s what it did for me and so it could do it for her too.”
Outsiders and people in the metropolitan area of nearby Charlotte often insult or stereotype people in Cleveland County, and Stevie found herself being defensive of the community and her neighbors who treated her so well. She found that she no longer wanted to escape Shelby, but wanted now to dig her roots deep and stay.
“I never thought I’d say it, but I actually love Shelby. It’s absolutely home.”
It’s fall and Stevie is sitting on the back deck of Hannah’s Coffee House, steam pouring up around her face from a paper coffee cup. She glances at her watch, mindful of needing to pick up her daughter from school.
Hannah’s is nestled into a 1950’s strip mall next to Ora’s Supermarket and Hams. Stevie greets nearly everyone passing through. “For better or for worse, everyone knows each other here,” she says, shaking her head and smiling. “I had my daughter at 19 and everyone seemed to know before I did!” In small towns, things that are burdens are often blessings, and vice versa.
“Shelby is resource deprived. The textile [mills] closed down a long time ago and impacted the development of both the city and county. This impacts economic growth but our personal growth too,” she observes.
“When you have voids, they get filled with all sorts of stuff. There is lots of conservative and religious messaging around here and it gets backed into how we do things. For example, instead of having a homeless shelter funded by the state or the county, it’s funded by a ministry. When I once needed help paying for a light bill, I was given a list of churches. That makes it feel like we need those conservative things in order to function, and I don’t think we do.”
Between the town’s contentious racial history and it’s deep religious conservatism, Stevie has often felt out of place in Shelby. “People in my peer group, we’ve been frustrated. We are a post 9/11 generation and we watched it happen in school. We asked: What the hell is going on? We developed a general awareness of what nationalism is and its threat. You grow liberal as a disruption, as a form of resistance, to something you don’t see working for people.”
“People say Shelby is changing and I suppose it is. We are getting people from both Charlotte and Asheville [moving here]. To me that’s a positive but to other locals it’s threatening. The sense is they are bringing more liberal ideas– but those ideas were already here. I think: I’m not an outsider. I feel this way and I’m from here.”
It was this realization that led Stevie to want to invest in her hometown, not try again to move away. The Catch-22 of a small town is often feeling alone, even when you think you know everyone.
“Somehow this place made me this way, I can’t be the only one,” she thought.
“Covid, loneliness, and anxiety inspired me.” Stevie laughs when she explains how she started Shelby Women for Progress. She is being coy, but there are truths there.
In 2020, Stevie created a Facebook group as a way for local women to connect during the Covid shutdowns– schools were closed, many people lost their jobs or began working from home, and already isolated small towns like Shelby felt, well, even more isolated. The page description for the group read: “A safe place for the progressive women of Shelby to share ideas and organize.”
“I used to visit Greensboro or Asheville so I could be immersed in progressivism. Going there was such a stark contrast to how it felt for me and my husband back in Cleveland County. I would watch my friends in these places be a part of things, but back here you didn’t feel like you could even put an Obama sign in your yard!”
During Covid, Stevie could no longer “escape” to other places to fit in. That’s when she decided to start the Facebook group. She made it for women only, because it seemed like there were already a lot of spaces for men’s voices– such as on the all-male school board or in church leadership. She was shocked at how it took off.
“It kept ballooning! Everyone wanted to be in it!” she laughs, still looking surprised two years later.
It turns out that people in Shelby were looking for a place to connect that was outside the existing, traditional structures and places where they hadn’t always felt welcome. The Shelby Women for Progress Facebook group was a place to vent, to share ideas, to join in discussion and debate. The platform quickly grew beyond Stevie’s friends and the people she knew. Soon over 400 people had joined. Then 450. It kept growing.
“Women came up and tapped me on the shoulder and would say ‘I’m in the group!’” She was surprised by its success because she had always assumed she was alone.
“I thought it was my own issue — these mixed feelings of frustration and love for Shelby — but it wasn’t just me.”
In the Spring of 2022, Stevie joined the first class of Down Home North Carolina’s fellowship program as a way to explore the mechanics of organizing and figure out the next steps for the group she had, almost accidentally, created.
The Shelby Women for Progress Facebook page had grown to nearly 500 participants– a big deal in a town of less than 20,000– and it was nearly two years old. Stevie had developed strict guidelines to control what she calls “small town-ness” and the page’s moderators helped participants navigate between information and gossip. It bustled along with posts and healthy debates, but Stevie felt like local women were now looking to her for something more.
“It was a self-interest training early on in the fellowship that really helped me think about things,” explains Stevie. She remembers taking out a little red notebook she keeps on her and feverishly jotting down notes. “It was that night that I realized that we had built something in Shelby and that I had an opportunity to do something with it or let it be forgotten.”
Almost 500 women in Facebook group could turn into real local power if organized, she realized.
“That night I messaged the moderators and said ‘we need to take this offline.” Shelby Women for Progress organized their first in person event and 30 local women came out. The next event brought even more– and they kept growing. “I knew we had to build quickly, because an election was coming up and if we could mobilize our group, then we could actually influence change.”
In 2020, women in the group had worked in local elections: “We were mostly just scattered poll greeters, poll workers, and I was actually an inside poll monitor that year,” Stevie says. But this year she wanted to do more. “I began to believe that we can win.”
“The fellowship really helped me with organizing and understanding where our members could best be used this election,” she explains. Members of Shelby Women for Progress started to work to get behind progressive candidates and mobilize people to the polls.
The group was now becoming more than just like minded women bound by location– they could be force for change. Stevie developed an advisory board and helped other women be a part of the Shelby Women for Progress leadership and decision making. Together they created a mission statement and crafted intentional meeting agendas, moving their events from simple gatherings and into organized spaces with goals and outcomes.
“I realized during the election we could get momentum behind candidates. We could all lean in at once and work as a group.”
Shelby Women for Progress didn’t flip Cleveland County blue in one election, but that’s not how you measure progress in small towns in the South.
Two group members are now on City Council– a huge first step. Additionally, Stevie explains that her group recently had 30 women attend a school board meeting. She is currently working to help people sign up and become comfortable speaking out at public events, registering their voices. “Most of us have kids here in the schools. We are all here, from here, we should get a say.”
Shelby Women for Progress is is working to have members on other boards around town, a process she calls “having eyes and ears in spaces.” Stevie just applied to be on the Board of Adjustments herself. The immediate vision of the group post-elections is to create candidate support so progressive candidates don’t feel alone in the county when they run or when they win.
Stevie looks at her watch again– it’s now time to get her daughter. She has long finished her coffee and kneels down to tie her shoelace before throwing away the cup. Looking up again thoughtfully she adds: “I know I talk about the numbers a lot– 480 women. And I know that sounds small if you aren’t from here. But it’s what it represents here that matters. A group like that means permission.”
Permission to be progressive. Permission to ask for change. Permission to be here and say you are from here and that your opinions matter.
‘It’s safety in numbers,” she continues. “It’s people who are advocating for you and helping you advocate for yourself. It feels less like you are sticking your neck out when you have a group and realize the group has been here all along.”
“It’s the home team’s advantage.”