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Monday January 30th

“I Am Soteria” is more than just an introduction for local ‘artivist’ Soteria Shepperson

<p>Soteria Shepperson organized the event ‘Black Friday' as part of her performance platform “I Am Soteria”. Shepperson focuses on social issues like racism and equality at her events. Photo courtesy of Soteria Shepperson.</p>
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Soteria Shepperson organized the event ‘Black Friday' as part of her performance platform “I Am Soteria”. Shepperson focuses on social issues like racism and equality at her events. Photo courtesy of Soteria Shepperson.

The string lights of the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, North Carolina are dim, as a black and white projection of Muhammad Ali speaks to an audience in the pit below. To the left of the screen an artist on stage silently paints a canvas, and band members under the video prepare their instruments. 

As Ali fades out and the band begins to play, the bedazzled shirt of Soteria Shepperson is guided by a purple light that illuminates the stage at her entrance.

“We redefinin’ what it means to be Black,” Shepperson shouts her opening line during "Black Friday," her first Headliner event, part of her performance platform “I Am Soteria.”

Shepperson began her platform in 2019, but had been exploring the idea for about five years before then through her brand of motivational speaking, music and poetry that fights injustice and racism. 

Along with starting the nonprofit “Grow Your World” and beginning her own networking and poetry brand, Shepperson is also the Inter-Faith Council for Social Services’ new Race, Equity, Action and Leadership coordinator and co-manager of Carrboro coffee shop Johnny’s Gone Fishin’. 

Under her brand, Shepperson has organized or performed at over 17 events, including venues like Red Hat Amphitheater, alongside artists like Chance the Rapper, and the Women’s March in Raleigh. During both, Shepperson performed her own poetry.

“Soteria has a magic to her of being able to keep a focus on racial justice, and create an event that allows everyone, whether they're black, persons of color, white, whatever to feel a part of,” said Jamie Jacobs, executive director at Reintegration Support Network.  

Shepperson met Jacobs through the Johnson Service Corps, an organization focused on engaging young adults in a year of social justice work through spiritual practice. Working with the Service Corps was one of her most impactful jobs, Shepperson said. 

It even helped her to travel outside of the country for the first time to Cologne, Germany. She said growing up, the only two ways to leave the country were through the military and playing sports. When she arrived, she expected Germany to be different from America, but didn’t expect for a country to alter her self-image. 

“It’s the first time in my life I felt like a human being first, a woman second and then Black — I was like, 'I've never felt my own humanity before,’” Shepperson said. “In America I am always Black first, I may be given the privilege of being a woman and then I may be given the privilege of my humanity. But nothing trumps being Black in America.” 

Shepperson said she realized something overseas after almost being hit by a car out of confusion: the people on pedestrian crossing lights in America are white, while the rest of the world sticks to green. 

She said it seems like it would be easy for America to change something so small that is still somehow racist. 

For her, “I Am Soteria” is the perfect space to artistically comment on everything from these crossing lights to the dangers of privilege to redefining what it means to be Black in America. 

“Most of the stages I have, the audience is filled with white people,” Shepperson said. “And as a Black person, when you stand on stage at the Haw River Ballroom, and you realize that you got white people in the audience, Black people, Latinx people, Asian people in the f***ing audience, and they're just standing beside each other when nobody had been murdered, nobody was there protesting and nobody got shot.” 

Before graduating from George Mason University as a first-generation college student, Shepperson thought the only way she would leave Richmond, Virginia was on a basketball scholarship. At least, that was her expectation before two knee surgeries and a shoulder surgery. 

“So I started writing poetry, and in high school, I kind of started sharing it here and there,” Shepperson said.  

Not only did her childhood influence the start of “I Am Soteria,” but also the start of a non-profit she began with her co-worker and partner Sophie Suberman, “Grow Your World.”  

“She is honest and raw and funny and poignant, and she has a way of saying something that doesn't hit you, until a month or two later,” Suberman said. 

The mission of the organization is to introduce middle schoolers to networks and possibilities that they would otherwise lack because of accessibility, something Shepperson said she didn’t have growing up. 

“I always use the story of how I never saw a Black, female scientist until I was 30 years old,” Shepperson said. “So growing up I knew I could be a Black female scientist, but the first time I met a Black female scientist is because she wanted me to come to her job for Black History Month and share poetry.”

Dipping her toes in many different jobs and projects means they occasionally blend together, like her newest event “I Am Soteria & Friends: Turning the Tables.” At an event held Sept. 19, the collaborative project unveiled the work of several local artists from marginalized backgrounds, who transformed the picnic tables of Johnny’s outdoor seating to vibrant paintings. 

While COVID-19 is still an obstacle for her in-person performances, Shepperson knows that her poetry will help her be there for others, whether it’s on Zoom calls or in the outdoor seating at Johnny’s. 

“It's always like poetry is bringing me here,” Shepperson said. “I don't think I'm the best speaker or the most profound person, I just really try to relate and connect with where I am in that moment, and make sure I'm not doing it for myself.”

@EmmyTrivette

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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