In 2018, the Selma Historical Museum was awarded an arts grant from the North Carolina Arts Council to do four projects in Selma. Out of the meetings to organize and execute those projects came the desire to have… more meetings (something some of us can hardly fathom). But four Selma citizens in particular had a passion for sustainable growth and a vision to see Selma’s Downtown flourish.

Four of us wanted to keep meeting every Wednesday at 9 am at the Selma Visitors Center to see what changes we could continue to spark in Selma,” said Cindy Brookshire, facilitator for Activate Selma. Those four were Donna Reid with Reid’s Country Sampler, Jeffery Hamilton with Live @ The Rudy (and now, Coffee on Raiford), Cindy Brookshire (facilitator of the Johnston County Writers Group) and Melissa Dooley (event planner for Town of Selma Parks & Rec).

They began meeting in December of 2018 and started inviting others. The template for the meeting was to allow each person five minutes to talk about what positive actions they are doing to help themselves and to help Selma.  The group worked to shut down any “broken record” stories of the past or complaints about the town, and put on the back burner any huge problems they couldn’t address. The idea was to be sounding-boards and cheerleaders for each other’s businesses and projects.
 

Man reaching over wooden counter holding an ice cream cone and bag of popcorn


The group, now calling themselves Activate Selma, gained 75 active members. On any given Wednesday, 6 to 14 people show up to the meetings (non-members are also always welcome).  And the group purposely moves meetings around – this week at the American Legion Post 141, next week at the Pixie Dust Lunch Box and Bakery Shoppe, etc. The group has so far rotated through over 20 different meeting spots, which helps members explore locations and businesses they may not have before.

“I like to compare Activate Selma to the peanut. Many crops remove nutrients from soil, but peanuts replenish nutrients in soil. Unfortunately, Selma’s business soil has been barren for a while. Active Selma is replenishing the nutrients in the business soil of Selma, making it a fertile ground for businesses to flourish,” said Michael Sneed, Owner of Selma’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream. “I'm thankful to be able to help repair the business soil here in Selma; sharing the Activate Selma journey via social media has gathered us a loyal following.  Last week, I had a couple from Poland visit the ice cream parlor.”


Exterior of Florist Store with two girls chatting on a bench


It is important to see economic vitality as a circle of benefits in which business development, tourism, and community activism work together. A great place to do business means having a great place for your employees to live, and a great place to live is a great place to visit, and a well visited place is a great place to do businesses, and so the circle goes.

When asked about the name, Brookshire said, “The name grew out of what we individually are doing – activating ourselves. When we make changes ourselves, we see changes start to happen around us. We are purposely grassroots, at the street level. We keep a positive dialogue and communication going, and bring in more voices from an ever-widening representation of people.”

What Activate Selma is accomplishing is urging business owners and everyday citizens into individual action that is then supported and promoted by the group. Sure, there are high-level political and governmental projects and policies that they can’t tackle. But, change is often a snowball effect. The incremental changes the group has worked to facilitate are still seen and appreciated by locals and visitors alike; these locals and visitors are then more likely to return and to share their positive experiences. More foot traffic to a place like Downtown Selma can often be the catalyst that kicks off those larger, higher-level projects. In addition, having an activated local citizenry is more likely to appeal to developers looking for thriving downtowns.

“We’re using what we learn to give visitors a walkable small-town experience in Selma – to stick around after the Polar Bear 5K Run to drink hot chocolate in the coffee shop, take a selfie in front of the themed wall at the antique store, or try out the musical kinetic bench in the ice cream parlor,” said Brookshire. “And we amplify our efforts by strengthening our relationships with the Triangle East Chamber, JCC’s Small Business Center, the Johnston County Arts Council, the Johnston County Visitors Bureau, and more.”
 

Street Art at Selma Jewelry by artist Lacey Crime.


Since its inception, Activate Selma has accomplished the following:

  • A store owner’s new excitement over a business she’s managed two decades. She designed a selfie wall inside her store for tourists to take photos, and freshens it as the seasons change. (pictured above)
  • A minister started drum lessons with youth in a vacant storefront and is engaging other musicians.
  • A store owner moved her small flower shop to a larger location on Raiford Street and expanded it with a whole new concept of not just selling flowers but teaching workshops at her “flower bar.”
  • Helping two new barbers make connections to grow their brand/niche of giving back to the community by helping youth.
  • Encouraging two entrepreneurs as they worked on renovating three new businesses that opened up on Raiford Street.
  • Supporting non-brick-and-mortar efforts Johnston County Writers Group hosting open mics, write-ins, and meet-the-author events in the park or the coffee shop.
  • Starting to also gather monthly to watch webinars by Roger Brooks, a national expert in developing downtowns as tourist destinations.
  • Working on Google-translating the Activate e-news into Spanish to reach out to more Hispanic business owners, volunteers, and residents.


Then Covid-19 hit.

While the pandemic closed many meeting places, the group moved their meetings to Zoom, and then masked and socially distanced meetings outside. Activate Selma members continued to work on both individual and collective action. They used collective knowledge to assist business owners with improving their social media presence and amplifying product and service offerings.
 

Tourquise Picnic Table


As for the future, Brookshire says that Selma has set goals and objectives in its 2040 land use plan, but Activate Selma realizes that the town needs residents, volunteers, and business owners to support those goals, “A new town website is coming that promises to give us more information in an easier-to-access format. The town is streaming public meetings and sending out more information on social media. The council has started open community forums that are more informal so that anyone can participate in a direct dialogue with council members. All those former gaps in communication are being plugged in. That’s a GREAT thing!”

Activate Selma is determined to make Selma’s downtown area a draw, with small year-round activities and public art that engages residents from feeder-neighborhoods and brings people from other places to shop, dine, and have fun.
 

A group of people pose in front of a historic building in the sunshine

Update: The much-awaited book, A Heart for Selma: 12 Stories of Activate Selma NC, written by Pine Level writer Cindy Brookshire, shares 12 personal stories of Selma, North Carolina residents, volunteers, and business owners who are revitalizing and uplifting their beloved rail community and all it has to offer. Katja Jentes of ProverbsPhotography shot all the photos in the book, including the book cover.

Twenty-three community members participated in the project and two national experts, Roger Brooks of DestinationDevelopment.org and Charles L. Marohn Jr. of StrongTowns.org endorsed Activate Selma’s grassroots work. The writing of A Heart for Selma: 12 Stories of Activate Selma NC, is a project supported by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County and the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Originally from Veracruz, Mexico, Sergio Benitez and his sister, Oralia Benitez (in their story, “Everyone Needs a Tiara”) co-hosted Fiesta de Raiford as the gran reapertura of their brick-and-mortar Sola Creations Boutique in the former Creech Drugstore. Readers of the book will see Spook Joyner of Live @ The Rudy, unplugged, reflecting on the twists ’n’ turns of his half-century music career. Ten more stories take readers along with Zena Hamilton-Rose (“A Cup of Coffee”) as she masters everything from a jackhammer drill to a squatting, belching espresso steamer to get her Coffee on Raiford shop open. “Repair the Land” follows entrepreneur Michael Sneed (Old Fashioned Ice Cream and Appliance Boot Camp) who entertains his Facebook and YouTube followers as he teaches them to start their own businesses. “I just turn on the camera, walk down the street, and encounter life!” says Michael. “People find that interesting. And it is, you know?”

The stories close with a reflection on how council member Byron McAllister is the embodiment of Mayor Pro Tem Jacqueline Lacy’s decades-long quest to break down the psychological barrier the railroad tracks represent to town progress (“The Future Walked In”). A Heart for Selma: 12 Stories of Activate Selma NC is available online at www.activateselmanc.com. In August the book will be stocked at these Selma locations: Coffee on Raiford, Old Fashioned Ice Cream, Reid’s Country Sampler, Selma Cotton Mill and Sola Creations Boutique, as well as the Johnston County Heritage Center in Smithfield.

 

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~Margaret Mead