–Article by David Menconi
If you have yet to encounter Soteria Shepperson, it’s certainly not because she hasn’t been out and about. A genuinely indefatigable “artivist,” Shepperson claims to identify as “Espresso” – and puts in a schedule worthy of such a title. Shepperson does a dizzying amount of work in both art and activism centered on the Carrboro coffee shop that she co-owns with her partner Sophie Suberman, Present Day on Main – winner of a 2021 Pauli Murray Award, presented for the business’s “pursuit of equality, justice, and human rights for all residents” in Orange County.
Shepperson and Suberman are also co-founders of Grow Your World, a non-profit with a mission of developing youth community engagement; a racial-equity consultant for a range of area groups and organizations including the Interfaith Council for Social Services; and a musician/artist who performs in schools and prisons and also ringleads regular happenings, “I Am Soteria & Friends,” crowd-funded through her Patreon.
“I try to use art to talk about issues, injustice, hardship,” she says. “Whatever your hard thing to deal with is, sprinkle in some art in there and people tend to hear it more.”
A 35-year-old native of Richmond, Va., Shepperson was the first member of her family to graduate from college (George Mason University). If her original plan had worked out, she would be in the latter stages of a professional basketball career. But after a series of injuries derailed her hoop dreams, Shepperson chose poetry as the path to pursue.
“I turned my focus more to activism and artivism, even though I did not yet have language for what I was doing,” she says. “Poetry’s what I did first. My mom was a Southern Baptist minister and I grew up in a very traditional church where you did not get to ask a lot of questions. So I’d write about my curiosity and frustration in poems. One day a woman said to me, ‘You should let others hear this.’ So I started sharing it.”
Writing poems eventually turned into writing and recording songs, with lyrics inspired by events both far away and close to home. Her latest song “A Long Way From Home” (which she is working on getting properly recorded) was triggered by a series of personal losses, including the death of a beloved aunt figure from her childhood.
Getting other people to participate is an ongoing project for Shepperson, using whatever media is at hand. A regular feature of her Facebook page is her “Courageous” series, in which she asks, “What’s 1 courageous thing you did this week?” It’s something she began doing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in May of 2020, to get people to share what they’ve done to empower themselves and inspire others. They’ve responded with reports of everything from safety improvements in the home to major career moves.
“People have left toxic jobs, said no to people, done all kinds of things,” she says. “Courage is a muscle you develop. You don’t just wake up one day saying, ‘I’m gonna jump in front of somebody being unjustly murdered today.’ It’s one step and one day at a time in increments, embodying power to save lives. Little sprinkles of courage that snowball into something greater and bigger.”
For the most part, Shepperson tries to tie her endeavors together in such a way that she herself is her own best ongoing art project.
“It’s all about living legacy,” she says. “What are you doing in your life now to be remembered? If time were to stop, would you be proud of who you’ve become? Have you taken every possible opportunity to live your true calling and destiny? The type of artist I strive to be is not just hitting the perfect note or knowing all the worlds. If I can change one person’s life today, I want to do that with my imperfect self. End of the day, that’s enough.”