Published August 24, 2021 at 11:30am.
Story by Anna Adami. Photos courtesy of Dwell with Dignity.
While the word house denotes a building, home is harder to define. For some, home is a concept rooted in place. It is a blue tablecloth on a kitchen table, or the lullaby of the interstate, or an oak tree’s gnarled knees. Or home is rooted in people: blood family or chosen family or sacred solitude. Sometimes home is where the soul lives, but the body doesn’t. Like a homeland, a daydream, or a mother tongue. For Ashley Sharp, director of Dwell with Dignity, Dallas County is home. But for her, home is also more than place. Home is a sense of safety, comfort, and inclusion.
Ashley comes from a Venezuelan mother and a Haitian-Swiss father. When she was young, she grew up in Munich, Germany, a short distance from family in Switzerland. “I went to an international school,” she explains, “so it was incredibly diverse. My parents had a global approach to life and learning.”
When the family moved to the suburbs of Allen, Texas, things changed. “It was interesting,” Ashley says, “because there weren’t any Black kids. My dad couldn’t even join a golf club because of his skin color. I didn’t notice anything like that when I lived in Germany. Then I moved here and it was like, oh, I’m different.”
Diversity and inclusion became decisive factors for Ashley in shaping her own life and home. As an adult, she chose to live in Grand Prairie so she could raise her kids in a diverse community. Economic and cultural diversity factored into her career choices as well. After working for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and then the Nasher Sculpture Center, Ashley chose to shift her career towards social services. “I went from serving clientele that spend millions of dollars on one piece of art to serving women who were sleeping in their cars,” she says.
At Dwell with Dignity, Ashley and her team design and install home interiors for families who need an environment that will support health and wellness, helping families escape poverty and homelessness through design; one household at a time. “We want to create a sense of safety and comfort for these families,” Ashley says, “where they walk into their newly designed space and they feel like they can breathe for the first time in years. We have groceries for them. We have a hot meal for their first night. They have a beautiful new space in which to build memories. And that’s what home is, right? It’s traditions and memories. It’s dinners at the table. Doing homework together. Snuggling and watching a movie. But if you don’t have a couch and you’re sleeping on the floor on an air mattress, how can you even think about creating that life with your kids? You’re just trying to figure out how to get through the next day.”
Ashley’s empathy for Dwell with Dignity participants is boundless. She cannot go to a housing reveal without crying. “When I meet these parents, especially the single mothers, I know what they’ve been through,” Ashley says. “Though the details may be different, we all just want what’s best for our kid.”
“A few years ago,” Ashley confides, “I went through a really bad divorce. I became a single mom.” Ashley moved her two-year-old into a new place. His bedroom was the first room she set up. “I wanted him to come in and feel a sense of safety and recognition.” It was hard on him, though. Which was hard on Ashley. “He would cry every night. He’d sleep in his shoes because he just wanted to go back home.”
When Dwell with Dignity reveals newly decorated homes to families, the program director always takes the kids aside. “We tell them, the reason you’re getting this beautiful home is because of the work your mother has done,” Ashley says. “We want them to know this wasn’t a lottery. Their parents asked for help and committed to transitional accountability programs.”
Ashley’s sense of an inclusive and safe home expands beyond housing and into industry. The workplace, too, is a type of home. “77% of the women we serve at Dwell with Dignity are African American. 20% are Hispanic,” Ashley says. And yet, when presented with interior designers for Dwell with Dignity’s annual thrift event, Ashley saw only white faces. “ What would that be like?” she asks, “If we served mostly African American women but our store had no representation of who they are?” Changing that has become Ashley’s passion project. “If only 2% of the industry is African American, then it’s probably the industry that’s lagging behind the most in representation,” she says.
She’s starting early, organizing visits with interior design educators at high schools. She wants young Black people to see interior design as a career option. She also wants more Black designers represented at Dwell with Dignity’s Thrift Studio event. “It’s definitely been a struggle,” she admits, “And we’re hopeful we can make more connections to individuals and creative designers in that community. This is a platform for us to say, here show your work. We’ll get you published. We’ll get you press access. They get to build their name and show their work to the community.”
Dwell with Dignity’s 2021 Thrift Studio event starts Thursday, August 26. “People usually start lining up 2 hours before. There’s a limited number of things and huge designer discounts. We’re programming the whole day,” Ashley says. The thrift pop-up shop is then open for regular hours Monday through Saturday 10am to 5pm on August 27 through September 25. This year, Dwell with Dignity will host their first-ever Thrifty Thursday series with extended shopping hours, exclusive discounts, special happy hours, and fun workshops. One of the days will be North Texas Giving Day on September 23.
Scenes from the 2021 Thrift Studio event.
Dwell with Dignity is also always looking for volunteers. “What’s so great about Dwell with Dignity is that you get your hands dirty,” Ashley says, “So you’re not just giving your money. You’re going to the warehouse, sawing furniture, sanding, refinishing. You walk out of there and you hurt. And then you go to the reveal and you actually meet the family whose life you’ve changed.”
At Dwell with Dignity, home becomes an act of community. Home is a gift. It is a creative act. It is a place that evokes a feeling. A feeling that we make for ourselves, and also for others. It is a space of safety and comfort; a space everyone deserves to take.