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An Ode to the Poverty Center

Poverty Center

By: Maggie West

The UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity – one of the founding institutional partners of the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) – is being threatened with closure by the UNC Board of Governors. This Center helped to launch CEF when it was barely even a dream, and beyond their support for CEF, has worked to combat the causes and effects of poverty in our state and to improve the circumstances of working people. This Center is now recommended for closure because of thinly veiled, politically motivated retribution for the vision and leadership of a center that won’t stay quiet in the face of blatant attacks on poor and working people from our current General Assembly.

The Poverty Center has provided invaluable support to CEF since we were founded in 2009, with staff acting as faculty advisors to UNC undergraduate volunteers as we were starting the organization, and since serving on our Board of Directors. Through their ongoing partnership with CEF, the Poverty Center has continued to empower undergraduate students at both UNC and Duke to engage meaningfully in addressing the issues of poverty in our local community. Through CEF student volunteers provide relationship-based support to individuals experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness to assist towards achieving goals of gaining employment, securing housing, and building savings. The Poverty Center has acted as a source of teaching, research, and supportive service all throughout our development. Additionally during the past year, the Poverty Center extended their reach to provide direct legal assistance to CEF members, assisting ex-offenders to reenter the workforce.

However, I do not write today solely in my role with CEF. I write as a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Class of 2010, who was profoundly impacted on a personal level by the leadership, light, and unwavering commitment to public service of the Poverty Center. Forgive me, but the threat of closure to this center has found me waxing nostalgic about the many ways this center’s staff, research, and, yes, dare I say it… advocacy, has shaped me irreversibly.

I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to the work of the North Carolina Fund, which under the leadership of Governor Terry Sanford and George Esser, and with activist-leaders from poor and minority communities all across the state, worked to address the crippling poverty facing NC in the 1970’s. In 2008, the Poverty Center helped facilitate documentary screenings and dialogues with former leaders of the NC Fund in partnership with the student organizationthat I led. The experience of listening to Ann Atwater, longtime community advocate in Durham and leader during the NC Fund, helped to form my understanding of the collective power of a community standing together in unity and across differences, and moreover, the endurance for change present in communities struggling for justice.

I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to Rev. Dr. William Barber, when the center co-sponsored a keynote address by Rev. Barber in 2007 as a part of our organization’s annual Poverty Action Week. Eight years ago, his oratory shook me to my core and left me believing anew and faithfully in the possibilities and potential for opportunity for all people here in our state. Because of this faith, I’m still here, and again this past Saturday at HKonJ Reverend Barber reminded me why.

I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to the devastating depth of the racial wealth disparity in North Carolina and the implications for building economic opportunities for all North Carolinians. The Center published critical research in 2010 analyzing and documenting in detail the level and nature of the racial wealth disparity in NC, as well as the causes of and strategies for addressing racial wealth inequality. This research, demonstrating that for every dollar in savings in a white household in NC, an African-American household held only six cents, was nothing short of a call to action for me.

I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to the wide world of community development finance, stewarding a connection to leaders of Self-Help Credit Union in 2009. This connection completely transformed my understanding of the role of financial institutions and financial service providers in advancing economic opportunity and ownership for all people. As a result of this connection, CEF was able to launch our matched savings program, which has since enabled 298 homeless and near-homeless individuals to save over $300,000 towards personal savings goals.

And all of that was just while I was an undergraduate student – I won’t even get started on how their work has continued to shape me since I graduated.

As I reflect on the countless ways the Poverty Center has “serve[d] as a center for research, scholarship, and creativity” with “lux, libertas – light and liberty” in my own journey at Carolina, I can think of few centers that fit more closely with the mission of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, seeking “to improve our society and to help solve the world’s greatest problems.” And I suppose, that as I reflect further, that is exactly what the current members of the Board of Governors are taking issue with – a mission of education that seeks to bring light and liberty to the state of North Carolina, when the days of darkness and slavery were so much more profitable.

So when Jim Holmes from the Working Group of the Board of Governors says, “I struggle to see how the poverty center fits with the academic mission of the UNC law school to train the next generation of lawyers,” and I juxtapose my own experience as a student so deeply affected by the Poverty Center’s teachings, research, and service to the people of our state, I know that there is no mistaking the true motivation behind the board’s proposed action.

And so, it is with a heart full of gratitude that I say to the staff of the Poverty Center: You changed my life. And because of that, one of the worst fears of these members of the Board of Governors has come true: I’m properly educated, and I will never stop fighting.



Holiday Party Slideshow

Click here to see a slideshow of pictures from the CEF Holiday Party 2014!

CEF Holiday Party 2014

CEF Holiday Party 2014

Slideshow of pictures from the amazing party held on December 4, 2014 and co-hosted with Love Chapel Hill (major thanks for their sponsorship of the great food at the event!).

Thank you to all the members, advocates, partners, and friends who attended, and major kudos and congratulations to all of the CEF graduates who were recognized during the ceremony.

Happy Holidays!


Dear all the wonderful CEF advocates… A Christmas card from a CEF Member!

This is the text of a truly lovely Christmas card we received at the CEF office this week.
Our hearts burst with appreciation and a sense of mutual gratitude for this member’s kind words…

Christmas 2014

Dear all the wonderful CEF advocates,

This holiday season is a special one for me because I got to meet you! Some of you know more about me than my own family… difficult for me to admit it. It wasn’t easy for me to open up, especially to people I barely knew, but you managed to cheer me on and help me without any judgment. I had to look deeply within myself and ask, “What do I need help on so I can repair and build myself and move forward to living an independent life?”

Trust is earned. And you definitely earned not only my trust, but my respect and my friendship.

I’d like to express my deepest gratitude for all your hard work, above all for not giving up on me. I pray the good Lord will also extend his kindness and love, and shower you with many blessings… not only this Christmas season, but for many years to come.

With love and deep gratitude,

-CEF Member


My CEF Advocate Journey: From Support Systems to Debt Crises to Gender Equality

Christine Costello is a senior at Duke University planning to attend graduate school for social work next year. She has been a CEF Advocate for almost two years, and we are thrilled to share her reflections on her experience here!

By: Christine Costello, Duke University Class of 2015

I began what has extended into a long relationship with the Community Empowerment Fund the summer after my sophomore year. As a summer intern, I was able to immerse myself in the day-to-day of this organization; an opportunity that taught me not only an incredible amount about the non-profit world but also about the members I worked with and about myself.

From one-on-one meetings with members, my eyes were opened to the harsh realities and institutionalized marginalization that members faced. For example, several members that I worked with had been encouraged to attend for-profit colleges in their adolescence, believing that this would be the route to a better salary and life. Since our society constantly touts that hard work and education are the way to self-improvement, it isn’t hard to see how enticing the possibility of school was and is for these members. However, these for-profit college businesses often trapped members in debt they were still accruing dozens of years later. Looking at the hefty debt that one member had hanging over his head from this attempt at education, it was hard to not feel helpless and duped. This meeting made me realize how integral a well-informed support system can be for individuals, support that (due to my situation in society) I have received my whole life. Meeting with this member also revealed how devastating the consequences can be when an individual is excluded from these forms of support. Working with this member towards a solution to this debt crisis, and simply spending time with him, showed me that I wanted to dedicate my life to contributing to such support systems.

On a different occasion, Janet – knowing my enthusiasm for gender equality – paired me with a new CEF member who had recently fled an abusive relationship. Now severed from her bank account, home, and social connections, which had all been controlled by her partner, she was seeking a sense of security and independence that had so vehemently been denied her in the past. Her situation was dire, as the time period following fleeing an abuser can be particularly perilous from physical, emotional, and financial standpoints. Feeling the weight of this member’s upward battle served as my impetus to meet with the Durham Crisis Response Center, Durham’s comprehensive shelter and support provider for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. This meeting, due to enthusiasm on both parts, has given way to a partnership that will provide financial literacy coaching to those seeking asylum at the Center.

It is through meetings with members such as the two I have mentioned that I have come to decide to pursue an education in social work. CEF’s mindful approach to collaborating with members and meeting them where they are at has shown me how effective compassionate care can be. CEF also continuously reminds its staff, advocates, and members of the purpose of the organization, words that lie in its very name. To be a community for all involved that offers empowerment through practical services. The community and experiences that CEF has supplied me with have certainly empowered me towards my dream of becoming a social worker.


"CEF Gives Me a Perspective on Real Policy Affecting Real People"

Hear from Stephanie Colorado, a junior at Duke University majoring in Public Policy and Psychology who began volunteering as a CEF Advocate in September of 2013. Stephanie has been an amazing student leader in CEF, and we are delighted to share her reflections on her experience here…

By: Stephanie Colorado, Duke University Class of 2016

When I began volunteering with CEF, I was immediately captivated by the organization’s focus on forming meaningful relationships to empower individuals to take control of their own financial and life goals. Being a CEF advocate developed me personally and professionally, and has been a priceless experience.

As an advocate for CEF, I form memorable friendships with my members as we partner together in forming goals and finding ways to reach financial independence. One of my best memories was working with my member, Linda. Every Monday night, I would head over with other advocates to the women’s transitional home in Durham and worked with Linda in finding employment and creating a budgeting plan. Her sense of humor and motherly personality was something I looked forward to every week. As I taught her how to write a resume, she taught me how to cook! Forming friendships with individuals outside of my college campus has been a refreshing experience, as it allows me to look beyond momentary troubles, such as exams and essay due dates, and put value on more important life issues, such as health and economic security.

In addition to giving me the opportunity to form relationships and contribute creatively, CEF gives me a perspective on real policy affecting real people. As a Public Policy major, I get a watered-down academic understanding of social policy, but while working with CEF, I witness policies and their consequences in action. I see how food stamp cuts, health care opportunities, and the availability of Housing Choice Vouchers influence my members’ ability to transition out of poverty. Working with CEF fortified my interest in social justice and it forces me to think critically of the effects of public policy in a community. Thanks to my experiences being an advocate, I hope to find a career in the non-profit sector working with people experiencing a disadvantage. I love working with people and would like to be of service through public interest law.


Being a Part of the CEF Family

CEF Spring GraduationDear CEF Friends & Family,

Being a part of CEF is being a part of a family that knows no bounds, and I feel that more than ever during the holidays.

I feel that family around me when I see a man who only recently moved out of the shelter inviting everyone he sees in the CEF office over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. “No one should feel alone and unloved during the holidays,” he says.

I feel that family around me when I see two CEF advocates from UNC spending the night in the hospital with a CEF member who was in a bicycle accident.

I feel that family around me when I witness a CEF member speaking to our volunteers during training, saying he had become convinced that society no longer cared about African-American males like himself, until he walked into our office.Dorothy Birthday

And wow. I got married this October, and I felt that family around me with incandescent grace. I received all kinds of amazing gifts to celebrate our wedding, but being honest with you, the gifts that truly brought me to tears were from CEF members. A sweet card with $10 tucked inside from an unemployed man living in the shelter, a flower made out of clay by the daughter of a member who recently moved out of the shelter, and a member who pledged to make a donation to CEF in my honor, and is making that pledge in “installments” from each of her paychecks through the end of the year. I simply bow my head and cry.

There is no other word to describe the CEF community besides family – with all the complexity, messiness, forgiveness, and love that goes along with it. And this year the CEF family did some amazing work together: 115 members gained employment, 65 moved into independent housing, and 256 members have now saved $270,000 towards personal goals. And all throughout the year, 250 volunteer advocates provided person-centered support to 420 members.

This holiday season, we hope you will make a gift to CEF – a gift that keeps giving, and giving, and giving, and knows no bounds. Thank you, from all of us, for your partnership and support.

With joy and gratitude,

Screen shot 2012-11-12 at 9.07.21 AM



Maggie West
Program Coordinator


Meet Robert, Sophie, & Jenna


Robert is a grandfather, a Marine Veteran, and a natural-born leader. Sophie and Jenna are UNC undergraduate students, and his CEF advocates. Combined, this trio is a force to be reckoned with.

Earlier this year, Robert chose to leave a full-time, salaried job in Kinston, NC to move into the homeless shelter in Chapel Hill. He left behind his home, his community, and his livelihood.

Why? “I was just working for the drug man and the rent man. And by me being a functional addict, I wasn’t going to lose my job. I had to make a decision, I had to make a choice to give up everything, start from scratch, get out of the environment I was in and try something new.”

“In CEF you get a chance to get yourself back. I had lost myself – I had lost me. Thanks to CEF, they brought it all together,” says Robert. “Sophie and Jenna have been with me from the start, and they’re almost like my little daughters. By them keeping me motivated, and by me keeping the fire going myself, and them seeing me making progress, like getting a job and seeing my savings go up, sometimes I look at them and it’s like seeing a kid looking at the Christmas tree. You can see the light in their eye getting brighter and brighter.”

Jenna and Sophie see their relationship with Robert as a life-long friendship. Reflecting, they shared, “We have a relationship beyond that of a member and advocate team, we are truly a family. The support that we offer Robert is far surpassed by the moral and emotional support Robert continually showers us with whether he is reminding us to take some time for ourselves or reading us excerpts from one of his favorite books, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. I never leave an advocate-member meeting without feeling inspired and loved, no matter how stressed I am.”

Over the past year we have watched Robert graduate from Opportunity Class, find a job, reach 80% of his savings goal, strengthen his relationship with his family, peers and most importantly, himself. Robert’s accomplishments have been more than earned and fill my heart with so much joy and hope.”

Likewise, Robert’s heart is filled thinking back on how far this trio has come on their journey. “I look back to where I was a year ago, and now I’m so far on my goals. You can’t imagine how good I feel, the pride I got back to myself. There’s no way you could imagine…”


Annie's Advocate Story: What inspired you to become a CEF advocate?


Quinn for blog

By Annie Lott

I discovered CEF in my freshman year through my friend, RA, and mentor, Quinn Holmquist. Quinn is one of the most enthusiastic and friendly people I know, and I liked him instantly from the first time I met him, when he introduced himself as “majoring in Romance Studies, the science of human love and affection.” Although Quinn wasn’t actually an RA for my floor, I would often go to his room, lounge on his couch, and talk to him about grades, classes, and life aspirations. Quinn is a fantastic listener. Soon enough, I learned that Quinn wasn’t actually majoring in the study of romantic relationships, but instead in the study of romance languages. When asked why, Quinn responded that he wanted to develop his communication skills so he could more effectively support others and strengthen his community. Quinn has the noble life goal of raising standards of living for individuals in adverse circumstances, by helping people help themselves. I realized he was already accomplishing this goal with his work for CEF.

Although Quinn suggested that I join CEF, I didn’t commit immediately, thinking that I didn’t have time. Yet throughout my first semester at Duke, Quinn and I would talk about community service, reminding me how much fun it was to volunteer in high school. When my second semester rolled around, Quinn encouraged me once more to join CEF, and I was again impressed by his passion for working with others. Dispelling any ideas that involvement in the Community Empowerment Fund was limited to raising money for local charities, Quinn explained that the objective of CEF was to empower individuals to solve their financial problems by building relationships and providing one-on-one aid. This simple yet novel approach to addressing community issues interested me, as I’d never experienced it before. With Quinn’s persuasion I decided that CEF, its members, its methods, and its goals were worth volunteering for.

It seems that many other advocates have similar stories to me, all tracing their involvement in CEF back to Quinn Holmquist. At the first meeting of the new advocate house course, we went around the room introducing ourselves, saying our names, which house we worked in, and how we joined CEF. Unsuprisingly, the most common answer to the last question was, “Yep, it was Quinn”. Quinn managed to convince quite a few people in my freshman dorm to join CEF, as well as several of my dormmates’ friends. Although Quinn is studying abroad this semester, he left a legacy of enthusiasm, participation, and support behind him with CEF, helping make the organization what it is today.


A Durham Member’s Reflections on Womanhood and Work

women at work

By Gabi Stewart

Khaki pants, trusty tennis shoes, a bright, collared t-shirt that sports the company logo — all of these things are typical pieces of CEF-Durham member Sharon’s uniform for her housekeeping position at a local inn. However, without another piece — one imperceptible to the eye — Sharon’s outfit is incomplete. It’s a mindset, a personality feature, and it’s something that working women across all sectors feel that they’re defined and restricted by.

It’s her bossiness.

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of sitting down with Sharon and discussing what it means to be a working woman in Durham. As a college freshman constantly immersed in the university environment, I find that engaging in discussion of gender in the workforce is pretty commonplace for me — whether in the form of a drafting a research paper on working women in Disney films, participating in class discussion on gender roles, or simply conversing with older students about their experiences, this sort of analysis frequently enters my world. However, what I’ve realized is that my insight on this topic is theoretical at best; it lacks the raw, honest power that only comes with experience. Experience and power that Sharon definitely has. Though usually soft-spoken and laid-back, Sharon kindly and passionately shared this insight with me as we spoke.

My first question was simply, “What does it mean to be a woman in the workforce?”

Ruminating on the super broad question, Sharon paused for a moment. Eyes narrowing with realization, she looked directly at me and said, “You gotta be bossy, you know.”

Intrigued by her answer, I asked her to explain.

“You have to let your co-workers know you’re in control and that you can do it.”

Jumping a little bit, I replied, “So would you say that women are bossy in the way that men are powerful?”


The bossy/powerful distinction is definitely something that’s gained some media coverage over the past few years. And that’s great — coverage raises awareness. However, having never worked in a position outside of a summer job, I never really felt aware of this issue until I heard it firsthand from Sharon. Reality hit me like a ton of bricks; I was angry. Outraged, even. Sensing this, Sharon spoke up.

“But it’s all good in the job I have now, though. My boss, he’s really good.”

After that, Sharon went on to detail how her boss really empathizes with his workers. Instead of being hired immediately as a manager, Sharon’s boss had to “make that bed and clean that room” before being promoted. He shares a common experience with his workers. He understands. And he respects them when they assert themselves and their opinions, regardless of their genders.

Even though Sharon’s experience is certainly not a reflection of the entire work world of Durham, it stands out of a pocket of light in a sphere of society that can seem like a dark place. Yes, the societal construction of women’s bossiness versus men’s power and confidence is an outstanding issue that absolutely needs to be addressed. However, it’s not an ubiquitous, all-consuming issue; it’s something that we can tackle on a grassroots level. Together, as a community, we can empower one another and lift one another up on an individual level. And that’s an amazingly encouraging prospect.