Author Archive | emerson

Knitting Patterns

written by: the ever-wonderful Kevin Ji

“Is there a freedom to having no assets?” The question was posed to me by a friend and long-time Member of CEF on a Friday afternoon last year during one of our weekly writing workshops. It has been posed before (thanks, Ralph Waldo and Henry David) but at that moment, I found myself fully embracing – and personally grappling with – its sentiment.

On its surface, the question exposes materialism and its rampant presence in today’s culture. This is nothing novel and we are all guilty of it. I love shopping, especially at Ross and Old Navy. In a few weeks, I will be a proud iPhone owner, with the words ‘it was a birthday present’ serving as the (weak) justification for my compliance with the purchase of a device that will surely enslave me in many ways. In particular, I am already immensely looking forward to Snapchat, Plants vs. Zombies, and to further exploring what absolute dependency on Gmail might look like. Not great.

At its core, however, the question suggests something deeper. Assets are more than just money and possessions; they are things, both tangible and intangible, that we hold close, assigning value to them and deriving value from them. For some, this is prestige, voice, or influence. For many others, it is the stable job, secure home, or supportive family that we so often take for granted. They are things we strive to build and maintain; by admitting their value, we in turn give them the power to define us.

To distinguish us.

To disjoin us.

At the monthly HOPE Community Dinner earlier this month, I shook hands with a twenty-two year old man preparing to spend his first night at the IFC Shelter. To me he looked much older; my own twenty-second birthday is only a few weeks away. Before even mentioning his name or where he was from, he prefaced his greeting saying, “I swear I’m not a bad person, I’m just going through a hard time.”

A number of things went through my head upon hearing this: a compulsion to tell him he had nothing to apologize for, a pang that he had perceived me as someone who might cast judgment on him, and an overwhelming frustration that he felt the need to justify his ‘goodness’ as a person simply due his personal circumstances and those of our encounter.

Does this interaction suggest that we as a society have successfully marginalized homelessness? What about being poor? In many ways, measures of wealth and status have become so central in defining success and what we strive for that we forget other obvious alternatives: happiness, morality, balance, humility – the list goes on (Lao Tse, I’m looking at you). By so closely linking money and success, we fool ourselves into a mode of deficit thinking that has come to falsely and narrowly characterize poverty in this country.

What we don’t talk about enough are the consequences of this characterization, and what it truly means to define a rather large group of Americans (roughly 1 out of 6 of us) primarily by an absence of wealth and income. It certainly isn’t healthy. The story of poverty in this country has always been one of deficiencies: of money, literally, but also of capability and self-sufficiency. We offer charity and develop welfare programs, championing ourselves as providers and calling people free-riders when nothing comes back the other way. We tell the same story over and over again, in our schools, our media, and amongst one another, yet funnily enough never give ourselves the chance to meet any of the characters or to the hear their version of the tale. It’s quite different.

Strength and resilience, gratitude and appreciation, groundedness and perspective, camaraderie and community – these are words that aren’t used often enough. They are not meant to glorify or to diminish, but to give fair and due representation to a group that is too often defined by its deficiencies and hardly ever by its assets. We are all rich in some ways, poor in others. Let’s embrace that notion, and in doing so become more creative in how we perceive wealth, define assets, and pursue success in this country.

And CEF has done just that: what began as a monetary fund to help Members work toward and enjoy the same assets that many of us take for granted has turned into so much more. It is an intellectual fund where students grabbed by traditional teachings and pursuits can borrow from the wisdom and perspective of Members (in exchange for the use of their laptops), a social fund whose loan products range from crisis support to lifelong friendship (scary low interest rates, too), and an emotional fund from which any and all may borrow hope, optimism, and love, so long as they promise to reinvest it.

These two stories come from a pool of many that have accumulated over my past two years with CEF, and join the countless more that take place each day around the globe. They are moments of connection in a disparate world, perspective in a muddled one, and humanity in a, well, human one. They are reasons to stop and question, to listen and learn, to live and refine.

In life, look for the unlikeliest of friends and teachers – you probably have the most to learn from them anyway. Look them in the eye and understand where they come from. Share something about yourself too and reciprocate; there’s a reason why one-way streets suck, and I’m not just talking about traffic. Iterate, and in doing so spread the love.

As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Baller quote alert.) Underlying this thought, however, is another reality, that this garment is comprised of large and often isolated patches of color. They are patches of homogeneity, a result of the gravity that pulls together our social circles and guides our interactions. They are easy, natural, and comfortable – all things we love.

Imagine a garment, however, where these patches weave and intersect. Zoom in and see individual threads of colors interwoven with one another; zoom out and see the patterns that make it beautiful. I never really tell anyone to do anything, but I’ll tell you this now. Knit patterns for yourself and those around you. In doing so, challenge the status quo and defy gravity.




Ten Reasons that I love CEF

(also, why you should become an advocate) 

1) The culture of shared learning – everyone is here to work together – not to work for each other.

2) The people, the people, the people – the supportive and loving team that makes CEF Happen.

3) The relationships I’ve made with students, members, and board members. Seriously, you guys are some of the best friends I could EVER ask for. (this is basically the same as number 2 but deserved at least two mentions)

4) Office Hours – As an advocate once said, “The CEF vibes are definitely real.” Being in the office makes my heart smile.

5) Commitment to trying new things and not saying “no.” This is perhaps what I admire most about CEF.

6) Opportunity Class Structure – the classes are taught by CEF Graduates – and who better to act as a mentor than someone who has been in your place before? I love this so, so much.

7) The lack of glorification and hierarchy within CEF’s organizational culture. Thanks guys, for letting me feel like I fit in and could be at home in the office even when I was a newbie.

8) Stories. Getting to hear people’s stories is the most humbling and transformative experience.

9) The Dedication of members to their goals and advocates to helping them reach their goals. I truly admire the drive and passion that everyone in CEF follows.

10) It’s a hands on, collaborative, people centered approach to helping people. What’s not to like?

*11 – when people bring food to the office it is pretty great too. ESPECIALLY pastries…


A Social Work Student's Experience with CEF

Hi friends! I’m Rachel, CEF’s MSW (Master’s in Social Work) intern. UNC MSW students are placed in the field at various local organizations to take the theories they are learning about in class and put them into practice. During our first year, the idea is that one part of our field placement experience is spent working with people on a more one-on-one basis.  The other part is to participate in more macro-level activities, such as learning about organization administration, policy, advocacy, and community development and organizing.
Long story short, CEF is a great field placement for a first-year MSW student. I get to work with, serve, learn from, and get to know Members in the office, at Opportunity Classes, and through other CEF activities. Learning about CEF’s beginning, growth, and future has been very interesting. Another thing I’ve gotten the opportunity to witness is how well CEF is integrated in the community and how much it serves the community. As an added bonus, I get to not only work with, but also learn a great deal from, CEF’s student and community-member volunteers.
Though CEF isn’t staffed by social workers, there are numerous intersections and overlaps between the work that CEF does and the social work profession. Social workers follow a professional code of ethics. A major part of this code is a section that describes the ethical principles social workers are to follow, which are based on the primary values of social work. These values and respective ethical principles are as follows:
1. Service – “Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems.”
2. Social justice – “Social workers challenge social injustice.”
3. Dignity and worth of the person – “Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.”
4. Importance of human relationships – “Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.”
5. Integrity – “Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.”
6. Competence – “Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.”1
When I observe CEF volunteers, admin, and staff, do I sense that all of the above mentioned values are important to them and the work they do with Members? You bet your CEF Safe Savings I do.
When empowering others to solve problems and achieve goals, social workers also focus on individuals’ strengths and resilience.  The  individuals CEF works with—those who have experienced, are experiencing, or are at risk of experiencing homelessness—show great strength and a great deal of resilience. I know that many times, I have the privilege of hearing just part of Members’ stories. From just those parts, I can see how strong and resilient these individuals are.
So thank you, CEF volunteers, admin, staff, and Members, for teaching me about social work values and sharing with me your goals, aspirations, wisdom, fears, dreams, strengths, stories, ideas, hopes, and so much more.
1National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics. Retrieved from

CEF: Community Empowerment Fund

Chapel Hill: 919-200-0233 Durham: 919-797-9233