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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 – Dec. 7th, 2013

Holiday Party


CEF Holiday Party!


We hope you will be able to join us for CEF Holiday Party festivities tomorrow, Saturday, December 7th! For the fourth year in a row, CEF will be throwing a joyous holiday party.


Who: The whole CEF Family (that’s you!)


When: Sat., Dec. 7th, 4pm-8pm (Graduation ceremony at 6pm)


Where: Chapel of the Cross, 304 E Franklin St, Chapel Hill, NC 27514


What to bring: 

  • In the CEF tradition, we will host this event as a (no-pressure) potluck. If you are able, please bring your favorite holiday dish to share with your neighbors and community. But don’t let the potluck part stop you from coming — no pressure!
  • Your dancing shoes.

RSVP: We’d love for you to RSVP so we know how many of our friends to expect!
Click here, or contact CEF at (919) 200-0233.


We look forward to seeing you at the celebration!


Featured Partner: Housing for New Hope

Founded in 1992, Housing for New Hope serves individuals experiencing and at risk of experiencing homelessness in Orange and Durham Counties. In Durham, HNH is one of CEF’s founding partners, helping CEF volunteers conduct Opportunity Classes that serve residents of the Dove and Phoenix recovery houses and Williams Square Apartments.

Jessie Hughes, the Transitional Housing Coordinator at HNH, recently provided CEF with a stellar letter of support for one of our upcoming grant applications. Her words were incredibly kind and we wanted to take a second to thank her and Housing for New Hope for their immense support, and to share some of their sentiments with you all here. Thanks so much Jessie!

From Jessie’s letter:

“What I know is this: CEF is real, they really mean it, they are the genuine article. I have seen CEF representatives treat homeless, drug-addicted, unemployed citizens with the same dignity and respect reserved for public officials. I have watched as they tailored their program to the needs of those they served without hesitation. I h ave witnessed them express authentic joy when sharing a success with one of their clients…”

“I have been a part of many partnerships in my career. My partnership with CEF is the partnership I am most proud of. They are truly unique in their flexibility and willingness to serve. CEF leaves things better than they found them. That is the essence of their work. No job it too big or too small, no project beyond hope.”


Four Job Offers In Two Weeks!


Jackie came in to the CEF offices two weeks ago having lost his only job, and with five kids and a wife to provide for. As of yesterday—he had received four job offers, and started work on two of them! He’s been such an inspiration to all CEF Members and Advocates as to what can happen when you really put your best foot forward every day. Thanks Jackie. Congratulations!


Cupcakes at Coffee Hour!

We loved this picture and had to share it with the world. Sherry Kinlaw, our beloved Board of Directors Treasurer, sent us a surprise delivery of delicious cupcakes a Friday morning a couple weeks ago. Our volunteers and members made quick work of them — thanks, Sherry!

We host “CEF Coffee Hour” every Friday at the Community Empowerment Fund’s office on Franklin Street. Join us some Friday! We don’t always have cupcakes, but we do always have good cheer, plenty of coffee and bagels, and great company.

See you on Fridays!


Members Helping Members

Tommy and Rufus, two CEF Members, helping their fellow member move her furniture into her *new* apartment

When a CEF Member had to move out of her old apartment and into her new home last week, her fellow CEF Members were the first people there to offer a hand and help.

For all of us, the best part about being involved in CEF is the family. For Equashia’s big move, her CEF Advocate (the wonderful Kemper) recruited her college roommate to come and help, and Tommy and Rufus (see pictures!) helped Equashia move all her furniture and boxes in, and got it all done in just an afternoon. Thank you, Tommy, Rufus, Kemper and Sarah!

In gratitude, Equashia is organizing a clean-up day at Tommy’s this coming Saturday, March 10th. She is recruiting fellow members to come help Tommy clean up and settle in to his new place. If you are interested, please contact — Equashia and her fellow CEF Alumni would love to have your support.

Unloading the moving truck









Equashia (CEF Member), Kemper (her CEF Advocate), and Sarah (Kemper's roommate who came to help!)


Act Now! Your Donations Doubled

Thank you Stewards Fund!

The Stewards Fund challenge begins today!

Donate between March 1st and June 1st, and your donation will be doubled.

Act now, and your $25 donation becomes $50, your $100 gift becomes $200, your $250 contribution becomes $500… doubling your gift for twice the impact in our community.

Why donate to the Community Empowerment Fund? Because you provide one-on-one and ongoing support to unemployed and under-employed individuals, and help low-resource micro-entrepreneurs start and sustain businesses. You bring a unique community of college students and community members together, working alongside each other towards each individual’s financial freedom and well-being.

See the stories of transformation your support makes possible. Meet Maria. Meet Gary.

Join the movement, and help us reach our challenge of raising $10,000 before June 1st. Together, we can get meet the challenge. Thank you for your partnership.


Member Story: Dawn

Dawn was the first CEF member to successfully file her taxes with CEF in 2011 and save her refund towards her goal. Her first goal was to save to move out of the shelter; she reached that goal, and moved into her own apartment last year. Dawn is well on the way to her second goal and now making consistent progress using direct-deposit, but believes “saving during tax season can really take my account to the next level… and fast!”

Dawn recommends, “It’s always beneficial to have something saved up. Spending every penny, you can never get ahead. By saving my refund last year, when I really needed money and was in a crunch throughout the year, I had something I could fall back on.”

Dawn graduated from CEF’s Opportunity Class in June of 2011. She says, “I joined the class because I wanted to be more financially stable… Since the class, I see how I can be more financially independent. I can seethat it’s obtainable. Instead of always being in panic mode, like I have been for years, I’m a little more relaxed. It’s much better to be secure than on panic all the time.”

“I am most proud that I have my own place now. I am truly proud that I am actually heading in the right direction; I’m becoming satisfied with life, and meeting life on life’s terms.” Dawn added that the bonus 10% match she is awarded by CEF when she reaches her savings goals has been a great incentive to keep saving, despite the challenge of saving on a very limited budget.

The moral of the story from Dawn: “Save money, any way you can! [laughing]… As long as it’s legal :)

CEF: Community Empowerment Fund

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