Join us Saturday, August 28, to march for affordable housing for our community members who are at or below 30% AMI. There will be opportunities for folks with lived experience to speak out at the Peace & Justice Plaza. LOVE Chapel Hill will be providing transportation to the rally. Call the CEF Chapel Hill office at 919-200-0233 for more info on transportation. Live music at the Jackson Center will be provided by Chapel Hill’s Finest as well as food from Gametime Hot Dogs!
As CEF has grown and blossomed over the years, we have been reminded, time and again, of the importance of being nimble and adaptive as we grow. As you will see in this report, 2020 was no different. In the enclosed stories you will learn how CEF responded to COVID-19 through articles and reflections from CEF’s staff. The report also shares more information about our quantitative impact and our year-end financials. This report is dedicated to the CEF Members who moved on in 2020, we hope you will hold them in your hearts and minds as you read.
CEF would like to formally introduce Debbie Long and Tawana Brown, both have come on board over the last few months. Debbie is the Member Services Coordinator for the Durham office and Tawana is the Growing Household Income Fellow in Chapel Hill. Read the interviews below to get to know them better!
What has your work looked like during the time you’ve been at CEF?
A process of discovery I would say. I started during a pandemic. Folks need unprecedented support during this challenging time. I’m seeing members getting hit at multiple intersections of hardship just trying to meet their basic needs. Right now, folks want and need secure housing that’s truly affordable and does not exceed the threshold of their budgets. They need jobs that provide living wages and healthcare, and aside from that, folks need general support navigating the gamut of issues that arise in a pandemic. The bulk of my work with CEF has been exploring the world of possibilities with a team of folks who are committed to the well-being of its members. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed working alongside members to meet their personal goals around housing, education, and food security. The current landscape has called for strong collective efforts in finding robust and innovative approaches to serving our members.
While at CEF, I have had the pleasure of assisting members with emergency assistance applications to Orange County, which includes follow-ups, document submissions, and advocating for Members. I also assist with governing CEF’s Workforce Income Taskforce. The Taskforce works closely with Members interested in learning more about fair chance hiring, living wages, job search skills, interview skills, and interview preparation.
What experiences, strengths and skills do you bring to this work at CEF?
Always keeping in mind that the personal is political, I come to CEF as a Black queer feminist who works to create a revolutionary society where the people who have been impacted by intersecting systems of oppression can really thrive. I have a deep history of cultural organizing. Linking people to resources is what I do. I don’t ever think it’s enough to say, you know, “I want to help people.” To me, that’s the baseline. You gotta actually engage the people and communities you seek to support. Nothing beats showing up for folks and showing up for ourselves. I know how to show up. My offerings of support at this time come in the form of harm reduction, trauma-informed care-giving, and a transformative-justice oriented posture. Additionally, I’m an artist and abolitionist. I’m always seeking creative ways to dismantle systems and policies that disproportionately impact our people.
I have two master’s degrees, one in Nonprofit Management and one in Leadership and Human Services; a graduate certificate in Conflict Management and Negotiation; and a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. I have five-years’ experience working in nonprofits–holding positions in intake, case management, accounting, consumer coordination, executive assistantships, and fundraising and development. I also bring general business knowledge from my Business Administration degree.
What led you to work with CEF generally, and also to this particular role?
I was led to apply for the position because there was a need and I felt like the best person to honor that need. I arrived at CEF with a vision: To prioritize how members have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and attempt to understand what that means for their economic recovery. My vision is informed by my lived experience of having witnessed firsthand the stigmatization and criminalization that impoverished communities endure. The Member Service Coordinator plays a vital role in stewarding CEF’s Member Services. As a people person, I love working with and for the people. More than anything, I want to support people on their journey for a better quality of life. I know what it is like to be housing and financially insecure and from this vantage point, I find myself in a unique position to support the overarching goals of the organization and in my current role.
CEF’s mission and vision to assist and cultivate opportunities, assets, and communities that sustain transitions out of homelessness and poverty was key to my working with the organization. They care about CEF Members and offer many resources to assist each Member in reaching self-sufficiency goals. As a Growing Household Income Fellow, my job is to build CEF’s capacity to support low-income community members in increasing financial stability, engaging in community life, and supporting the economy.
How do you find energy and renewal?
For energy, quite literally, I like to eat healthy fruits and vegetables, and I limit my sugar intake. Introspection helps a lot too. Like the saying goes, “You gotta know when to hold and when to fold.” I do my best to pay attention to when I have limited capacity so as not to exhaust my energy reserve. And I am an artist and musician. Playing music and getting creative fills my cup! To renew my body, I detox and try to tap into what my body wants and needs–whether that’s a nap, a long walk, or a glass of water. Listening to my body plays a large part in how I find the tenacity to endeavor forward.
I find energy in knowing that each day a new scenario will come making the job new to me. I get energy knowing that I am going to do good for a Member and in negotiating services for the Member. I find renewal in knowing that a resolution can be found and Member needs can be met through networks.
When you think about your work in this role at CEF, where do you find challenges and how do you seek to find the best way forward?
The reality is that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have most of the answers. But I do have some of them, and I do know how to locate and connect with someone who might have the answers I seek. I also realize not every question has a precise, clearly defined response to it. I am not a native of Durham. Understanding the housing situation in Durham has been a real process that I have to work at daily. My best way forward is to think outside of the box, to use my creativity to fuel my motivation, to listen to my gut and trust my instincts, and ultimately, to practice the art of living free from fear.
I find challenges in not being able to find shelter for all Members who are homeless. I would like to see Members in stable shelter situations, where they have a roof over their head, food, heating in the winter, cooling in the summer, and nice hot showers daily–to name just a few basic rights Members deserve access to. I seek to find the best way to move forward by collaborating with other organizations and working with them in coordinating plans.
What is the racial wealth gap and how has it continued?
In 2015, a study found that white households in Boston had a median net worth of $247,500 while Black households had a median net worth of $8. Yes, you read that correctly, $8 (Adams & Brancaccio, 2020). This gap in wealth is not just in Boston. A survey of the U.S. found that white* households’ median net worth was 10 times greater than that of Black households (Cilluffo & Kochhar, 2017). Without action, the worth of Black households is expected to fall to zero by 2053 (Rhinehart, 2019). This vast difference in wealth along racial lines is the racial wealth gap.
Racist laws and discrimination have created the racial wealth gap. Housing, employment, and educational policies have disadvantaged Black people. Black people inherit less wealth and have lower incomes, lower levels of homeownership, and lower rates of health insurance than white people (Gold, 2020; “Reducing the racial homeownership gap”, n.d.). These factors have made it harder to build wealth and left Black people more vulnerable to financial struggles (Jan, 2018). This all leads to the big gap between white and Black wealth.
Wealthy, white households also add to this problem. Upper-middle-class and wealthy families stay wealthy by passing down their wealth from generation to generation, they also use their privilege and connections to help their kids personally and professionally. These families often fight against policies that lead to greater societal equity (Reeves, 2017). In families that have the top 20% of wealth in the U.S., 57% of kids remain in that range for the rest of their lives. Rich kids tend to become rich adults. On the other hand, fewer than 15% of people born into the bottom 20% of families with wealth ever make it to the top 40% (Pfeffer, 2015). 72% of households in the top 20% are white. Combined, Black and Latino households make up only 16% of this top bracket of wealth (Joo & Reeves, 2017). Therefore, more white families have the resources to ensure their kids are wealthy too. (Check out this game to see how wealthy families stay wealthy.)
What can be done?
Addressing this issue requires changes in state and national policies on a range of topics. Some examples are changing current laws, such as strengthening and enforcing the Fair Housing Act of 1968, expanding health care coverage, and implementing a corporate financial transaction tax to fund a risk insurance program to protect against housing market crashes which deeply affect Black communities. New policies like student loan forgiveness or creating a Minority Business Advocacy office could encourage financial equality (“Policy agenda to close the racial wealth gap”, 2016). Reparations are also a crucial step toward reducing the racial wealth gap. Black and Indigenous people have been prevented from building wealth for hundreds of years while white families were able to attain and grow their assets. To bridge this head start in white wealth, reparations are necessary. These are just a few of the policies that could ease the racial wealth gap. Check out this article for a review of solutions on this issue.
While these suggestions are big changes, there are smaller actions that can be taken to diminish the gap. If you are someone with inherited wealth, you can redistribute it to people in your community that do not have access to inheritance or give it to an organization that can do that for you. Supporting politicians and policies that address the systemic nature of the racial wealth gap is another great choice. Investing in Black-owned businesses, cooperatives, and organizations working towards financial equity is another option. These steps are important in order to address how the racial wealth gap shows up in your community and are needed alongside wide-sweeping policies aimed to reduce the gap on a national level.
What is CEF doing about the racial wealth gap?
CEF works to address the racial wealth gap in three specific ways:
- Offering non-predatory financial services and products. This includes 65 financial coaching modules that Members can access to support financial goals from budgeting to purchasing a home and CEF’s Safe Savings Accounts which are aimed to make banking more accessible and rewarding. Members receive a match of 15% when they meet their savings goal and are never charged a fee for participating, saving Members $40,000 over their lifetime (Fellowes & Mabanta, 2008).
- CEF actively works to ensure Members are safely housed. The Housing First model is guided by the belief that basic needs, like food and a place to live, need to be met before someone can successfully address less critical needs, such as employment, budgeting, or addressing substance abuse. Due to COVID-19 and increased financial instability, CEF started a Housing Assistance Fund for Durham-based Members. This fund supports Members who were unable to access assistance through other avenues, to ensure that they can be stably housed. Funding was provided by community members who choose to redirect stimulus checks to ensure that people in financial need had access to that support. Providing an avenue for people who benefit from the racial wealth gap to directly support people who are negatively impacted by the racial wealth gap is an essential part of CEF’s work.
- CEF Members are actively engaged in advocacy work. Community and Office Organizers Rosa Green and Yvette Matthews guide this work, creating spaces for Members to talk about and to advocate on behalf of their own interests. Having platforms for community members to share their voices and offer solutions is essential if we are going to create systems that are truly equitable.
*In general, CEF uses APA grammar rules in our writing. The APA says that the names of race and ethnic identities should be capitalized, as they are proper nouns. CEF is intentionally leaving “white” (when referring to a racial identity) lower-cased. We recognize that by capitalizing words we are giving them power and we do not want to encourage white power in any way. Unlike the AP’s explanation for why they are choosing to lower-case “white” we want to be clear that we believe white people do have a shared experience–that is one of privilege. We also believe that undoing racism is the responsibility of white people and worry that implying that white people do not have a shared experience (as the AP does) is a dangerous tactic that is aimed at discounting the responsibility that white people have in undoing racism and white supremacist culture. Ultimately, we know that race is a construct but that racial differences are not. They are real and need to be addressed directly. For any questions or clarifications around CEF’s choice of words please contact ari rosenberg (arir[at]communityef.org).
Adams, K., & Brancaccio, D. (2020 August 7). The economy reimagined, Part 1: Dealing with inequality. Marketplace. https://www.marketplace.org/2020/08/07/the-economy-reimagined-part-1-dealing-with-inequality/
Cilluffo, A., & Kochhar, R. (2017, November 1). How wealth inequality has changed in the U.S. since the Great Recession, by race, ethnicity and income. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/11/01/how-wealth-inequality-has-changed-in-the-u-s-since-the-great-recession-by-race-ethnicity-and-income/
Fellowes, M. & Mabanta, M. (2008, January 22). Banking on Wealth: America’s New Retail Banking Infrastructure and Its Wealth-Building Potential. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/research/banking-on-wealth-americas-new-retail-banking-infrastructure-and-its-wealth-building-potential/
Gold, H. (2020, July 15). Opinion: The racial wealth gap is at the heart of America’s inequality. MarketWatch. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-racial-wealth-gap-is-at-the-heart-of-americas-inequality-2020-07-15
Jan, T. (2018, March 28). Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It’s still hurting minorities today. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/03/28/redlining-was-banned-50-years-ago-its-still-hurting-minorities-today/
Joo, N. & Reeves, R. (2017, October 4). White, still: The American upper middle class. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2017/10/04/white-still-the-american-upper-middle-class/
Pfeffer, F. (2015). Rising wealth inequality: Causes, consequences, and potential responses. University of Michigan. https://poverty.umich.edu/research-projects/policy-briefs/rising-wealth-inequality-causes-consequences-and-potential-responses/
Policy agenda to close the racial wealth gap. (2016, September). Center for Global Policy Solutions. http://globalpolicysolutions.org/report/policy-agenda-close-racial-wealth-gap/
Reducing the racial homeownership gap. (n.d.). Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/policy-centers/housing-finance-policy-center/projects/reducing-racial-homeownership-gap
Reeves, R. (2017, June 13). Dream hoarders: How the American upper middle class is leaving everyone else in the dust, why that is a problem, and what to do about it. Brookings Institution Press. https://www.brookings.edu/book/dream-hoarders/
Rhinehart, C. (2019, July 12). African American wealth may fall to zero by 2053. Black Enterprise. https://www.blackenterprise.com/african-american-wealth-zero-2053/ Sivy, M. (2012, November 20). Why so many Americans don’t have bank accounts. Time. https://business.time.com/2012/11/20/why-so-many-americans-dont-have-bank-accounts/
CEF is excited to share the first episode of the Time + Talents podcast. In this episode, CEF Advocates Lily Levin and Lizzy Kramer interview a number of people involved in housing in Durham County to help listeners learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people’s housing situations and what services are available for people who may need support.
This podcast was arranged by Durham Office & Community Organizer Rosa Green.
We hope you enjoy the podcast. Please share with your networks.
Time + Talents is CEF’s member-driven advocacy platform in Durham. Members chose the theme of this podcast and will continue to be involved in choosing future themes to ensure that the podcast is relevant to their needs and interests.
To the Community:
I have been asked in several spaces if CEF is going to make a statement about the current unrest in our country.
I’ve struggled with this request because as a Black woman with a life history, I am all too aware that statements of support are meaningless if they don’t reflect an organization or person’s actions. I have decided to publish this statement on behalf of CEF to be clear, not only about our position, but the work we have been and remain committed to doing.
CEF has always been a community that addresses racial and financial inequities by doing the work to advocate for causes that align with our values and be in relationship with people who these inequities affect. We will lean into having intentional conversations among Staff, Advocates, and Members. We will have our advocacy groups-Meeting of the Minds and Time and Talents doing advocacy in social distancing ways and we will continue to help members as much as we can. We will be the people to lead by example.
Executive Director, Community Empowerment Fund
CEF is so appreciative of the work of Zach Meredith and Kyle Compton, who both started in August 2019. Originally from Durham, Zach joined CEF as the Employment Access AmeriCorps VISTA after graduating from William and Mary College. Kyle, who grew up in Palatine, IL and who is currently pursuing his law degree and Master of Social Work (MSW) at UNC, has been CEF’s MSW Intern for the 2019-2020 academic year. Read the interviews below to get to know them better!
Zach Meredith, Employment Access AmeriCorps VISTA
Kyle Compton, Master of Social Work Intern
What has your work looked like during the time you’ve been at CEF?
As the Employment Access AmeriCorps VISTA, I coordinate efforts to rework CEF’s services related to job-searching and workforce development, particularly for Members who face systemic barriers to employment. When I first came to CEF, there were efforts to design a fairly intensive job training program within CEF’s Member Services program; however, I (along with the rest of our team) began to question if this would really be the most effective way to increase Members’ access to employment opportunities. I’ve worked to shift our energy into the stewardship and expansion of CEF’s partnerships with local organizations that already offer robust workforce development programs. Additionally, I have led efforts to retool our internal systems in order to more effectively align CEF’s operations with the employment-related services offered by external partners.
I have been the Master of Social Work intern this year at CEF. Until recently, I have been performing Coordinated Entry intakes for community members experiencing housing instability. For the second half of the year I have supported our Legal Referrals team and facilitated the group’s meetings. Recently, I have been supporting the Resource Stewards group to curate and update a database of resources for Orange County residents during COVID-19.
What experiences, strengths and skills do you bring to this work at CEF?
I love learning about local history, particularly through the lens of architecture and urban planning. Thinking about how the physical environment of Chapel Hill/Carrboro has been shaped by different political, social, and economic forces over time is a helpful way for me to situate the different inequities and barriers that CEF Members and Advocates run up against. Additionally, a historical perspective further energizes me to get involved with advocacy efforts based at CEF in order to challenge the political and economic status quos that necessitate the direct service work that CEF provides.
I have worked in the education field for several years and at related small nonprofits. My strengths include having patience and empathy for anyone I encounter and working hard to view issues from multiple perspectives.
What led you to working with CEF generally, and also to this particular role?
As someone who is passionate about advancing social justice at the local level, I was especially drawn to CEF’s organizational dynamism and community-based mission.
I am in my first year of the MSW program at UNC and I have completed two years of law school here as well. I came to CEF through an internship program for my MSW. I have learned so much from CEF Members, Staff, Advocates, community members, and community partners this year. I know that I will draw on my experiences this year for the rest of my life.
Where do you find energy and renewal?
I’m an extrovert so I always feel energized when I’m around other people. I love being in the office because I not only get to be around other people, but around a community. There is a baseline level of kindness and support that everybody in the office upholds, ranging from simple chit-chat to volunteering to help resolve technology issues or taking the responsibility to start up the coffee machine.
Working in direct service organizations can be exhausting in every way, and burnout is something to take very seriously at CEF and actively work to prevent. I find energy and renewal through eating when I need to, taking breaks throughout the day, working out when I can, and breathing. Music and movies are also sources of renewal.
When you think about your work in this role at CEF, where do you find challenges and how do you seek to find the best way forward?
As an AmeriCorps VISTA, my fellowship is a year-long position. This means it is imperative that I work intentionally and collaboratively with Members, Advocates, and partners to develop resources and partnerships that will be able to continue sustainably beyond my fellowship.
There are challenges in every role and during every day at CEF. The best way forward I have found in my time here is to always ask questions and seek support from other Staff, Advocates, and Members.
In your own words, how would you describe the work you do at CEF?
I am the Advocate Program Coordinator in Chapel Hill, so I oversee 80 to 90 active Advocates in the Chapel Hill office. I’m in charge of recruiting and selecting new Advocates, training them to make sure they understand the foundation and the values of an Advocate, and ensuring that they feel entirely prepared and supported during Member meetings. I also work on making sure that the Advocate program is evolving alongside CEF, particularly in terms of our racial justice work.
What led you to work with CEF generally, and also in this particular role?
I knew a few friends who worked and volunteered with CEF, and they spoke so highly of it. I also knew that I wanted a job that was more direct-service focused, because I had done internships in the past that felt very removed from the communities their work impacted. I really believe, first and firmly, in person-to-person connection and relationship-building, which is why I was so drawn to the role.
What experiences, strengths and skills do you bring to your work at CEF?
I hope I bring a lot of empathy to the role. I care a lot about people’s identities, where they come from, and what experiences they’ve had that shaped them as people, because I think that we are often a product of our experiences and where we come from. Long before me, there’s been discussion of the racial wealth gap and racial justice at CEF. But I believe that before you can begin those conversations, you really have to know who you are and how you show up in the world. So it’s been an exciting thing to bring some tools that I’ve used in trainings or retreats in the past to this role.
I also bring a lot of enthusiasm and joy. I hope that when things are difficult and frustrating, I’m able to bring a little bit of light and positivity to that. For Advocates who are on the front lines, who are interacting with folks who are constantly going up against really difficult barriers in the systems that they’re operating in, I think it’s really important to have someone who can remind them that there’s so much good in the work they’re doing despite a lot of the bad.
When you think about your work at CEF, where do you find energy and renewal?
For me, it comes back to the people. It has been both really exciting and also, at times, really shocking to see just how strong and resilient people are. Coming into the role, I think I possessed some naiveté about how a person can handle stress, crisis, and trauma. I thought that those experiences would consume one’s whole person, because they are so heavy. And to see that people are just so multifaceted and hold so much joy and love and show up and be present on top of everything going on in their lives is really, really energizing and motivating for me. I just continually feel compelled to be in the same space as these people.
I like working in the office. Most of the time if I’m doing work, even if it doesn’t involve anyone immediately in the office, I would rather be in the office doing it. I’ve found the ability to laugh, cry, and hug someone there. It’s a space that holds all of these really complex relationships that are built on community and family, in a way that I didn’t understand could be so comforting.
When you think about your work at CEF, where do you find challenges and how do you seek to find the best way forward?
The things that have been most difficult for me to process have been when it doesn’t feel as if there are solutions or options for folks, when you’re sitting with someone and it feels like you’ve done everything that you can. It has been a challenge for me to understand that sitting with someone and being frustrated with them or sad or just present with them, also has a lot of meaning. I’m a doer, I like to do something and complete it, so it’s been really challenging to learn that there are things that I can’t do and systems that I can’t just fix, and then figuring out how to move forward with that. I’m trying to internalize that it can mean just as much for someone to act as an emotional support, as it can to support someone in filling out a housing application. I overcome that challenge by constantly leaning on those around me. Other Staff and Members have been a really incredible source of perspective, learning, supervision, and mentorship in this challenge.
What has your work looked like for the 9 months you’ve been at CEF?
I was working with Jess McDonald, who was previously the Advocate Program Coordinator in the Durham office, to reshape and revamp the Advocate training curriculum. We were trying to make it a bit more foundational, speaking more to the core of CEF. For us, that meant ensuring that the curriculum around the racial wealth gap, trauma-informed care, and the coach approach was really robust, because we view those things as the three central pillars within the Advocate program. Jess and I really tried to ensure that Advocates know how to show up as people, to see Members as creative, resourceful, and whole human beings, and of course, be cognizant of their identities showing up into this space. The harder skills will follow, because those things come with time and we can never teach someone how to do everything in a 12-hour curriculum. But what we can allow people to do is take a moment to reflect on themselves, on who they’re going to show up as in the space, who Members are going to see them as, and try to make sure they can do that in a way that actually empowers folks.
Other than that, my work has been a lot of figuring out the needs of different Advocates, because they’re all unique people who have whole lives outside of our organization. I’ve reflected a lot about making sure that we aren’t asking too much of them, which is why in Chapel Hill, we’ve moved to having two Advocates in all Member meetings. I think this really gets back to the core of support: here are these two Advocates who don’t know everything about the systems that they’re working within, and a Member who has a great deal of lived experience. And so let’s put two Advocates in the meeting so they can be learning and listening at the same time. Having two people in a meeting doesn’t hinder the relationship that is built, and it allows for a bit more support.
In your opinion, what makes CEF’s Advocate Program special?
There are so many things that go into the magic of what CEF creates, and the Advocate program is a large part of that. I’ve met so many incredible Advocate volunteers who are so entirely dedicated to this organization. I think that it’s actually this pandemic that has fully solidified that for me: there are 40-plus people who have volunteered to make Community Care Calls to Members during this time.
When you become an Advocate, you become entirely dedicated to this community. They’re really on the front lines of ensuring that Members are seen as creative and resourceful and whole. A lot goes into ensuring that they actually do this every day, and I think that we do a really good job of making sure that they do.
CEF is deeply proud and excited to share that Donna Carrington, a skilled and passionate CEF Staff member, has been promoted to the position of Executive Director! Over the past year, CEF has worked to restructure organizational leadership to better fit the growth and change we’ve experienced through a decade of work. Donna’s appointment as Executive Director marks the beginning of this new structure, and we are excited for Donna’s strategy and vision as we move into the next decade.
Message from CEF’s Board of Directors:
“The Community Empowerment Fund Board of Directors and Staff have been deeply and intentionally working together to envision the evolution of CEF over the last four months. The Governance Committee is thrilled to welcome Donna Carrington as CEF’s new Executive Director! The Board has worked closely with Donna during this transition and we are deeply confident in her ability to lead us into the future. Over the last 5 years, Donna has worked in multiple roles at CEF, most recently as Co-Director and Member Services Coordinator, providing leadership in the Durham office and community. Along with her leadership gifts, she brings the expertise of lived experience to her work. She knows CEF like the back of her hand and she lives our values every day. We are excited for our community to embrace her in this new role and we look forward to working with her!”
A Bit About Donna
Originally from West Virginia, Donna’s family moved to Durham when she was a child. She attended public schools in Durham and eventually enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied Spanish Language & Literature with minors in English and Psychology. Donna joined CEF five years ago and has been leading our Durham team as Co-Director since September 2019. Donna currently resides in Chapel Hill with her partner and four children.
Read more about Donna’s life story, the gifts and talents she continues to bring to her work, and her dreams and visions for CEF’s future in the following interview. *Please note that the interview was conducted in January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic affected the United States.*
Q: How did you first get involved with CEF?
Donna: After graduating from UNC, I moved back to Durham, got married, and had my first three children. Then I ended up homeless in Durham for the first time. We were at the Durham Rescue Mission. The experience taught me a lot. I don’t think it ever occurred to me what could happen without skills, without knowledge. It was a shock to our system in a lot of ways.
I originally came to CEF as a Member. I was in HomeStart, which is a local family and women’s shelter in Chapel Hill. And CEF used to do the Opportunity Class on Sundays over there. I’d be apprehensive, but I would go, and when I would get there, I would be so happy because I was learning things that I didn’t have any idea how to do. I think it was just realizing that it could be better and could be different. And I just needed help to figure that out.
By the time that I took the Savings Specialist position at CEF, I had moved out of the shelter, I had gotten my own place, and had gone through a process of seeing how hard it was in Chapel Hill to find a place to live. That really taught me some lessons about my own resilience, and that I needed to be resilient for other people.
Q: Can you tell us about all the different roles you’ve had at CEF since you first got involved?
Donna: The Savings Specialist position was my first position at CEF. Next, I offered services as a Housing Specialist. Housing was one of those places where I knew that I had a story, and I knew I had some experiences that I could share with people, but I also understood how hard it is to navigate all these systems. I really loved doing the Housing Specialist position because it made me the front line of people feeling comfortable at CEF.
Q: In your most recent role as Member Service Coordinator, you’ve been providing service delivery to Members in CEF’s Durham office. This job entails ensuring Members are receiving the services and resources they seek while working with Advocates, assisting Members in reaching their goals, and identifying strategies for building Member-Advocate relationships. Can you tell us about the “why” behind your work in this role?
Donna: From being CEF’s Housing Specialist, I became the Member Services Coordinator in Durham. Before that, there wasn’t anyone with lived experience at the table and I knew that was important. That was probably the hardest position for me, because I think it was the first time that I realized how different it is to be at a table saying you’ve been a person of lived experience and how other people interact with you. Also, I think it was a place for me to say to other providers, ‘There needs to be more people like me and you need to invite them. And they need to feel like what they say and who they are is equally valuable as you are’. So that’s been sort of the role that I’ve been in for the last year. I’ve seen it come to its fruition.
Q: How did you begin your current role at CEF as Executive Director?
Donna: I always fully invested in every position I was in. CEF was doing work to make sure that we were being intentional about our values, which meant that we needed to diversify our staff. We really wanted to make sure that our leadership reflected our Member base, because it’s important for people to know that leadership looks just like that. I also wanted to be able to talk about my story, where a person who has struggled with mental illness, had children struggling with mental illness, has gone through a divorce, has gone through abuse, trauma, all of these different things—how that person is now at the level of where I am, at these tables, having these conversations, and to just have a different view that I can bring to these conversations that other providers can’t.
Q: So you’ve talked about the “what” and the “how” and the “who” regarding your time at CEF. Can you talk a little bit about the “why”?
Donna: My 16 year old daughter has always seen me fight for our family. She’s always seen me fight for other people. And I think that’s why I do it. I know if I can make one person feel like they’ve accomplished something, if I can be alongside one person to get housing or figure out how to do this one thing, I think that’s what I’ve been set here to do. I think the other “why” is, I want to be what didn’t happen for me, which was to have someone further along than I was on this path. I think if there had been that, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through some of the pitfalls that I went through, cause I would have seen, oh, there is a possibility.
Q: What do you see as being really special about CEF? What do you consider to be a part of the “special sauce”?
Donna: The way we do this work is because we want to know people, and we want to be with people, and we want to be on their journeys, and we want to learn, and we want other people to learn. And that has been the single place that I’m always solidly in value. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when things are hard or when we don’t have answers. And that’s usually the hardest time for me. I want to have an answer for somebody.
But to have a person own their own path is important to me. I’ve learned that I might have a plan and think that I might know something, and someone will show me something different. And that something different is usually so beautiful, and never a place that I would’ve gotten to. I really, really like it when people surprise me and do something different and really are part of their own process. I know that a lot of times, to have been in that battle with them or on that path with them is just as important. And I think that’s where that special sauce is. Like, at CEF, this person knows me. Even if I mess up something, they’re like, okay, let’s figure out how to do it, let’s figure out how to fix it.
Q: When you think about your work in this new role as ED of CEF, where do you find challenges and how do you seek to find the best ways forward?
Donna: I think the biggest challenge I’m seeing is having lots of conversations about what CEF is at our core, what we do, and how we do it. That’s where I see things going in the future: making those assessments in conversation, and really being solid about what our boundaries are and what we do. Why are we in this work? What makes us unique? I think what makes us unique is the fact that we want to make relationships with people and that we want to fight alongside people.
Q: What do you see for CEF’s future? What things might remain the same? In what ways might we grow?
Donna: I love the model of engaging college students. I don’t think it should be the only way we get volunteers, but I think there’s something about having conversations with students who might be coming in without lived experience, and asking questions, and wanting to think more critically. I want them to work alongside other people in our community who have had different lived experiences.
I see CEF going more into advocacy and I think about what that will look like. That could be a place where our values can operate in a better way. Maybe we delve into advocacy more because that is a place where we can come as a collective with not only people from college institutions, but with people who have lived experience saying, ‘Hey, actually this matters to us.’
I want CEF to be a place where people stay for a long time. It’s important that we’re really thinking about what it means for us to do direct service that fulfills that relationship but also doesn’t put us in those places where we’re doing too much.
Q: Thank you, Donna! Is there anything else you want to add or share?
Donna: I always want to build a community where there’s people that I can be me with. And I’ve been very intentional about building a non-biological family, having my coworkers and people that I get to know being part of that family. I think that’s the way you have to operate in the world in order to get through things. You have to be able to love the people around you, to care about the people around you, to be a support to them, to get support from them.
I think a lot about having been at CEF for five years—that’s a long time. One of the things I always tell people is I tend to be a “lifer” at things. It just never occurs to me that I wouldn’t be here every day.
On top of stepping into this position and really growing into things, there’s also that sadness that I’m trying to wade through, of students and Staff leaving over the years. I’m being very, very intentional about moments, conversations, things like that, because that’s all I’ll have. They tell histories.
Message from Jon & Janet, CEF Co-Directors
CEF has been our heart and home for nearly a decade. After ten years of learning and growing with all of you, we are feeling called toward a new path and will be transitioning out of our roles this spring.
Each day for the past decade has been indescribably full to the brim. One of the guiding values of our community is that “we are all creative, resourceful, and whole,” and we have seen this reflected in a million ways through individual people and in our powerful collective work. This strong and vibrant community of Members, Advocates, staff, partners, and supporters is made up of people that we’re proud to call lifelong friends and teachers. What’s emerged from CEF’s momentous growth over the past decade is an organization that is impactful, innovative, trusted, and purpose-driven. We are grateful to be able to make this transition at a time when the organization is flourishing, financially healthy, and poised for its next stage of growth.
This past September, Donna Carrington, who has been a core leader on our team for the past six years, stepped in to support CEF as a Co-Director. We are inspired by the wealth of experience that Donna brings and confident that her intentional and values-driven leadership will continue carrying CEF forward with love, wisdom, and abiding dedication.
As CEF prepares for this transition, CEF’s Board of Directors, leadership, and broader staff team are engaged in an organizational discernment process to envision and build its future shape. This is a wonderfully rich and healthful moment in the life of the organization, and we are truly excited about what’s to come. We hope you’ll join us in actively continuing to support CEF, and in celebrating as this transformative organization continues to bloom!
In Love and Gratitude,
Jon and Janet
Message from CEF Board of Directors
Dear CEF Family,
CEF is entering another season of growth and change in the New Year. In 2019 we worked with over 1000 Members with the support of 220 Advocates, celebrated 121 Members gaining jobs and 138 Members moving out of homelessness into housing; and in exciting news, CEF Members have now saved over $1,250,000 collectively towards their personal goals. As we continue to deepen the work of CEF in our community, we are very excited to announce Donna Carrington’s promotion into directorship from her previous role in CEF’s Durham office supporting Member Services and programming. Donna, and the CEF staff and board, will be continuing to deepen our commitment to sustainability and equity in our organization, our work, and our community. Together will be undertaking a lot of intentional work to support the development of the new leadership structures CEF needs in order to grow and flourish at this point in our organizational life.
Jon and Janet have played an incredible role in the transformation we’ve all experienced since CEF started as an organization in 2009. They have brought immense dedication, vision, soul, and roll-up-your-sleeves dedication to their work. Thank you, Jon and Janet! While we can’t help but feel sadness about this change, we are also excited to take this next step with the organization and begin a process of discernment and transition. Jon and Janet will both be sharing great wisdom with the rest of the CEF community to support a smooth and healthy leadership transition.
We know there will be a lot of questions, and we welcome the curiosity of fellow community members even while we may not have all the answers in the immediate future. We are excited about the future possibilities for us as an organization, and deeply grateful for the contributions of everyone who has participated in making CEF the incredible community it is today! We are designing a process and an interim strategy that gives us the space and time we need to be thoughtful during the period following Jon and Janet’s departure. You can learn more details here with the “Transition Details and FAQ.”
Eric Breit and Brian Smith
Co-Chairs, Board of Directors
We’re so grateful to the whole CEF family for being an amazingly supportive community. As we enter another big year for CEF, and as we continue to adapt and grow, we hope you’ll keep doing what you do best at CEF—whether that’s volunteering, donating, coming to meetings, building program partnerships together or singing with the Advocacy Choir. Or, if you are looking to get more involved,we hope you’ll reach out!