Staff Reflection: A Year at CEF

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By: Sarah Cohn

The thing about working with CEF is it’s not a job. It’s not even a great job, nor is it the best job. It’s something entirely different. Working with CEF is being part of a community every day, for about eight hours (give or take some), while also doing your job. From my very first day at CEF to my last, I felt a stronger sense of community than I’ve ever felt before. Maybe it’s sharing a common dream of what all people should have, or perhaps it’s simply caring to get to know one another. All I know is there is something unique that bonds everyone in this community – advocates, members, and staff alike – with a unifying strength I hadn’t known before. (Maybe this is the “special sauce” I hear reference to at CEF board meetings…) And only in reflection have I been able to realize that above all else, above the professional skills I gained, the challenges and resulting growing experiences I had, and even above the projects I accomplished, working with CEF has given me the opportunity to know what community feels like.

I got my first taste of the CEF community the summer after my sophomore year at UNC, when I began volunteering with CEF Latin@’s small business classes. A semester later, I joined the CEF admin team as a CEF Latin@ co-coordinator, and my involvement only grew from there.  As a part of leadership, I started spending more time working with members in the office, and the more time I spent there, the more I wanted to spend. Then, during one of the many moments in the Spring of my senior year that my mind spent wrestling with what I was going to do after graduation, it became suddenly clear to me that I was not ready to leave CEF. Applying to work full-time with an organization I wanted to spend all my time with anyway seemed so right, despite my resolve to leave the town I’d grown up in. More than a year later, I can’t imagine having done anything else.

If you ask me about the job I had for the past year, the first thing that comes to mind is not a literary descriptor, but a feeling. It is a literal, physical feeling in the chest and just a hint of a feeling behind the eyes, though I may not let the latter expose itself if I can help it. And if I have to put into words what that feeling embodies, I think – I’m pretty sure – that it’s the feeling of community. So, in reflection of my past year, I feel it is only appropriate to share what the community of working with CEF feels like.

To me, community feels like knowing everyone in the room and wanting so genuinely that it’s almost overwhelming to hear about all of their most recent triumphs and struggles. It feels like wishing you could slow down time amidst the buzz of productivity to fully celebrate with someone who just signed a lease on an apartment, or to listen and talk with someone who just learned of losing their job.

Community sometimes occupies a physical space in your body, or at least it feels that way when you can sense that the woman you’ve been meeting with every week is finally starting to believe in herself, and when after she moves away you receive a message from her just to thank you for standing by her, you are suddenly made aware that the phrase “heart swell” is not just poetic.

Community feels like an unstoppable smile taking control of your cheeks when you learn of happy news for a fellow community member. And when you subsequently realize that the most joyous moments of your day, as well as the lowest ones, are now most often vicarious, you can be sure that sense of community has something to do with it.

Community also feels secure in having the strongest network of support should you need it, and the mere thought of not being a part of that network feels scary.

Technically, we’re all a part of many communities: our city or town, our neighborhood, maybe our school or family or house or team. And while these communities are important, the one I’m talking about is not concretely defined by a geographic line or even a genetic bond. I think a true community is one that is borne out of love, gratitude, and appreciation for the commonalities of all of our experiences. (In CEF-speak: It really is all about the relationships.) A true community expresses itself in every-day feelings—feelings that build and go on to change the entirety of your expectations. I didn’t know the feeling of a true community until I worked with CEF, and I’m so incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity. Knowing this feeling, I don’t think I can go back. Thankfully, I don’t have to, because community also feels like something that will never leave you behind, no matter where your next “job” takes you.


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CEF: Community Empowerment Fund

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