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.