Thursday, August 19, 2010

Community Partners

In the months of June and July, we developed a partnership with Housing for New Hope. Housing for New Hope "is a dynamic nonprofit organization working to prevent and end homelessness one valuable person at a time." They own housing complexes in Durham and they place individuals in them and provide them with support after they have moved in. They invited us to a staff meeting in mid-June. It was decided that we would have the second small business training at their new Williams Square apartment complex beginning in late July. There is a lot of potential in this partnership because our services are very complementary. Once they have housed individuals, our role would be to provide education, training and capital to augment income to help ensure that they can stay in housing begin to build assets. (It is very common for this population to lose housing soon after they attained it because of insufficient funds to maintain rent, utilities, etc.) Our services, since they are small group classes, also provide a way to build a small supportive community within the housing complex, as another common feature of this population is isolation and lack of social networks. Housing for New Hope is a great partner for CEF because they have defined location and they know all of their clients well and can refer who they think would benefit most. So this first small business training is an experiment/rehearsal to see how this partnership plays out and to identify specific needs within the Housing for New Hope community.

Our second partnership is with the local universities, namely Duke and Durham Tech. We have continued to work closely with a few Duke students, and perhaps one of the biggest challenges has been to reconcile the difference in the two university cultures and their respective leadership styles. It has been productive and instructive to see how different universities work, but not exactly seamless. Durham Tech has been very receptive, but logistically more difficult to coordinate with simply because they are outside of the downtown area. We also have had difficulty coordinating with NC Central U, but we have been told we will have better luck in the fall when students return. It remains to be seen how college and university partnerships will develop around microfinance in Durham.

Working with CEF's main community partner, Self-Help Credit Union, has been very rewarding. One of the best aspects of the internship is meeting with our mentor, Thad Moore, the VP of Self-Help each week to assess what has been accomplished and to problem solve. The main topic we have been discussing is how to design and negotiate a type of savings account for the special needs of our population. Most of our clients do not have bank accounts. Many of them have had bank accounts in the past and had to close them due to overdraft fees that they could not pay. As a result, they are tagged in Chex Systems and cannot afford the fees to open a new account. Others don't have accounts because accounts can be garnished if one owes taxes, child support, hospital bills, etc. Another reason that some don't have accounts is because the Department of Social Servics will take away benefits if they have more than $2000 in the bank. Taking all of these factors into account, CEF is trying to find a way for clients to save and build assets. Thad has been brainstorming with us and connecting us to people that could be helpful in this endeavor. Thad is a really excellent mentor. He is very fair and supportive, and really helps us to examine problems with a critical eye.
In addition, Self-Help has been having weekly Brown Bags for the interns with representatives from each department, including Resource/Policy, Accounting and Finance, Residential Real Estate Development, Commercial Lending, and the policy arm of Self-Help, the Center for Responsible Lending. They gave us an overview of what these departments do and show how each one interacts with the others to address the overall mission of "Creating and protecting ownership and economic opportunity for people of color, women, rural residents and low-wealth families and communities."

In addition, Self-Help arranged two all-day activities for us. One was to staff the opening of Maplewood Apartments, a project that started over 7 years ago. It is an apartment complex for senior citizens in the Maplewood neighborhood and is a part of Self-Help's local mission of revitalizing impoverished neighborhoods in Durham. The Real Estate team also took us on tour of the neighborhood to show what else Self-Help has done. Essentially, their strategy has been to invest in dilapidated properties, refurbish the homes (or build new ones) and sell them to low-income individuals from Durham. They aquire properties and revitalize them all at once so that the neighborhood feels the impact in a substantial way. The other all-day activity was to go on a field-trip to meet a few of Self-Help's borrowers. One was a local, downtown restaurant and the other was a Latino-owned clothing store in North Durham. They showed us how the loan process worked and the borrowers spoke to their experience with Self-Help. The day ended with a few hours time with the founder and CEO of Self-Help, Martin Eakes. He told us the story of how Self-Help started and some of the more instructive and stories in Self-Help's early history. It was a pretty monumental day in seeing how Self-Help is directly impacting the community and how it has grown over the last 30 years. On this day as well, Self-Help announced that in honor of Self-Help's 30 year anniversary, employees would volunteer a combined 30 hours outside of their work day to help a non-profit grow and improve, and they chose CEF!! So amazingly, beyond everything they have done, Self-Help is going to come together to help us improve our loan, savings and education programs, and potentially to help us form our own independent non-profit. We were stunned and amazed that they would take time out to do this. This partnership has proven to be a substantial push of energy for CEF who is really prospering from Self-Help's tutelage and support.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mid-June through July: Small Business Training Season

  • What is the current status of your project?
  • How does your fellowship experience compare to your initial expectations?
  • What has been the most rewarding and challenging aspect of working with your community partner?
  • What role has your faculty mentor played in guiding your work and helping you to address any problems that you have faced?
  • In what ways have you needed to be flexible?

Current Status of the Project

I will divide the status of this project into three categories: small business trainings, community partners and volunteers.

Small Business Trainings

As of July 31st, we have completed two small business trainings: one in downtown Durham and one in Chapel Hill . In the last week of July, we started the third small business training in north Durham.

The first small business training in Durham was hosted by the Center for Responsible Lending. It is a beautiful space: a high-ceiling conference room with a large projection screen and it gave the training a very professional, esteemed feeling. There were five attendees. Three were from the shelter, one from transitional housing, and one lived in a nearby neighborhood. There was excellent chemistry in this class- a lot of support and creativity amongst the participants. Not to mention, three Self-Help Credit Union employees took their lunch hour to come down to volunteer as teachers and consultants which really added substantial expertise and positive energy. They were able to add a lot of real-life and local examples that made the curriculum a lot more relevant

Two of the participants really distinguished themselves and are working with us to this day. One client has been homeless for eleven years and has five children, ages 4 to 17. Born into the foster care system, she has struggled all of her life to find stability and security and hasn't found it. She is currently in the shelter and fears for her own safety and that of her four-year-old daughters. She has an indomitable spirit and warmth and has a sincere desire to get of her situation. As she has a learning disability, school has not been a viable option for advancement, and so she believes a small business is her best bet for getting out of poverty. She has cleaned houses in the past and hopes to build a more formal and sustainable house-cleaning business. We discussed the "green industry" in class, and she hopes to incorporate green products and practices into her business. A housecleaning business is an excellent option for her because it requires very low start-up costs. We are currently working with her to make a logo and brochure. We are also working with her to find housing, hopefully in Orange County where it is safer for her daughter, transportation is free, and where more resources are available to her. Of all the clients we have served, I would say that her situation is one of the most alarming. Plenty of our clients are in and out of housing, but very few have young children with them. Three of us will work with her personally at least up until December. She is a strong and motivated woman and I think she is on the cusp of making substantial improvements.

The second client is a vibrant, motivated lady in her 60s living in the Walltown neighborhood. This neighborhood has changed considerably over last ten years. It is a very diverse, healthy and cooperative neighborhood with a good number of low-income residents. Her business idea is to convert one the second bedroom in her duplex apartment into a media center offering fax, notary, and computer services. She is thinking of the senior citizens who are not able to travel far and students who do not have access to computers and printers at home. She is a popular and respected lady in her community and they have expressed a lot of hope and joy in her starting this business. CEF is especially supportive of this business because of its community-building capacity. Self-Help was able to find office chairs, a fax and two computers that the client has bought for a very affordable price. CEF volunteers are working with her on her logo and on installing the equipment. This client is a truly inspiring lady who took to the concepts of marketing, bookkeeping and pricing immediately. She is a natural entrepreneur.

From this first small business training, we learned that five students makes for an optimal number of students. You can have a relaxed, conversational environment and there is a better chance of meeting their individual needs and getting to know them better. Also this was the first time we did not offer loans. We were afraid that no one would attend without that incentive, but that was not the case. We learned that for recruitment, we have to do a lot of on-site flyering and hand-shaking. In the future, we will hold the first session (which is a business idea brainstorm) on site at the various locations. We also learned that the Self-Help is a very generous supporting group of people and that holding the course there helped both organizations understand one another better. Special thanks to Sherry, Merald, Napoleon and Ashley for all of their support and assistance.

The second small business training took place in Chapel Hill instead of Durham because it was too logistically challenging to get enough UNC volunteers to come to Durham that often. CEF also wanted to keep a presence in Chapel Hill and we were stretched too thin to add a fourth small business training. This is one example of how we have had to be flexible this summer. (Flexibility in CEF is a way of life. One skill we really worked on was going into a situation and trying to find opportunity in what at first seemed like a failure. For example, if only a few people showed up to a class, we would grab the opportunity to substantially help those two people and not be concerned with low attendance. Our attitude and approach in this regard helped enormously.)

The first day we had more than 15 people show up (along with 10 children, which we were not prepared for!) . This number dropped down to six graduates by the end of the course. A lot of students (both those that stayed and those who left) were outside of our scope. They already had businesses or they were educated middle-class individuals that had just been laid off. It became clear very early that our curriculum and skill set did not match those of the needs of perhaps 50% of the students. Of those that were in the target population, all but two dropped out. Why? Unclear. We didn't track reasons for recidivism only because our energies and resources were limited and we only had the capacity to put energy into those that stuck with it. I think we will focus more on retention in the future as our capacity to serve grows and becomes more stable.

We are currently focusing our follow-up energies on the two graduated clients that are in our target population. One was recently released prison and wants to start a landscaping business. A volunteer is designing a logo with this individual. The other client is currently homeless but employed. She is saving money with our program so she can get housed and start a beauty consultant business. Both are wonderful people with a lot of drive and motivation.

I will discuss the third small business training in the August posting.

Information on community partners and volunteers forthcoming....

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

May to Mid-June

The goal of this summer is to expand the Community Empowerment Fund's ( operations to Durham, North Carolina. CEF, a UNC-based student organization, aims to empower those that are homeless, or at-risk of being homeless, in the local community to lift themselves out of hardship and realize their dreams and aspirations. Adapted from the Grameen model of micro-finance, CEF's current operations include small business training courses, small business loans, financial literacy training, and savings opportunities.
Expanding to Durham involves 1) bringing together a team of Duke, NCCU, and Durham Tech students (who will lead the organization after the summer), develop community partnerships, and teach small business trainings. These small business trainings are as a starting point for implementing direct services in the area. Other services will be added over time as the Durham team develops its capacity and goals.

So far, the project has been very fast-paced and very productive. At this point, the Durham team consists of three committed Duke students who are very motivated and excited about the project. Just yesterday, we made major in-roads at Durham Tech. We met with a dean who is very supportive and is willing to partner with us to 1) find student leaders that will partner with the Duke students, 2) provide educational counseling for our clients 3) offer space to hold small business trainings and financial literacy training for Durham Tech students and 4) potentially integrate CEF into their new Service- Learning project. So so there will be a few more Durham Tech students joining the team. We are in conversation with NCCU, however they seem to downsize considerably in the summer. We will continue to try however.

Durham Tech's receptivity and willingness to partner is very representative of how easy it has been to create partnerships in Durham. Another productive partnership is with the Department of Social Services. The folks we have been working with there work with those that have been recently housed with federal funds and are receiving financial assistance for three months. However, these potential clients are in need of services like small business trainings and financial literacy trainings in order to find ways to sustain their ability to pay the rent and utilities after three months. Having this connection with DSS is really helpful in reaching out to potential clients. Maintaining this relationship will help to have a constant stream of referrals over the months to come.

The first two small business trainings are scheduled. We decided to have one of the three in Chapel Hill as a teacher's training ground for Chapel Hill volunteers who will be helping to staff the Durham trainings. Also, running a Durham training and Chapel Hill training side-by-side helps us to compare and contrast the needs of the two different communities. The first training begins Friday, June 25th, 1-3pm at Job Link on 503 Franklin St. (see website for more scheduling details- all are welcome to attend)

The second training will be in Durham beginning July 6th. (see website for more scheduling details). The Durham training will be held on the first floor of the Center for Responsible Lending building on Main St. The CRL is an affiliate of Self-Help Credit Union (, where we are interning this summer. They have been incredibly helpful in providing mentorship, connecting us with community partners, providing meeting space, space for the trainings and organizational support. Individuals from all departments have reached out to us and expressed their interest and willingness to help.

In the next two weeks, we will be doing outreach in Chapel Hill and Durham to promote the small business trainings.

And great news! We received a grant from the NC Humanities Council to make a documentary of our small business training and some of the entrepreneurs. This will happen in early August.

The main challenge right now is prioritizing and staying focused on just the small business trainings in Chapel Hill and Durham. There are a lot of other program initiatives happening right now in CEF: a Latino Initiative (a Spanish-language small-business training in Chapel Hill/Carrboro) and a savings and financial literacy program that is being launched and piloted next week. At Self-Help, there are a variety of projects and learning opportunites we are involved in. It is really crucial that I stay focused on small business trainings and the Durham expansion in order that these projects are effective.

So far, this summer has proven to be as every bit as energizing and exciting as I had hoped. There is a lot of promise here. By the next update, I will be able to report on how the small business trainings are going. I look forward to it!