Friday, December 13, 2013

For two VISTA sites in Chapel Hill, building capacity is about building relationships

Last week, NC Campus Compact visited two of our "community-based" VISTA host sites in Chapel Hill, NC: the Marion Cheek Jackson Center and the Community Empowerment Fund. Both sites are intimately connected with the university, but both engage students in new and exciting ways as they tackle tough community issues.
VISTAs Jacob and Sarah work at community agencies in Chapel Hill.

The Jackson Center grew out of oral history projects started in 2005 by UNC Communications Professor Della Pollack in the historically African-American Northside neighborhood. Today, the Center is an independent 501c3 "public history and community development center" that works to preserve affordable housing and family-owned housing in the neighborhood, empower residents and youth, and build community among traditional residents and resident students.

Working closely with the historic St. Joseph C.M.E. church next door, Jackson Center staff and volunteers support a variety of projects and partnerships that improve the quality of life in the neighborhood, including the Heavenly Groceries food pantry, which serves residents in need 5 days a week, and A Brush with Kindness, a partnership with Habitat for Humanity that provides exterior improvements to local homes. The Center also distributes a monthly neighborhood newsletter, organizes community events, and continues to collect and share local history through projects like Fusion Youth Radio.

Jacob in the festive office of the Jackson Center
Jackson Center VISTA Jacob Lerner is working to develop administrative systems, including a contact management database, that support all this work. He works with other Jackson Center staff to streamline the oversight of 9 UNC Bonner interns, and he continues to support the operations of the food pantry. But he is also laying the groundwork for new programs, including a partnership with the university's Good Neighbor Initiative (a project of the Office of Greek Life) which supports students living off-campus. The Jackson Center will help develop an orientation for off campus students to the neighborhood's history, help train a team of "off-campus RAs," and create opportunities for students and long-time residents to meet and convene. He is also helping to develop an "early alert" system which helps the Center stay informed of local and individual issues that impact housing. At the heart of Jacob's work is his efforts to develop relationships with and between neighbors and students. This has been the part of his VISTA work he likes best so far: facilitating introductions between students and community residents and seeing community and university volunteers work together to address hunger and improve housing. Read Jacob's recent update on his work in the Northside News here.

Just down Franklin Street at the center of downtown, the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) provides savings opportunities, small loans, workforce development, and relational support to unemployed and underemployed individuals. CEF began on campus as a project of UNC's Campus Y. Today, the student-run organization is a 501c3 non-profit that recruits, trains, and coordinates about 150 undergrad and graduate student volunteer "advocates" who work every week as "case managers" for the organization's 400 or so member clients.

VISTA Sarah and Supervisor Maggie West.
Sarah Cohn worked with the organization as a volunteer when she was a student at UNC; now that she is a VISTA, she is working to improve the structure and coordination of volunteers, as well as the volunteer intake process. Sarah has helped refine the team structure and develop more robust orientation and continuing education for advocates and team leaders. The volunteers meet weekly for training, reflection, and collaborative problem-solving, sharing information that can help address specific issues their member clients are facing. In the months ahead, Sarah will also help CEF analyze its member intake process and the system for matching members and volunteers. Like Jacob at the Jackson Center, the systems, processes, and trainings Sarah develops are all in the service of creating strong and beneficial relationships between members and advocates. Read Sarah's profile on the CEF blog!

One of the benefits of pairing student volunteers with members is that they learn to navigate complex social service networks and financial issues together. Though the students have some training, they are learning alongside members about how to access services, seek job-training, and develop financial stability. In this sense, advocates and members are very much partners, rather than "provider" and "client."

CEF co-founder and director Maggie West told us she wishes social service organizations in the area had the money and staff to meet the need with professional case management, but local agencies are in fact cutting back rather than expanding. In such an environment, the student advocates can make a difference for people who otherwise wouldn't get the kind of individualized attention and regular check-ins CEF provides.

Building capacity to build relationships that strengthen communities. That's VISTA impact!