Chapel Hill: Opinion

Maggie West: An ode to the Center on Poverty

The UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity has worked to combat the causes and effects of poverty in our state, and is now being closed because of thinly veiled, politically motivated retribution for the vision and leadership of a group that won’t stay quiet in the face of blatant attacks on poor and working people from our current General Assembly.

The Poverty Center has provided invaluable support to the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) since we were founded in 2009, with staff first acting as faculty advisers to UNC undergraduate volunteers and now serving on our board of directors. As a source of teaching, research, and supportive service for CEF, the Poverty Center has empowered over 500 undergraduate students at both UNC and Duke to engage meaningfully in addressing issues of poverty in our community. Through CEF, student volunteers provide relationship-based support to individuals experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness, working towards goals of gaining employment, securing housing, and building savings. In addition to their supportive role, the Poverty Center extended their reach this past year to provide direct legal assistance to CEF members, assisting ex-offenders with reentering the workforce.

However, I do not write today solely in my role with CEF. I write as a graduate of UNC, Class of 2010, who was profoundly impacted by the leadership, light, and unwavering commitment to public service of the Poverty Center.

I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to the work of the North Carolina Fund, which under the leadership of Gov. Terry Sanford, George Esser, and activists from poor communities across the state, worked to address the crippling poverty facing NC in the 1970’s. In 2008, the Poverty Center helped facilitate documentary screenings and dialogues with former leaders of the NC Fund in partnership with the student organization that I led. The experience of listening to Ann Atwater during those dialogues helped to form my understanding of the collective power of a community standing together in unity and across differences.

I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to Rev. Dr. William Barber, when the center co-sponsored a keynote address by Rev. Barber in 2007. Eight years ago, his oratory shook me to my core and left me believing anew in the potential for opportunity for all people here in our state. Because of this faith, I’m still here, and again at HKonJ Reverend Barber reminded me why.

I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to the devastating depth of the racial wealth disparity in North Carolina. The Center published research in 2010 which demonstrated that for every dollar in savings in a white household in NC, an African-American household held only six cents. This study was nothing short of a call to action for me.

I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to the world of community development finance, stewarding a connection to leaders of Self-Help Credit Union in 2009. This connection completely transformed my understanding of the role of financial institutions in advancing economic opportunity for all people. As a result of this connection, CEF was able to launch our matched savings program, which has since enabled 298 homeless and near-homeless individuals to save over $300,000 towards personal savings goals.

And all of that was just while I was an undergraduate student.

As I reflect on the countless ways the Poverty Center has served as “a center for research, scholarship, and creativity” in my own journey at Carolina, I can think of few centers that fit more closely with the mission of UNC, seeking “to improve our society and to help solve the world’s greatest problems.” And I suppose that is exactly what the current members of the Board of Governors are taking issue with: a mission of education that seeks to bring “lux, libertas,” light and liberty to the state of North Carolina, when the days of darkness and slavery were so much more profitable.

So when Jim Holmes from the Working Group of the Board of Governors says, “I struggle to see how the poverty center fits with the academic mission of the UNC law school to train the next generation of lawyers,” and I juxtapose my own experience as a student so deeply affected by the Poverty Center’s teachings, research, and service, I know that there is no mistaking the true motivation behind the board’s proposed action.

And so, it is with a heart full of gratitude that I say to the staff of the Poverty Center: You changed my life. And because of that, one of the worst fears of these members of the Board of Governors has come true: I’ve been properly educated, and I will never stop fighting.