Let the People Take the Lead: The Community Empowerment Fund

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Community Empowerment Fund

Let the People Take the Lead

The Community Empowerment Fund

The Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) is a non-profit organization focused on working with people to make successful transitions out of homelessness and poverty. It started in 2009 as a UNC student group called “Hope” wherein people living in shelters or transitional housing came together with students to deepen connections and build community.

During one of Hope’s social activities, a soccer game, it learned one of its members had recently been denied a job because he didn’t have a pair of work boots. After seeing first-hand how a relatively small amount of capital could have changed everything, Hope decided to shift its focus and created the Community Empowerment Fund.

The CEF offered micro-loans up to $300 to individuals experiencing, or at-risk of homelessness. This project broke the national groundwork for such a service.

Evolution followed. CEF began helping members secure housing, gain employment, and increase their financial literacy.

In 2010, with guidance from Self Help Credit Union, CEF started a “Safe Savings” program. Members open an account with no initial deposit, never pay any fees, and regularly meet one-on-one with a volunteer student advocate who helps them set and implement financial goals for housing, transportation, emergencies, and more. Program logistics don’t allow money to be available 24/7, but members appreciate this buffer—it encourages them to plan ahead for spending needs as they make headway toward their goals. 

Another popular goal is buying a laptop. Thanks to help from UNC’s Technology Without Borders and Durham-based Kramden Institute, CEF is able to offer members refurbished laptops for $100.

For many members, the Safe Savings program is their first experience with a financial service. For others it’s a reintroduction, and one that won’t be exploited. Members gain (or regain) a sense of trust in the program, then gradually empower themselves with achievements made along the way.

Jon Young, one of CEF’s three co-directors (and also a co-founder), said, “The general perception is that the homeless and low-income communities can’t or don’t know to save. But CEF has found that this isn’t true.”

In 2016, CEF’s members exceeded $700,000 in cumulative savings at their locations in Chapel Hill and Durham. The “Member Stories” section of their website gives voice to many people who have obtained employment and secured housing while working with volunteer advocates.

CEF’s model inherently harvests a sense of community. Take, for example, the student advocates. Not only are they eager to help, but their limited life experience actually contributes to the breaking down of traditional hierarchal barriers. A common outcome of the member-advocate partnership is an unintentional, yet invaluable reciprocity.

“CEF’s members teach student advocates about social responsibility,” Jon said. “They work with each other, not for each other.”

Further demonstrating their innovation while also influencing the current political landscape, CEF and its members created the “CEF Advocacy Choir” and performed at churches and other venues during last year’s election season. They sang about the dire need for affordable housing in Orange County. They sang in support of the $5 million housing bond. The choir educated while, no doubt, entertained voters.

The bond passed.

CEF has expanded quickly, starting in 2009 with 13 members and ending 2016 with more than 1000. It remains wary of this growth since a deep understanding of the specific community, whether in Orange or Durham County, is imperative to do this work. CEF dedicates itself to mindfully taking the time to reflect, change, and alter ideas to better fit its members’ needs. To empower them.

CEF’s scope may be wide, but its focus is simple: find ways to let the people in the community take the lead.