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Spotlight on EmPOWERment Inc.

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DEC. 7, 2010 – The staff of EmPOWERment Inc. has figured out how to do a lot with a little. Hit hard by the declining economy, their numbers dwindled from eight people to three. But they have remained as active in the community as ever – managing affordable rental units, organizing community meetings, operating a small business incubator, and meeting otherwise unmet needs.

“Our new theme is, ‘EmPOWERment: Now, more than ever,’” said Delores Bailey, Executive Director. “It is important for us to stay alive. We have to. I think people take the things we do for granted, because we’re going to always do it; we’re going to find a way to make it happen for people.”

Last year, for example, EmPOWERment was able to help three homeless people secure living spaces. They recently handed out 30 turkeys and hams to families in need at Thanksgiving, and plan to hand out another 20 before Christmas. And when a family calls them, desperate, because they can’t pay their power bill and the heat is about to be shut off, EmPOWERment finds a way to keep the heat running.

“We’re that organization,” said Bailey. “And it’s amazing to see how people are lit up, just by something like a turkey. It’s the little details that we work on.”

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EmPOWERment’s staff includes Deanna Carson, Director of Community Programs, and Latanya Davis, Property Manager. They are a tight-knit group, each able and willing to cover for the others when needed. In March of 2011, EmPOWERment will be 15 years old. “The good thing is, we’ve been able to find a way to keep ourselves afloat all of this time,” said Bailey. “With the staff we’ve got and the resources that we have, we make it happen.”

Originally founded by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate students, who were answering the cry of a community struggling to preserve its neighborhood, EmPOWERment is and has always been largely based in community organizing. They facilitate monthly community watch meetings and created a program called the Good Neighbor Initiative, which is designed to foster positive relationships between the permanent residents and the students who come and go each year.

“In Chapel Hill, there’s a huge war between the residents in our communities and the students,” said Bailey. “So we created the Good Neighbor Initiative, which puts us out walking the streets and welcoming the students…kind of like a welcome wagon.”

In addition to their community organizing work, EmPOWERment manages a small business incubator with 10 available office spaces. Currently, their tenants include an architect focused on green building, an African hair braiding salon, a cleaning service, and a certified nursing association called Americare. “What people don’t realize,” said Bailey, “is that we produce an incredible number of jobs. Americare alone is about 30 to 40 employees.”

One of the businesses is GiftOasis, an online retail company which helps local artisans sell their unique, handmade gift items. As a graduate business student at UNC, Ron Clabo founded GiftOasis out of his apartment, but the arrangement was difficult for him and his family.

Renting office space in Chapel Hill is an expensive proposition, and most of the available spaces were far too large for a startup company. “Really, all I needed was one little office. Somewhere I could close the door,” said Clabo. He was directed to EmPOWERment’s Midway Business Center by a professor at UNC, and it was exactly what he needed. EmPOWERment only charges its business tenants a monthly rent. Their electricity and internet are paid for, and they have access to a copier, fax machine and conference room.

Having that space for meetings has helped Clabo establish credibility with potential business partners. “I think there are other entrepreneurs around who struggle with, ‘How do I get something going?’” he said. “I think a lot, today, certainly in this economy, we’re looking for entrepreneurs to go out and do what they do, and create jobs. But they need a lot of help, because it’s a hard process.”

In addition to the business center, EmPOWERment is building the affordable housing components of a new, 2,400 home, master-planned community in Chatham County called Briar Chapel. They are currently building three houses, with a goal of building 16. The affordable houses will cost $130,000-$150,000, compared to $205,000-$250,000 for the standard houses. “The houses, from the street, won’t look any different,” said Carson. “The difference is going to be the items in the house. So instead of marble countertops, they may have laminate. Instead of hardwood floors, they’ll be carpet. Subtle differences.”

Davis knows that the hard work is paying off, and that people appreciate all that they are able to do for the community. The time they spend on the ground, working directly with the people in the community, pays off in the form of increased visibility for the organization. “You could go out into this community and, it’s not just the word ‘EmPOWERment’…they’re going to know the names Deanna, Latanya and Delores,” she said. “They know who we are because we’re out there.”

There is still a lot to do, in order to resolve the town’s economic disparities. “Chapel Hill is a huge town of the haves versus the have-nots,” said Bailey. “And those that don’t have, almost don’t have a voice, or almost take the  attitude of, ‘I may as well not fight.’ It’s not as much about the fight, as helping them organize that voice, and taking it down to town hall and using it. It’s letting the community know that your voice is not lost just because it’s a small voice. But you have to use it.”