Our History

A Brief History of End Poverty Durham

by Mel Williams, Coordinator of End Poverty Durham

For years I have had a growing concern about the disparity between rich and poor in our city. Durham has the highest median wage in North Carolina; yet as we begin 2012, we have an escalating poverty rate—an 18 percent adult poverty rate and a 28 percent child poverty rate. This situation is unacceptable, shameful, and contrary to the teachings of our faith. Our faith calls us to care for “the least of these” and to provide opportunities for those who are least privileged.

In 2004 I said to my colleague Haywood Holderness, “We in the faith community need to do something about the poverty in Durham!” Haywood said, “Call a meeting, and I’ll be there.” We convened a group of Durham faith leaders– Christian, Jewish, and Muslim— to struggle with how the faith community can respond to the grinding poverty in our city. Our End Poverty Durham (EPD) group has now met monthly, with 15 to 20 leaders participating each month. Early in the process, we set these goals: 1. to make our congregations aware of the crisis of poverty in our city, and 2. to develop a plan to eliminate this crisis within the next 25 years.

Poverty can be overwhelming. It’s many-faceted and complex. Initially our group talked about five major areas affecting the poor: education, housing, health care, jobs, and family support (day care, transportation, etc.). The consensus of our group was to focus on jobs. We began by exploring the Jobs for Life program, where congregations provide a support system for a person seeking employment. The Jobs for Life training was held in three or four congregations, especially in low income areas of the city. It was minimally successful.

We have now sponsored and supported three initiatives—a job training center, a child poverty focus, and the REAL Durham initiative in East Durham. We found a model for job training in Greensboro, NC called Welfare Reform Liaison Project, founded by Rev. Odell Cleveland. After taking various teams to visit the Greensboro center, our End Poverty Group decided to adapt this model for Durham. Now after two years of planning, we launched in 2009 the Durham Economic Resource Center (DERC).

The Center is a large warehouse where low income residents can purchase products at drastically reduced prices. It’s a “low income Costco or Sam’s Club.” The main purpose of DERC is to serve as a magnet to draw under/unemployed persons for supervised job training. With initial 2008 funding from the Stewards Fund in Raleigh, we hired a start-up coordinator, Dr. Micheline Malson, who worked part-time for a year.

In 2009 we hired Jackie Brown as full-time CEO, and we leased warehouse space at 118 Hunt Street in downtown Durham. With non-profit status and a Board of Directors, DERC has now trained 250 low income residents, and 70 percent of these have found jobs or further education. It’s working! DERC is helping lift people from poverty to self-sufficiency.

The second initiative of End Poverty Durham has been a child poverty initiative. With a rising 28 percent child poverty rate, we formed a work team, led by Ann Stock, to tackle this situation with faith and vision. The group completed interviews with 50 congregations to discover what congregations are doing for the 0 to 5 population and what resources are needed. Working in collaboration with the Durham Partnership for Children and the Durham Family Initiative, End Poverty Durham then found funding to employ a part-time faith community coordinator, attorney Frances Dyer, to direct the child poverty initiative, also known as the “early childhood faith initiative.” Winnie Morgan has served as coordinator until funding was depleted in December 2014. We continue to focus on ways congregations can support the crucial work with the birth to 5 population.

In 2010 EPD also formed a work team to help find Durham sites for the Benefit Bank of NC, a new initiative that provides volunteers with a computer to help low income residents apply for benefits for which they are eligible. As of January 2012 we now have 32 BB sites in Durham. Ralph Gildehaus of MDC directs the statewide Benefit Bank initiative.

In 2012 EPD sponsored the launch of REAL Durham, an initiative focused in East Durham, matching a family in material poverty with 2 to 4 Allies, meeting weekly for 18 months. Based on an outcome-based model, REAL Durham seeks these outcomes: 1. Increased income, 2. Increased assets, 3. Decreased debt, 4. Decreased reliance on public assistance, and 4. 2 to 4 Allies they can count on. REAL Durham is led a 16-member Core Leadership Team and a 30 member Guiding Coalition. Offices are located in Antioch Baptist Church, 1415 Holloway Street. Staff members include Camryn Smith, coordinator; Aidil Hill, interim Coach, Veronica Terry, childcare coordinator, and Jane Cox, fundraising specialist. Fiscal agent for REAL Durham is Durham Congregations in Action, Spencer Bradford, executive director.

The goal of EPD is to mobilize our Durham congregations to provide resources that increase the quality of care for our children. We want to be proactive in reducing later adolescent behaviors that can result in school dropouts, drugs, and gangs.

At our monthly EPD meetings (third Wednesdays at 9 am), we have participants from a variety of faith traditions, with representatives from non-profits such as East Durham Children’s Initiative, KidZNotes (lifting children out of poverty through training in classical music), Partners for Youth Opportunity, Made in Durham, Durham Economic Resource Center, REAL Durham, and others. The monthly meetings provide an opportunity for collaboration and cooperation.

We seek to gather faith leaders and others who are called for long-term involvement in removing the scourge of poverty. Our goal is to be a catalyst and connector, to start new initiatives that are needed and to connect existing agencies with resources that can help to reduce and eventually eliminate poverty in our city.