EmPOWERment Inc. Continues to Strengthen Orange County Community Through Community Organizing, Housing, and Development
As the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in North Carolina, EmPOWERment inc.’s Executive Director Delores Bailey began researching the financial options available to her as a nonprofit. As the leader of an organization focused on empowering individuals through community organizing, affordable housing, and grassroots economic development, she certainly had an upper hand in navigating the various governmental programs available, such as PPP loans. But she quickly realized that many local businesses might not have that same knowledge.
Delores acted quickly, gathering together prominent Black leaders from the Chapel Hill community like members of a local sorority, an attorney, and a professor at UNC. They wanted to put together a community-wide class that would teach local minority-owned business owners how to access these new governmental aid programs. She had hoped that maybe ten local businesses would attend. Over thirty showed up instead.
These classes continue to meet months later. Delores explains that “Even though the PPP program ended, we continue to meet for the commodity, for the sharing of information.”
Classes and information-sharing are not the only services EmPOWERment is offering businesses throughout the pandemic. The organization has also worked directly with local businesses themselves to secure more funding. When one local daycare had accidentally filed the wrong paperwork for their PPP loan, EmPOWERment was able to step in, correct the mistake, and ultimately secure the facility a $45,000 loan.
The organization has always had a strong relationship with local businesses. In fact, one of EmPOWERment’s most prominent programs is their small business incubator, which provides small business owners who face certain racial, gender, or socioeconomic barriers with the necessary tools to successfully grow their businesses.
This program manifests itself in the form of the Midway Business Center in Chapel Hill, which provides ten small businesses with over 6,000 square feet of affordable office and retail space as well as shared business equipment and strong support from EmPOWERment and the local community.
Perhaps the strongest support that EmPOWERment provides these businesses is reduced rents and lower overhead costs. Delores Bailey emphasizes that this financial intervention is necessary to help some small businesses survive, particularly minority-owned businesses.
“If you go into a bank and ask them for a loan so that you can grow your business, they’re not going to do that for you. If you’re African American or female, they’re going to look at you different. The same thing goes for renting. And so, the business center was built intentionally for that.”
EmPOWERment does far more than economic development. The organization also owns 59 affordable housing units that it rents out to homeless, disabled, and low-income residents. When COVID hit, about a third of these tenants found themselves out of work or unable to pay their rent. EmPOWERment was able to pay the entirety of their rent and has continued to pay rent for some tenants as well.
These tenants also find ways to pay it forward. At the beginning of the pandemic, EmPOWERment and their tenants handed out food, toilet paper, and other essential supplies alongside other local nonprofits.
Empowering and supporting the Chapel Hill community guides every decision that EmPOWERment makes. Using funding they received from the Coastal Credit Union Foundation, EmPOWERment purchased gift cards to Target, Harris Teeter, Wal-Mart, and other stories and distributed them throughout the community.
When handing out the cards, Delores and her team realized they could use the opportunity to further empower the community. “When we give them a card, here’s what they have to give us back: they must allow us to have a budgeting session with them. They sit down with our HUD (Housing and Urban Development) approved counseling agent and have a budgeting class. So, there is a financial literacy component.”
EmPOWERment also provides financial literacy counseling surrounding the pre- and post- homeownership process, as well as foreclosure management. Since the pandemic, the demand for these services has doubled. Delores explains that many people are simply asking “What kind of assistance is there? Can somebody explain to me what I need to do to my mortgage?” And she and the EmPOWERment team try to answer those questions.
When asked about why EmPOWERment chose to empower Black residents through business ownership, community organizing and ensuring access to secure housing as their guiding principles, Delores gets straight to the point.
“Well I think a lot of people don’t understand is that Chapel Hill is built on the back of Black businesses, whether it was a stonemason that did all that work over on UNC’s campus, or a shoe cobbler, or a flower peddler selling flowers on Franklin Street. And these businesses somehow got pushed to the end of the street.”
Delores and her team aren’t letting up and have a plethora of additional programs in development to assist the Chapel Hill community throughout the remainder of the pandemic and beyond. One of those programs, the MOM fund (named after three supporters of the organization), is preparing to help low-income residents once the moratorium on utilities is lifted.
“We have $20,000 set aside. We will pay up to $200 towards their utility bill. It will be first-come, first-served. We aren’t going to judge, we’re just going to pay a few hundred dollars towards their bill.”
It’s these small but necessary acts that support EmPOWERment’s mission. The organization claims to not only be building homes and businesses but to be building lives. Quite frankly, it’s easy to see that it’s building something that will last.