By Vanessa Clarke
Founded after the social unrest that erupted following the Keith Lamont Scott killing in 2016, Unite Charlotte, a United Way of Central Carolinas initiative, has given new life to local grassroots organizations in the Charlotte area that work to advance racial equality and address economic mobility.
Unite Charlotte has flourished under the leadership of the director of External Engagement, Sam Smith. Since Smith began working with Unite Charlotte in 2019, the program has transformed into one that helps to break down systemic barriers that often impede organizations that have Black and Brown leaders that are committed to serving marginalized groups. Unite Charlotte seeks to give organizations led by people of color a more pronounced voice in how they want to change and uplift their communities.
By the end of this year, Unite Charlotte will have awarded $2.2 million in funding to 33 organizations. Leaders of these agencies will also have an opportunity to earn a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke University to help amplify their community impact.
The Unite Charlotte program has a few requirements that Smith said “helped United Way move more toward a racial equity space… as this will be the face of what United Way will look like.” The organization must be led by a person of color, work toward racial equity and make below $250,000 in revenue. Unite Charlotte recipients must also submit a report detailing how they will use the funding. The final selections are made by an annually rotating panel of community leaders, clergy, elected officials, activists and other community members.
Funding that Unite Charlotte gives to the chosen nonprofits has an unrestricted use and allows the leaders to use the funds for “anything that helps the health of the organization, such as salaries, supplies, utilities, and other things,” Smith said.
Three outstanding nonprofit organizations that have received Unite Charlotte funding are The Academy of Goal Achievers, the Premier Foundation of North Carolina and GardHouse.
The Academy of Goal Achievers
When Courtnie Coble was preparing to apply for college, the only research she did was searching the internet. That’s why she founded The Academy of Goal Achievers (TAOGA) in 2015 to help families support their children’s transition to college. TAOGA holds sessions on preparing for college that include financially preparing for college, building self-esteem within the home and steps to the college application process. In the first year of the organization’s four-year program, there were 15 students in the cohort. Today TAOGA has 124 students.
When she saw the students’ parents waiting in the parking lot for their children, Coble decided to create a special program for them. The parents’ program coaches parents on supporting their children through post-secondary school life and also helps them discover new paths for themselves. Just before the pandemic hit, TAOGA sent their first parent back to school.
But high school students are the main focus of the organization. TAOGA has a zero percent dropout rate (even through the pandemic) and they have a 100 percent high school graduation rate with 94 percent going to college and the other six percent choosing other education and career paths.
The Premier Foundation of North Carolina
Started in 2015 by Dr. Martez Prince, The Premier Foundation of North Carolina (PFNC) provides a holistic health experience for the Grier Heights community of Charlotte. The organization hosts programs that focus on mental health, physical health and financial wellness, all with a focus on community outreach, regardless of age. In 2020, PFNC went from face-to-face work with the community to Zoom fatigue as they dealt with some families not having access to the internet or a computer. PFNC had to find a way to continue their hard work in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. They used the relationships and community that they built around them and became a hub of information and resources for the neighborhood, including leading in the effort to get community members vaccinated.
Kenneth Johnson, PFNC president, says that one of the benefits of the Unite Charlotte program is not just the funding, but that “the resources were provided upfront” to allow for immediate use without stipulations. Because PFNC’s work is not restricted to a specific age group, this has been paramount to their ability to provide services to the community as it is needed; though, it is not lost on Johnson that not as much would have been possible without the relationship built on community trust.
In 2019, Jonathan Gardner formed GardHouse to focus on post-graduate success. In addition to assisting community members in finding employment, GardHouse looked at the needs of the students and the community and wanted to address the social capital deficit. Their model mandates paid internships at minority-led businesses, creating space to foster social capital that will help students advance as industry leaders with the expectation of a competitive pay rate. For Gardner, it was important that the students made the $2,500 a semester they were qualified for. “They are getting opportunities at corporations that they feel they may never have had the chance to work for,” said Gardner.
Having learned perseverance from his single mother, Gardner channeled that energy once the pandemic hit. GardHouse connected students with paid internships in 2020 and collaborated with its fellow Unite Charlotte grant recipients. GardHouse lived by the words of its founder, “You can have dreams, but work your butt off to get it!”