“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead’s quote eloquently describes what I see on a regular basis living and working in Durham, North Carolina. Since moving south from Washington, D.C. two years ago, I’m consistently humbled and inspired to hear what various groups are doing to improve the local community.
I recently attended a meeting hosted by the North Carolina Chapter of the B Corporation and heard a brief presentation from local B Corp Seth Gross, owner of Durham-based brewpub, Bull City Burger. In his remarks, he described how he opened Bull City Burger in 2011 and noticed a significant turnover in staff he had during his first year. After thoughtful consideration, he decided to focus more time, effort and resources on creating a work environment that was conducive to staff retention and a greater community impact. Bull City Burger was one of the, if not the, first restaurant to become certified as a B Corp in 2014. His leadership, willingness to share his story and advice to other restaurateurs and business owners have inspired countless others. North Carolina boasts 37 certified B Corps throughout the state.
Seth’s story with Bull City Burger is just one story among so many others that reflect the city’s level of community engagement.
My interview with Rob Shields, below, takes a deeper dive into the non-profit organization ReCity and its role in “rewriting the story” of Durham.
“Durham incubator works to aid youth employment” local ABC news clip: http://abc11.com/video/embed/?pid=1722793
Rob Shields, Executive Director of ReCity
Me: How did you end up doing the work that you’re currently doing? Describe your journey to your current role as Executive Director of ReCity. Describe why you’re passionate about addressing youth disconnection…why others should care about the work you’re doing.
Rob Shields: I’ve been in the youth development space for my whole career – sports coach to a campus-based youth ministry Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) to my current role as Executive Director at ReCity – and although my roles have differed, my professional interests have been in serving youth.
Through the years, I became more aware of division within communities. It really opened my eyes to the reality that communities of color experienced in daily life. The gap between rich and poor was huge and I became discontent with structures and systems that reinforced widening of that gap. From there I wanted to focus on community development and envisioned a thriving community where all individuals had opportunities to succeed. And that’s what attracted me to this role at ReCity. I wondered if this model could this be the solution to magnify programs that were already working and facilitate connections to foster collaboration between those programs. We aren’t trying to compete or reinvent the wheel, but our driving force is how best to serve the community.
I have a strong conviction and belief that talent is equally distributed but opportunity isn’t. And this bothers me. Everyone has dignity and we all have God-given skills and abilities and I want to be part of a city that has opportunities for all to find their way. The gap between rich and poor is too wide and ReCity would ideally play a role in creating the city as it should be.
Me: What inspires you on a daily basis, especially when things get hard?
RS: I draw a lot of inspiration from my Christian faith. My belief in serving a god that is redemptive and restorative in nature. I’m inspired to follow in his example of being involved in work that restores and I feel called to do so. My wife and kids are another source of inspiration and perspective. The startup world is tough and it’s so easy to lose one’s identity in work. My family provides me a constant reminder that I have other priorities that I’m responsible for. They bring balance by slowing me down to a marathon pace when I’m normally sprinting.
Me: Can you tell us more about ReCity and your vision for the next 5 or 10 years?
RS: ReCity is a co-working space for nonprofits and mission-driven organizations committed to restoring opportunities for disconnected youth and their families in Durham. Our space empowers our partner organizations to work alongside each other to close the opportunity gaps in our community through strengthening collaboration and pooling resources as well as social capital to achieve collective impact.
In five years we envision ReCity playing a role in rallying the city to act collectively to address social issues like youth disconnection. And since youth disconnection is a complex mix of underlying core social issues, a focus on youth disconnection specifically would simultaneously address disparities and injustices in other areas like education, housing, and transportation among others. We hope to provide a path to stable employment to 1,000 youth by our third year.
In 10 years, I can see our model as a template to address any complex social issue in any city. The beauty in our model is its simplicity. Living out shared values together in a shared space can accelerate the collaboration needed to solve complex problems plaguing cities nationwide. At the core, these issues are not unique to Durham and we hope that others can find value in what we’re doing.
Me: What role does the community have in addressing social issues like youth disconnection, poverty, unemployment, etc.?
RS: Community leaders are vital in shaping our work. We fully recognize that it’s their community; they are the most invested and are the key stakeholders, which is why we follow their lead when it comes to planning and decision-making. ReCity’s role in addressing youth disconnection in Durham has evolved since our inception because of their unwavering support, input and feedback.
Leaders in the community have the biggest voice in addressing social issues, and since ReCity doesn’t provide direct programs like many non-profits, we have to be very selective in working with organizations that are well-respected in the greater Durham community. These organizations must use appropriate methods when addressing core issues, with a focus on personal and professional development over reinforcing the need for ongoing services. Durham’s population is culturally diverse, therefore the youth we serve are equally diverse. 56% of ReCity partner organizations are minority-led, which is critical for us because one our driving core values as an organization is to reflect the diversity of the community we serve.
Me: What are the current needs in the Raleigh-Durham metro area (or focus in on the city you live in) as they relate to social determinants of health (i.e SES, poverty, access to care, transportation, safety, etc.)?
RS: Affordable housing is a huge concern, which is why I’m excited our network has added partners doing amazing work in this area like Housing for New Hope and Jubilee Home. Providing shelter is only one aspect, but creating paths to social mobility and wealth creation through home-ownership is the key. If we can make progress in raising rates of home-ownership, there’s potential to break generational cycles of systemic injustice and poverty.
Access to regular, reliable transportation is another issue, especially for the youth that our network serves. ReCity has started to consolidate services and resources among our partner organizations and we hope to one day be a “one-stop shop” for every type of resource needed to serve children and families more efficiently and holistically. We also hope innovative partnerships can help improve access to regular, reliable transportation. Private companies already have the vehicles and drivers – it’s a matter of reallocating funds to local transportation companies like Uber or Lyft to serve our target populations. Often times, the highest impact isn’t a result of new programs being created, but from intentionally re-purposing or redirecting the resources that are already in place. And that’s what ReCity is all about.