Connecting the dots

Over the past few weeks, I have conducted 26 interviews and attended eleven community meetings in an attempt to gather important information needed to push the human relations initiative forward. The surprising thing is that my interviews have yielded slightly different information than expected. Which, for the record, has not been a bad thing. It just creates more alternative pathways for a human relations initiative.

I’ve spent the past week, catching up and recovering from the many meetings and interviews. I have been reviewing notes, inputting notes, updating spreadsheets, and creating more spreadsheets. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a spreadsheet with all of my interview questions and notes so that responses are easy to locate. After attending some sessions at, what I like to call, YouTube University (regular YouTube), I figured out the best and most straightforward way to begin coding my interviews. As I am digging through my research…it feels a little something like this…

gif of moving dots that connect and change shapes, then disconnect and connect again into different shapes

Obviously, there are some clear connections between the results of the interviews and feedback from community meetings. The challenge is that there are so many different ways to connect and present the results. In addition to the results, I asked each interviewee if they knew of any community members that may be able to support my research. Thanks to a little bit of snowball sampling, I now have a list of secondary contacts which will provide me with more findings. So, I’ve got spreadsheets on spreadsheets on spreadsheets.

gif of Steve Urkel looking overwhelmed
Me…looking at all of my spreadsheets

Even though it feels slightly overwhelming, I know that as I continue to dig deeper it will get better! Plus, since I already have a spreadsheet system in place, it’ll be easier moving forward with my results.

I am glad that I finally have a documentation system that I feel comfortable with. But now, I am also making a slight transition…I will begin looking into the research. I have tons of topics that I want to review to see how they apply to human relations, public interactions with local government, and diversity initiatives. To start, I will begin with digging deeper into Chatham County history by:

  • renting DVDs from the Chatham County Public Library on the County’s History
  • talking with historical associations, churches, and families about Chatham County
  • reading up on the History of Chatham through existing reports

Even though things are shifting, I will still have interviews and meetings to attend. I will also be shadowing a department head for a day too! So, things should be getting pretty interesting this month.

I look forward to updating you next week!

gif of waving blowing kiss

Diversity Buzz

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have become standard vocabulary for many organizations to include in their missions, presentations, and conversations around their organizational work. As public servants, these should be organizational values. In our work, we serve a wide range of people with varying backgrounds and cultures. But, the struggle comes from moving beyond the use of the words and building them into organizational action and culture. So this week, I got to experience some of the ways that Chatham County is working towards building diversity, equity, and inclusion into organizational action and culture.

The first event that I attended was the Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) training for the Chatham Public Health Department. The training was conducted by the NC Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities. The training was a good combination of self-reflection about our backgrounds, activities to push us out of our comfort zone, and discussion to apply this knowledge to our work moving forward. Below is a slide from the training that mentions the drivers and determinants of health, meaning the things that impact health disparities. What stood out to me most was how the trainers pushed us to think about how these drivers and determinants impact the people we serve in Chatham County.

picture of a powerpoint slide from the CLAS training that says the drivers and determinants of health. it says social, economic, environmental, ecological, and cultural factors can contribute to drivers and determinants of health. It states environmental, education, housing, transportation, health care, food & nutrition, violence, and poverty as social determinants.

This past Saturday, Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE) and the Chatham County Library hosted an event celebrating Juneteenth. For those who do not know, Juneteenth is an important holiday for many people in the African American community. It stems from the end of the Civil War. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery (as we traditionally define it). However, African Americans in Texas remained enslaved for an additional two and a half years. On June 19th, 1865, Union soldiers made their way to Texas declaring the freedom of African Americans. For many in the African American community, Juneteenth is a day of remembrance, reflection, and celebration of the actual end of slavery. The event hosted by CORE and the library was titled a celebration of African American Culture and Resilience. It was an amazing space to share history and create community. The event hosted speakers that talked about “African Civilation before Slavery” (Dr. Charles Johnson, NCCU), Human Trafficking in the Historical Context of U.S. Slavery” (Robin Colbert & Christy Croft, NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault) and “Native Americans, Africans & Slavery in NC” (Dr. Arwin Smallwood, NC A&T University). I am thankful that the community was able to have access to such rich knowledge.

picture of the Juneteenth event
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Watkins-Cruz of the Juneteenth Event

And to top it all off, I attended a session from the Chatham County Leadership Academy. There were attendees from all different departments in the County like emergency personnel, officers, nurse supervisors, and a nutritionist. This particular session was Cultural Competency Part II taught by our Human Resources Director, Carolyn Miller. It was a two-hour session that discussed privilege, institutional racism, and implicit bias (system I vs system II thinking). Most importantly, Carolyn Miller talked about how we have to dig deeper when we incorporate diversity into our workforce. She described that it has to go beyond just representative bureaucracy (though important), but that we need to begin to ask the WHY questions. It was a really insightful session that incorporated a lot of great information around racial diversity, equity, and inclusion to push those working in the County to create a more inclusive workplace.

Chatham County definitely has room to grow, as do many other institutions. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the commitment of different folks in the community working towards making diversity, equity, and inclusion not only espoused values, but also enacted values in the County.

picture of me, Stephanie, and Darrell in a giant chair at lunch
From left to right: Me, Stephanie Watkins-Cruz (Chatham County Policy Analyst), and Darrell Butts (Chatham County Budget Analyst) at lunch after the Cultural Competency Part II session.

P.S. I have found my favorite lunch spot! It’s Mi Cancun, where this lovely photo was taken. We can get a good, hearty and YUMMY lunch for under $7. (Also, do you spot any UNC-Chapel Hill MPA alums???)

Anyways, I look forward to updating you again next week!


There’s housing, but is it affordable?

a row of three homes built by Chatham Habitat for Humanity

In my role at the Chatham County Manager’s Office, I am learning about the different challenges that the community faces. One of the key challenges that I have heard is the issue of affordable housing in the County. Since then, I have attended two housing meetings in the last few weeks, the Housing Implementation Group meeting and the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee meeting. They both provided me with a clearer picture of how local government and community agencies make plans to move projects forward to address housing equity challenges in the County. But before all of that exciting stuff, let’s provide some context for Chatham County’s affordable housing crisis.

According to a 2017 study conducted by the Triangle J Council of Governments, Chatham’s housing issue boils down to three core issues: supply, quality, and affordability. There is a 2,000 unit gap in affordable units in the County. Of those 2,000, about 1,400 are needed for individuals earning 0-30% of the area’s median income. The naturally occurring affordable housing is mostly aging mobile homes or other housing stock that is in need of repairs. Because of this large need, a substantial portion of Chatham County households are cost-burdened, meaning that they are paying over 30% of their monthly income on housing.

These issues impact various Chatham communities in different ways. Hence, the equity issue.

The Aging Population

Like in many other counties, there is a lack of housing for our lowest earning residents. Chatham County is unique in that it has a large aging population. In our county, older adult households have a lower median income than the general population. Those that earn below 30% often cannot find housing that is decent or affordable so they may be forced to leave their homes or stay in unhealthy and unsafe living conditions. The aging population may have mobility restrictions, health needs, and limited or no active income to ensure they age in their homes affordably.So those serving aging populations and working on affordable housing have to create different strategies targeted for this population.

photo of a women at the Council on Aging Senior Center sitting in rocking chairs
From the Council on Aging’s Senior Center

The Housing Implementation Plan meeting was focused on the Aging Plan to support the aging population. There are other implementation plan meetings, that focus on the other issues that impact the larger aging population in Chatham. This meeting had key players representing and serving the aging community in the County. They discussed how they could reach the greater aging community and gather information about their needs. It was pretty cool watching them brainstorm. I also got to see them evaluate and re-evaluate their strategic goals and deadlines. I could also tell their commitment to the work.

Emergency Housing

picture of the entrance of the Bellemont Pointe Apartments, one affordable housing complex in Chatham
Bellemont Pointe Apartments, one of the few affordable housing developments in Chatham

The Affordable Housing Advisory Committee meeting was focused on the Chatham County Housing Trust Fund. These folks are committed to creating affordable housing opportunities in the County. From our County Manager’s staff, we had our Policy Analyst, Stephanie Watkins-Cruz. (You may remember her from my celebrity post a few weeks ago.) In addition, we had folks representing various fields such as realtors, community members, non-profit leaders, etc.

Random fun fact about me – I am really interested in policy! So, this meeting was really cool because the Committee was working on the Chatham County Housing Trust Fund & Location policy. Stephanie proposed a modification to the policy to address the County’s new role in providing some emergency housing funding. The best part was watching all of these key players in housing in Chatham County discuss the emergency fund’s location, the reasons for access, the protections, and policy.

Chatham Affordable Housing WINS

First and foremost, the fact that the County now has a Housing Trust Fund is a huge win! With this fund in existence, nonprofits who are creating or preserving affordable housing for families and individuals in need have a source of funding. Additionally, there is now a small allotment for emergency housing needs such as emergency shelter or displacement.

Even more excitingly, the Housing Trust Fund has OFFICIALLY deployed its first low-interest loan to the developer of the historic Henry Siler School to create more affordable housing. The plan is to have 44 new units on this property with shared community space. So, the inside scoop is that the core of the Historic Henry Siler School will be preserved and potentially turned into a shared community space. This project aims to both respect the history and meaning of the school and addresses an important community need. In Chatham, there aren’t many smaller units (1-2 bedrooms). Less than 1% of the housing stock in Chatham county is a 1 bedroom or studio. So this development will include 22 1-bedroom rental units priced at $355-$575, and 22 2-bedroom rental units priced at $423-$675.

gif of a high five

I know that I came into the Chatham County affordable housing game a little late, but I am really excited to see these projects moving forward.  Shout out to all the awesome folks working hard to improve housing equity.

Relationships…in local government?

So, this won’t be a gossip column talking about local government romantic relationships (well, more specifically Chatham County romantic relationships). But instead, I want talk about a key theme I have learned from conducting 18 interviews and attending 10 community meetings since being at the County Manager’s Office. Drum roll, please….

image of kids drumrolling on a table


In Chatham County, I am an outsider asking for an insider scoop from community members about the County’s history and how we create a better Chatham County. I have been fortunate to find that community members have, generally, been willing to share and be vulnerable with me. But they also want the same in return, which is reasonable. Usually our interviews start off with everyone sitting down, awkwardly making small talk and then they hit me with the “so where are you from?” On face-value, this question is simple. But I always take this as a loaded question. I answer imagining that folks want to know who I am, where I come from, why I am here, and if I am truly invested in the community. I have to take the time to be genuine and explain my answer to folks before they are typically willing to open up to me. That is me…building trust and that relationship.

So far, I have learned so much about the County and the individuals that live, work, and play here. More importantly, I am beginning to learn why some of the challenges exist in the County, who folks trust and don’t trust, and how the community would like to see that trust be improved. Want to know the number 1 thing that folks have mentioned they want to see improvement on? ….here goes.

man doing jazz hands

TRUST: Building relationships in meaningful ways with the community.

I want to be clear, it is not that public administrators do not support communities or build relationships at all – we definitely do! But we don’t always do it the ways that our communities are most receptive and understanding of. Government is complicated as is! So often times, we, as public administrators, show care and concern for our communities through our budget by funding road improvements and supporting more school staff. This is definitely important, but the public doesn’t always perceive this as support or even caring for the community. They see this as our job (and it is)! Sometimes, the public wants public administrators to listen, be vulnerable, and show up to their community events. Doing this, we also have the opportunity to explain the decisions we have made, manage expectations, and share information about government processes. This type of relationship building, beyond BOC meetings, obviously takes time, energy, and resources, but I think it could improve the public’s relationship with local government. Obviously, everyone is not going to like us or approve of all of our decisions, but maybe we can encourage more civil discourse and increase communication by building stronger community relationships.

Disclaimer: Relationship building and trust is not an issue specific to only Chatham County. It happens everywhere, in every city, county, and state. It is something that we as public administrators can always improve. So, let’s keep truckin’ along!

guy walking giving two thumbs up

See ya at the next post!


The Nitty Gritty of MSW/MPA in Local Gov

Welcome back to my blog posts!

Last week was a fairly short week for me given Memorial Day and being out of town on Friday, so I figured I would take a different spin on this week’s blog post. Let’s talk about the nitty gritty of PWEs as a dual-degree student with the School of Social Work.

First things first, my experience as a dual-degree student has been challenging, but rewarding! Both degrees open doors to many different opportunities. Generally, I think the public is often confused about what social workers (outside of therapists and CPS caseworkers) and public administrators really do. But that confusion provides me with an opportunity to engage with folks about my career goals and the versatility and flexibility of both social work and public administration. For me, the best part of studying in both fields is that it provides me with complementary skills that are necessary for a macro social worker dealing with systems and a public administrator working with people. It is definitely the best of both worlds.

In addition to gaining those extra skills, you also gain some extra experience as a dual-degree student with social work. To ensure that my PWE counts towards both degrees, I have to put in a little extra work. So, I put together a list of some of the key differences that I have noticed thus far in:

A social worker interested in local government?!

gif of woman say "what?" with a smiling shocked face
Most people’s reaction when I tell them my career goals

As a social worker, people expect that you will want to do non-profit work or work in a Department of Social Services, both of which are great experiences. However, that just wasn’t what I wanted from my PWE. Also, it didn’t really align with my career goals of working in an equity department in a local government. So, I kept my fingers crossed hoping that I would hear of a PWE that could utilize my social work skills in a local government setting. (Shout out to Chatham County!) I was very fortunate that Chatham was looking for someone with a social justice background. Going a non-traditional route challenges me in many ways. I have a lot to learn about navigating local governments, but it also gives me a unique opportunity to share my academic knowledge and skills around working with diverse populations, disparities, and community engagement.

A couple extra hours

Another key difference is that I am required to work a few extra hours. Ok, I think a few might be an understatement. I am actually required to work a little over 600 hours to complete program requirements. My hours count towards both degrees, but the School of Social Work actually requires more hours. Normally, social work students have their PWE (or field placement as we call it in the social work world) throughout the school year, so they are working a significant amount of hours 1 to 3 days a week. Since I am doing my PWE (field placement) during the summer, I am still required to work the same amount of hours. So, I will work quite a bit more hours during the summer compared to my fellow cohort members and blogging buddies…AKA I get to spend more time at Chatham County.

e gif of a excited little girl says yes
My excitement for being with Chatham County an extra few weeks.


Aside from being able to spend more time working with Chatham County, I also get to the support of TWO supervisors in Chatham County and TWO faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill. I regularly meet with my immediate supervisor in the Manager’s Office and have once a week meetings with my social work supervisor in the Department of Social Services. With both supervisors, I get to talk about how I see both of my degree fields interacting and supporting each other. I also get the support of Susan Austin in the School of Government and Robin Sansing in the School of Social Work. They both help me frame experiences and reflections to support my academic progress. Honestly, it’s a pretty cool set-up.

a gif of Leslie Knope from Parks & Rec with a big smile
I am one lucky person!

Even though dual-degree with social work requires a little extra work, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love my degrees and how perfectly they interact to support me during my PWE with Chatham County and my career goals.

Thanks for sticking around! I look forward to updating you more next week!





Diggin’ Some Roots…

It’s week three and I am hitting the ground running! I found my two favorite Pittsboro coffee shops and a restaurant that sells an amazing strawberry red velvet cake. So, I think it’s safe to say that I finally feel like I am getting into the swing of things out here in good ol’ Pittsboro, NC.

Picture of Davenport Cafe Diem logo
Davenport’s Cafe Diem: they have my favorite matcha latte’s and serve as an amazing place to meet and chat with community members

Before I dive deep into what I’ve been up to over the last few weeks, I figure I should provide some context to the Human Relations initiative that I am working on with Chatham County. So, prior to starting my internship the County Commissioners expressed a desire for wanting a Human Relations entity. The County then created a Human Relations Task Force to establish a framework for the entity, which they are now hoping will be a community-led Human Relations collaborative.

One of my key tasks for the summer is to learn about the County through engaging with community members. The hope is that I will be able to identify some challenges that the Human Relations Collaborative will be able to rally around and tackle. Two weeks ago,  I started meeting with Chatham County community members to get a better understanding of the community. So far, I have completed 14 interviews. Each interview is semi-structured with four main areas of exploration:

  1. the interviewee’s connection to the community
  2. the challenges the County is facing
  3. how the interviewee envisions a human relations body addressing those challenges
  4. additional contacts that may be interested in participating in this work

So far, I have been handwriting notes during interviews and then transcribing them into an excel document so that I can code them to find key themes. I am very excited to see the outcome!

My weeks haven’t been filled only with interviews…I have also attended some community meetings as well. I’ve met with the Public Health Department, Better Angels, faith communities, and I can’t wait to do more! Last week, I went to a community lunch hosted by St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Their mission is to provide a healthy, appetizing meal at no cost to all who come to us hungry. The community lunch had a great turn out with even better food! I was able to talk with people involved at the church as well as a local artist and a farmer. This lunch gave me the opportunity to meet people from all over the County.

a picture of the community lunch logo
St. Bart’s Community Lunch Logo: another great meeting place

If there is anything I know about community engagement, it is that you first must listen to and learn from the community. While at the community meetings, I am often just listening and taking notes of comments and concerns and looking for key themes.

Through the interviews and meetings, I have learned quite a bit about the history of the County and some of the challenges it faces. For me, the best part about this process has been making new connections to community members.

Look forward to updating you again next week!


Celebrity Sightings: Chatham County Edition!

Ok, so maybe this blog title had a little bit of click bait, but I definitely consider these folks celebrities…public servant celebrities!

Gif of Kid President raising his eyebrows
Kid President supports my click bait title to talk about public servant celebrities!

Merriam-Webster defines public servant as “a government official or employee.” Personally, I think this definition doesn’t give public servants enough credit! So, to do us some justice, I would like to highlight some key people that I’ve met over the last week that add to that bare-bones definition of public servant.

Celebrity Sighting #1:

On Monday, I attended my first ever Board of Commissioners meeting. Honestly, I was in awe because I got to see topics from my MPA coursework in action, like public hearings and budget proposal presentations. I also got to witness a new commissioner being sworn in!

Photo of Fire Marshall Bender receiving recognition from the Chatham County Board of Commissioners.
Fire Marshall Bender and Commissioner Chairman Mike Dasher

However, most importantly, I got to see a truly dedicated public servant be honored for his service to the community. Fire Marshall Thomas Bender received special recognition for his 26+ years of service to Chatham County.  Even during a public hearing for a zoning request, the person making the request said that he remembered Fire Marshall Bender making presentations at his elementary and middle school. Even though this community member’s request to the Commissioners was completely unrelated to Fire Marshall Bender, he still took the time to acknowledge how Fire Marshall Bender had an impact on the community – a true public servant and community celebrity. 

Celebrity Sighting #2:

So…this next celebrity is fairly new to the scene (compared to Fire Marshall Bender) and is one of our very own – Stephanie Watkins-Cruz! She has been working with Chatham County for about a year now as their policy analyst. Last week, I attended a really cool “town hall-type community conversation” sponsored by Our Chatham and Chatham News + Record. It was mostly a Q&A on housing and inequity with a panel of community leaders. Stephanie, of course, was on that panel.

Photo of Stephanie Watkins-Cruz
Stephanie Watkins-Cruz

I will say, I am quite fortune because I get to talk with Stephanie quite regularly in the office. But, on this day, I got to see Stephanie in full public service mode! Stephanie presented data, shared stories, and answered questions without breaking a sweat! She was honest, poised and responsive to community members. Even when she was hit with hard questions, her responses were authentic and showed her dedication to serving the County to her best ability! I was, and continue to be, in awe at her ability to be so open, authentic, and committed. I am glad to have such a great role model right here in the Chatham County Manager’s Office with me.

Celebrity Sighting #3:

Photo of Kirsten Wyatt leading a discussion at the ELGL Conference
Kirsten Wyatt at #ELGL19

So this last celebrity was not spotted in Chatham County, but rather in Durham! Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) conference, #ELGL19. And with that, I got to meet Kirsten Wyatt!

#ELGL19 was amazing, to say the least! Not only were there great conference goodies and thought-provoking conversations, but there were great opportunities to network and meet people across the country doing great work! I even got to meet some people that do the type of work that I would love to do in the future. The cool thing is that the co-founders of ELGL are Kirsten and Kent Wyatt, who also happen to be graduates of the UNC-Chapel Hill MPA program! And yes, I did get to shake Kirsten’s hand! She’s as innovative, intelligent and lovely as she seems online. So, if you get the chance…attend next year’s conference in Oregon! I know I’ll be there.

Service is what led me to pursue degrees in social work and public administration. I am so grateful for all of the amazing homegrown “celebrities” that are adding to the Merriam-Webster definition of public servant through dedication, authenticity and innovation. Thank you for all that you do!

Helloooo from Pittsboro (aka Circle City)!

Hey everyone!

Welcome to my blog post! My name is Courtney Cooper-Lewter. I am a dual-degree student with the Public Administration and Social Work programs. I just finished my first year of the MPA program, but technically this is year two of graduate school. Two down, one to go! More than anything, I am really excited for my professional work experience this summer with Chatham County!

picture of Historic Chatham County Court House
Historic Chatham County Court House, the County Manager’s Office is behind this building

This summer, I will be serving as an intern in the Chatham County Manager’s Office in Pittsboro, NC. I will be working on helping the County create a community-led Human Relations collaborative to address some of the economic and racial inequities in the County by:

  1. Researching and identifying effective tools for outreach and engagement of the community around social justice
  2. Studying existing effective collaborative efforts around social justice
  3. Interviewing community leaders to assess what they view as important for the collaborative to be successful
  4. Developing recommendations for the collaborative to move forward

So far, everything has started off great! Everyone is so supportive! And I realize, I am pretty spoiled with my office space. I have my own office and a window (see below)! I have already interviewed quite a few community leaders and feel like I am getting a better understanding of the community dynamics.

I can’t wait to continue exploring Chatham County. For now, check out this beautiful video of Pittsboro and maybe you will notice why it is called Circle City.

I look forward to talking with you more next week about what I am learning! See you then.