When Jackie Brown came on as CEO of the Durham Economic Resource Center (DERC) barely more than a year ago, the center was largely still just an idea. Her friends thought she was crazy, leaving a secure job in the middle of a downturn to head a nonprofit that wasn’t even formally incorporated yet.
Since then, DERC has acquired and renovated a warehouse where local trainees fill the shelves with reduced-price merchandise. DERC has 30 member organizations through which that merchandise is distributed to more than 200 people per quarter. The center will throw a graduation ceremony next week for the 10 Durham residents who make up the first cohort to have completed its rigorous, three-module job readiness program.
And as Brown stood onstage at the Community, Family Life and Recreation Center at Lyon Park last week to congratulate yet another round of successful DERC trainees, she reminded the audience that DERC’s work has only just begun.
“We know that as we grow, we will be able to do more,” she said to applause.
DERC is a project of End Poverty Durham and is modeled after the Welfare Liaison Project in Greensboro, which employs local trainees in a distribution center where needy people can find affordable goods. Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs provided seed funding to help get DERC up and running, and more recently the Office awarded DERC a Community Care Grant from the proceeds of Duke’s Doing Good in the Neighborhood employee giving campaign. With that grant, DERC will work with El Centro Hispano to ensure that DERC’s resources reach Durham’s Latino community.
Brown’s other visions for the center include providing training for green jobs, pushing for local redevelopment of brownfield land, and finding new opportunities for homegrown jobs that her trainees can fill.
“I don’t want us to just be a distribution center,” Brown said. “I want us to have the distribution track, and I want us to have the green track.”
In the meantime, the hard work and local support thrown into DERC is paying off for Durham residents like Sheryl Miller, who graduated at last week’s ceremony from Module 1 of DERC’s training program and asked to deliver a charge to her fellow trainees. Miller stood at the podium and read from a prepared statement that urged her classmates to take advantage of their new skill sets. When she finished, she looked up from her notes and smiled at the DERC employees and board members on stage.
“I want to thank y’all from the bottom of my heart.”