The next time you’re cruising west on the interstate, or on 70 from Hillsborough, take note of the community of Efland. It’s not wealthy and the township only holds 11,000 people, give or take, but among them are some community leaders who know how to make good things happen.
Take Joann Shirer-Mitchell. I first met Joann in 2010. A homeowner in Richmond Hills, which is an expanding 50-home Habitat for Humanity neighborhood, she had teamed up with Sam Gharbo from neighboring Ashwick and come down to a Justice United meeting in Chapel Hill, seeking additional political muscle. Sewer rates in Efland, which had its own sewer system, were about to be jacked up, on a path toward becoming the highest rates in the state a few years hence. Homeowners in Richmond Hills were in danger of being priced out of their homes.
The neighbors had hoped that the Orange County Commissioners would help them find a way to fix the problem. But getting the County’s attention was difficult. With Justice United behind them, a working meeting was set up at the County library, and the Commissioners invited. One stopped by for five minutes, only to say, in essence, “we can’t help you.” But the neighbors persisted. With support from Justice United, they eventually wrangled the County into getting involved, and found a way for the sewer authority in Mebane to take over Efland’s system so that the rates could remain reasonable.
A few months ago, I traveled back up to Efland to check out some more recent organizing efforts. I got to talk with a group of community leaders: Marie McAdoo and Elvira Mebane (United Voices of Efland-Cheeks), Knox Efland (Efland Community Churches), Eileen Williamson (Bingham Township), and Allison Coleman (president of the Richmond Hills homeowners’ association (HOA)). They explained that Efland often feels overlooked by the County – like they are “Ef-last” (their phrase). Last in line for help with storm damage. Last in line for County services.
Community leaders also explained that they hoped their efforts would bring a broader sense of unity to the community. Marie McAdoo and Elvira Mebane told me that a few years ago they went through a 15-week program at UNC called “Community Voices.” Supported by a grant from the School of Public Health, the course focused on developing trust, strategizing, and building power within communities. They then took a community group initially called Efland-Cheeks Development Association and turned it into “United Voices of Efland-Cheeks.”
The combined group has been working on getting a Triangle Transit-proposed bus, to be funded by the voter-approved half cent sales tax and vehicle registration fee, routed down US 70 through Efland. They filled public input sessions, wrote their input to the Orange Unified Transportation (OUT) Board, and recommended the Richmond Hills HOA President to fill a vacancy on this board. On June 17, the OUT Board and Orange County staff included this new route in recommendations to the County Commissioners.
Joann has been busy as well. Last year’s floods and this past year’s snowstorms turned her attention to disaster planning. So Joann suggested to the Habitat board that the Richmond Hills neighborhood needed a plan. She was hoping to get more time for Sharron Reid, the Habitat resident services coordinator; instead, the Board asked Joann to spearhead the disaster planning process.
So she did. First, the groundwork: working again with Justice United – leading the “Reconnecting Communities” team – she developed an outline for a neighborhood disaster plan. It turned out to be such a good outline that Habitat of NC is now using that outline as a template for creating disaster plans for all the Habitat communities in North Carolina. Richmond Hills, however, is the only Habitat community that is actually creating its own plan, and the neighborhood is recognized by Habitat nationally for its leadership.
Next, the organizing. Having expanded the planning effort to all of Efland, the group held an organizing meeting in March, attended by about 50 people from across the township. Speakers were Josh Hollingsworth, Orange County Emergency Services, and Nicolle Morock, meteorologist and N&O weather blogger. The group created committees and proposed tasks. They want to build a network of neighborhood contacts, and a directory of services and service providers. They want the community to have drills, and to be prepared. Where would shelters be? How would they take care of the elderly? In June, the group engaged Leslie O’Conner, the County’s Preparedness Coordinator to do a show and tell on putting together a disaster preparedness kit for one’s home. The bottom line: organizers said they don’t want Efland to feel like it is “last on the list” when something happens.
So three cheers for the Efland community. Rather than complain about being overlooked, they decided to make themselves heard and to be the change. And good things are happening.