UNCG Campus Weekly

Campus Weekly is published each Wednesday when classes are in session. In the summer, it is published biweekly.

Pracademics, a Plan for Practical Caring

011911Headline_WineburgA Jewish professor from New York state meets an African-American trucking manager from Charleston, S.C., on a basketball court. The men become friends, launch a nonprofit that puts people to work and reduces welfare dependency to the tune of $8 million over the past 13 years.

Sound like a screenwriter’s pitch for the feel-good film of the year? Maybe. Only this story isn’t too good to be true.

Dr. Bob Wineburg, Jefferson Pilot Excellence Professor in the Department of Social Work, and the Rev. Odell Cleveland, who made the shift from the trucking industry to the ministry, tell the story of their partnership and the economic engine they created in a new book, “Pracademics & Community Change.” It is the story of an unlikely friendship but, more importantly, the success story of a grassroots nonprofit, the Welfare Reform Liaison Project, founded and grounded in Greensboro.

“The lesson of our story is, to paraphrase, John Donne, that no institution is an island,” Wineburg says. “No community organization can thrive if it stays isolated from the rest of the organizations in a community’s sisterhood of care.”

To hear Wineburg and Cleveland talk, they were fated to meet. Cleveland, a big guy with a big smile, sits at the head of the conference table in Welfare Reform’s offices in Revolution Mills downtown. Welfare Reform is run like a business, with polished professionalism, and Cleveland is clearly a businessman.

“I knew a lot about welfare but not a lot about business,” says Wineburg. “Odell knew a lot about business but not a lot about welfare.”

“I thought, who am I to question why God put this bald-headed Jewish professor in my life?” Cleveland chimes in. He calls Wineburg “Wine.”

The story begins with Cleveland’s thesis, “Some Black Churches’ Response to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act,” written for a master’s in theology from Hood Theological Seminary. In it, he outlined a prescriptive program to help women move from welfare to work.

Then Cleveland was challenged by the senior pastor at his church, Mount Zion Baptist Church in Greensboro, to put his ideas to practice. But how to go about it? Would the primarily white business community he needed take him seriously in the board room?

Enter Wineburg. Wineburg mentored Cleveland, helping him write grant proposals. Cleveland gave Wineburg and his students access to the people who most needed help – poor, unskilled, living on the fringes, sometimes in trouble with the law.

Cleveland serves as president and CEO of Welfare Reform.

From his years in the trucking industry, he knew that manufacturers and stores needed a way to shed slightly damaged goods, and he knew tax breaks were available to those businesses. His operation steps up, brings those items – diapers, electronics, personal hygiene supplies – to a warehouse, and repackages them. The people who repackage and sell them are Welfare Reform trainees; the people who buy them at new, low prices are financially needy.

And Cleveland’s operation has formed other partnerships and programs as well. Welfare Reform trains people in writing skills, interviewing skills, digital photography and video production (as seen in visual); provides free classroom goods to Guilford County school teachers; relabels out-of-fashion suits from Men’s Wearhouse and distributes them to markets across the country and around the world.

The list goes on. In 2010, Welfare Reform enrolled 198 low-income clients, up from 147 in 2009. Nearly all live below the poverty level, and most are African-American. More than a third were recently homeless.

Clients go through an assessment and evaluation when they come to Welfare Reform. The goal is to prepare them for entry-level jobs or help them to start small businesses – a route to self-sufficiency.

The $8 million figure reflects wages earned, fewer financial demands on social services and less stress on the prison and court systems.

Cleveland is adamant that hard work and job training opportunities are the remedies for poverty.

“We were so poor, we didn’t have the ‘o’ and the ‘r’; we were just ‘po,’” he says of his childhood.

“Growing up in Charleston in the 1960s, you had to do the work of two white folks to keep the job. You had a real sense of proving one’s self. I tell people, you can win but you have to work. It takes a spirit of being driven to take out your demons – your doubts and fears – and other people’s demons.”

Wineburg, who grew up in Utica, N.Y., in a financially secure family, didn’t experience the prejudice and racial division that Cleveland saw in the South. He worked at his dad’s store, which sold to both blacks and whites. “I knew everybody who came through that door as a person,” he recalls.

But Wineburg says he and Cleveland share a common passion – eliminating poverty. “We both care about poor people, we have this deep spiritual care. Some of these folks are in such minefields they never get out of it. “

The title of their book, “Pracademics & Community Change,” reflects the need for academics to put their knowledge to work in the greater community and for social service practitioners to educate themselves.

“Pracademics. That’s the perfect word for it,” Cleveland says. “Practitioners and academics, how often do the two work together? It’s a community.”

By Michelle Hines