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Want to get involved in the Chapel Hill government? This may be the academy for you

Peoples Academy

The town of Chapel Hill is providing the Peoples Academy, an opportunity for people to take classes this fall in order to learn and connect more with their community.

The Chapel Hill Peoples Academy, meant for people that "live, work, play, pray or study" in Chapel Hill to become immersed in Town services and operations, is coming back for its second year this fall.

Beth Vazquez, Chapel Hill’s ombuds, said the goal of the a five-week, 10-class program is two-fold.

“Part of the goal was to improve civic understanding and how to share ideas with and influence the outcomes of town government, and also to increase diversity on the Town’s boards and commissions,” she said.

The academy is divided evenly between classroom sessions and field trips, and highlights local services and departments, including the Chapel Hill Fire Department, Public Works and the Orange Water and Sewer Authority.

Sarah Poulton, the Town’s downtown special projects manager, said the classroom sessions feature interactive activities and that the presentations of some departments, like Public Works, stand out to her.

“They had a very detailed tour and presentation, and they had all this equipment pulled out and they really rolled out their red carpet,” she said. “Some departments are maybe a little drier in their content, not quite as interactive, but it’s still very valid and important for them to be included.”

Vazquez said the academy reaches out to underrepresented communities, including in Chapel Hill’s public housing units and the Inter-Faith Council for Social Services’ shelters. Four or five residents of these transitional housing programs enrolled in the academy last year, she said. 

The academy provides childcare, meals, interpretation and transportation as needed. 

Natalie Gauger, a sophomore at UNC, participated in the program during the afternoon sessions and helped watch over other participants’ children during the evening sessions. She said she appreciates the program’s focus on diversity and accessibility.

“I do appreciate that, and I liked being part of the Town’s initiative to really be inclusive and be mindful of the populations that it’s trying to include,” she said.

On graduation day, Vazquez and Poulton call academy participants to action and encourage them to get involved in Town government.

“The folks who serve on boards and commissions or even more so who serve on Town Council, are really our decision makers in town,” Vazquez said. “They’re the folks who have the most influence and power to make decisions that affect people’s lives, and so I think it’s a community value that we all share that the people who are in power who are making decisions look like the people that they serve.”

Gauger said UNC students are very involved in the University community but sometimes aren’t as involved with the Town and local government.

“Decisions that do affect a lot of the students, I feel like not everyone is as involved in, and so I wanted to become more involved with the Town of Chapel Hill and learn more about their operations and how they’re reaching out to the community,” she said.

Poulton said she wants to encourage members of the UNC community to consider applying.

“They’re a huge part of the Chapel Hill family and community,” she said. “We value you, we want to have you included.”

Gauger said the academy has made her more interested in serving on a board or commission wherever she lives in the future, and that she has enjoyed seeing how satisfied town employees are with their jobs.

“It was kind of comforting to know that the operations of the greater community that I live in are done from a source of interest and passion and they’re not just done because it’s something that has to be done,” she said.

Last year, 100 people applied to the program. Its capacity is 60. 

“It was really hard to make hard choices about who to accept and who not to, so we ended up essentially taking the first 60 people that applied,” Poulton said.

She said the number of applicants is a reflection of community members’ commitment to the Town, and it shows the success of the academy’s outreach and accessibility initiatives.

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Poulton said if the demand for the program is similarly high this year as it was last year, the academy might accept around 80 applicants, assuming not everyone finishes the program.

Applications will open in mid-July, but prospective participants do not have to wait until then to apply. They are encouraged to email or call 919-969-5009 anytime to indicate their interest and be added to a notification list.


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