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Column: Pop your bubble with the Jackson Center

Jackson Center.JPG
Marian Cheek Jackson Center staff and partners from Pee Wee Homes welcoming one of the center's newest Northside neighbors to the community. Photo courtesy of Hudson Vaughan.

The OC Voice is a portion of the OC Report newsletter where local residents may have a platform to talk about local issues they care about. Andrea Wuerth and George Barrett from the Marian Cheek Jackson Center discuss the resilience of the neighborhoods they serve and honor, and why it's important for UNC students to get involved.  

The Marian Cheek Jackson Center is a hub of creative community action. The center works to honor, renew and build community in Northside, Pine Knolls and Tin-Top, three historically-Black neighborhoods bordering the University and downtowns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. 

Our work builds on the history and hard-won rights of Northside residents through three primary strategies: Organizing and Advocacy, Youth and Education and, most importantly, Celebration and Connection. Led by neighborhood residents, thousands of young people across the district are educated on local civil rights history. Over 100 long-term neighbors are able to stay in their homes by receiving home repairs and partial relief from their skyrocketing property taxes. Dozens of new families live close, connected and proud in affordable housing properties.

For the past five years, George Barrett, associate director and UNC alum, has mobilized thousands of UNC students in working with long-term residents to achieve shared community goals. Students serve alongside residents to alleviate food insecurity, to sustain community journalism, to organize in response to housing development in and adjacent to the community and to ensure that community oral history is preserved in the community’s voice and on the community’s terms.

Intergenerational relationships, built over multiple months and years of sustained engagement, is at the core of the MCJC service experience. In a recent narrative reflection, George described the dynamic learning that comes from being an active member of the community, something students must experience outside of the classroom:

I learn and relearn, day after day, how to be in a relationship with the intergenerational and multicultural community of Northside. I realized Northside existed during my senior year at UNC. Until then, most of my learning had taken place in what so many of the students with whom I now work call a bubble of UNC campus, Franklin Street included.

The bubble is thick and mobile. You can take it to your apartment off campus. You can take it to any major city that has a community of Tar Heel alumni. You can even take it to the office of a future employer. This can make it challenging as a student to see the neighborhoods bordering campus, let alone Northside, as anything but an extension of campus.

Thankfully, five years of bubble-popping for myself and with other students has made me feel more and more like a Northside Neighbor. I’ve had the privilege to facilitate similar journeys for now thousands of UNC undergraduate, graduate and professional students, who have in turn participated in thousands of hours of direct engagement with local leaders.

In Northside, a year of service may look like this: a first-year biology major learns about Northside through a guest lecture in her first year seminar in the Communication Department. She chooses to join the MCJC Food Security Team, doing 30 hours of direct service at the St. Joseph C.M.E. food ministry, Heavenly Groceries/Comida Celestial.

Under the guidance and direction of a dozen elders, women and men who provide daily bread to 50  patrons every weekday, she learns what it takes to sustain a food ministry for 15 years and why it is about so much more than food. In the spring, she becomes a captain of the Food Security Team. She shows new volunteers the ropes while continuing to build intergenerational relationships with St. Joseph’s volunteers and Heavenly Groceries patrons. She concludes her year at the Northside Festival, feeding 800 people alongside dozens of her peers and neighborhood residents. She anticipates joining the Northside Student Leadership Group the following fall.

Jackson Center volunteers tell us stories each year of joys, breakthroughs, struggles and hard realizations as their campus bubbles are popped. Their testimonies bear witness to deep engagement in a community of improvisation, radical hospitality, reciprocity and self- determination.

To find out more about the Jackson Center and to get involved, please visit our website or give us a call at 919-960-1670.

If you live in Orange County and want to make your voice heard on something you care about locally, email

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