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'Chapel Hill is my home': Rev. Robert Campbell leads the Rogers Road community

Community leader Robert Campbell poses for a portrait in his office at the RENA community center in Chapel Hill on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Campbell reflects on his 40 year long career in community service. Campbell was recently one of the twelve individuals awarded by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce for being heroes in their community.

Rev. Robert Campbell is a minister and community activist who has been living in the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood in Orange County for over 70 years. He was recently named the 2019 Citizen of the Year by the Chamber for a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

He has focused on social justice and, more recently, environmental protection issues throughout his career. His long history of activism has made him heavily involved in the proceedings revolving the Greene Tract resolutions. 

“I would say it is encouraging. It is a motivator,” Campbell said about serving his community. “You seek change, so you have to stand up and be a part of that change.”

His ties to the greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro area run deep, having grown up in the Northside neighborhood and attended Chapel Hill High School.

However, he said the word “service” quickly took on new meaning to him, as he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1969. He was in the armed forces for four years, serving three tours in and around Vietnam.

Campbell said his military service engrained many values that have helped him become a faithful community servant. 

Campbell stressed the importance of being aware of your surroundings and being able to fulfill roles that you may not be prepared for. This would be essential in helping his colleagues carry on in the event that one member of the team could not fully contribute.

“In order to do my job, I have to learn how to do my job, but learn other people’s jobs as well,” he said. “Because if one goes down, that doesn’t mean the ship goes down.” 

He also said that the military taught him many valuable lessons about discipline and self-direction. 

Among the reasons he mentioned for choosing the Navy over other branches, apart from a self-professed passion for the sea, was his desire to get more direction over his own service. After returning from his deployment, Campbell moved to the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood — a historically Black community — where he took that principle to heart.

He began to work with the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA), an environmental and social justice organization. Their mission, he said, is to help educate marginalized communities and make outreach efforts more accessible to them and the community as a whole. 

“How important is it to reach out to help others?" he asked. “Like if you have clothes that have been there for three years and you don’t use them? What good is a book if you don’t open up that book every night and find out what it’s about?”

Being able to help the community in which he lives, Campbell said, was a major reason for his return to Chapel Hill and his involvement in the RENA.

“I’m back, and I’m here to stay,” he said. “Chapel Hill is my home.”

He said the organization is also working to not only make the environment better in their own community, but to help encourage other communities to make positive environmental changes. 

By the time he came back, a large portion of the land known as the Greene Tract, which is jointly administered by Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County, was already converted into a landfill. He has been working for decades to advance plans for development on the land, starting with an environmental assessment of the area. 

Campbell spoke on the matter at a recent meeting of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners. The commissioners and those attending the meeting alike expressed the respect they had for him and his work, be it in the form of remarks in appreciation or nods of approbation.

“Thank you, Reverend Campbell,” said Chairperson Penny Rich. “We appreciate you being here for the conversation.”

Resolutions to continue with environmental assessments and developmental surveys were passed in all three jurisdictions that administer the Greene Tract. 

Many others have spoken out in admiration of his work ethic and his dedication to the community, including minister Rose Caldwell, the program director at RENA. She has been working at the organization for nearly 12 years, serving alongside Campbell throughout her entire tenure there.

“It’s been an experience seeing him go out and do what he does,” she said. “And the challenge is to be able to step up and do the same.”

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Campbell said he became an activist because he wanted to improve the quality of life for everyone in his community. He said that serves as a source of motivation.

“I want to improve the quality of life, not only for my community, but for my child,” he said. “And my ‘child’ is not necessarily my biological child, but all the children that may come in and out of this community.”


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