Bringing people together, improving lives
by Settle Monroe
photograph by Nick Pironio
From her office at Building Together Ministries in 2006, Reggie Edwards used to watch mothers walk through the Halifax Court public housing complex to drop their children off for Building Together’s Hope School and youth programs. These mothers, she realized, lacked the kinds of support systems that were benefitting their children. It gnawed at Edwards. How would the kids in the Building Together programs realize and put in place all they were learning about academics and character development if their mothers didn’t have the same resources? These questions hovered in Edwards’ mind until one day, she decided to open her office window.
“Hey! Do you want to meet with me next week? I just want to talk,” she yelled out to a mother who was kissing her son goodbye. The woman shrugged her shoulders, smiled, and accepted Edwards’ boisterous invitation. Anyone who has ever been invited – or “volun-told” – by Edwards to try something knows this: She is not an easy woman to turn down. The two women met, then met again and again over many weeks in Building Together’s community room for what Edwards refers to as “girl talk.”
Soon, other women were joining them. It wasn’t long before the community room was packed full of women eager for a place to unwind, connect, and form friendships. “Never underestimate the power of girl talk,” Edwards says with a stern smile.
The women brought covered dishes, and Edwards began inviting speakers to address topics of interest ranging from parenting strategies to faith-related practices. When the group grew too large for the space and the conversations, Edwards found women to lead smaller groups. Next, she started summer “camps” for women. This was the beginning of The Encouraging Place, which was officially formed as a nonprofit organization in 2008. Edwards serves as its executive director, and the summer camps are now The Encouraging Place’s main outreach program.
Women meet weekly for seven weeks in churches and community centers across Raleigh to share a meal, hear an encouraging message, and experience deep fellowship. Topics discussed at camp range from “Unlikely Friendships” to “Women, Social Security, and Retirement.” At the end of the summer, Edwards hosts a gala to celebrate the work and commitment of the women who have completed the camp. Last summer, The Encouraging Place hosted 20 different camps that reached more than 100 women. She plans to expand its offerings this summer.
‘We share things’
Jameen Gude attended The Encouraging Place’s first summer camp held in the Hope Charter School auditorium in 2006. She was going through a difficult time, she says, and decided to try the camp after seeing a flyer at her church. “I was broken,” she explains. “I went to the camp not really knowing what it was about, but thinking that maybe I would (find) fellowship with some women who might encourage me. Women talk to each other. We share things.”
At camp, Edwards saw in her a strength that Gude could not see in herself. The Encouraging Place helped Gude heal from her personal pain, and she says she is now thriving because of it. For the past 10 years, Gude has been a camp leader and currently serves as summer camp coordinator. It is for women like Gude that Edwards says she is committed to providing places for women to gather, to heal, and to grow.
While Edwards has always been a self-described “connector,” a woman who knows how to bring people together, she admits that even she felt slightly intimidated by the enormity of the issue that would become her next focus. In 2014, after attending a seminar with the Greensboro-based Racial Equity Institute, Edwards decided that The
Encouraging Place needed to begin bringing people together to address issues of race.
“I knew how to gather people. I knew how to plan camps and conferences. But I didn’t know anything about racial reconciliation.”
She did have insight, however. Having grown up in Raleigh with segregated schools and neighborhoods, she had firsthand experience of the deep and lasting implications of racism. Although The Encouraging Place has served predominately African-American women, Edwards understood that in order to facilitate authentic and transformative discussions about race, she would need to unite diverse groups. And that, she realized, was her specialty.
With a complicated and layered topic like race, Edwards used food and books to attract people to join a diverse discussion group. She began making calls and found many women who cared about racial equality but were unsure of what to do about it. She started with simple instructions: “You bring a covered dish. And read this book. We’ll meet every week in someone’s home to discuss the book and share a meal.” The Encouraging Place’s Safehouse program had been formed.
Edwards’ ability to bring people together got the ball rolling, but she says her Christian faith provides the bedrock of her belief in racial equality. She is resolute in her pursuit to break through racial lines. In a Safehouse group, no topic is off the table. Women discuss everything from prejudice in the workplace to hair, and the books simply serve as springboards to further conversation. “People are holding things in their hearts,” she says. “We can’t ‘Kumbaya’ our way through this. We have to break through the middle wall. God is calling us to something greater. He is calling us to family.”