WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Patrick Brien and his team at Cape Fear Collective are working to bring about change in southeastern North Carolina. Not the “driving-down-the-street-and-notice-a-bunch-of-trees-were-cut-down-because-a-new-development-is-going-to-be-built” kind of change. Brien, the CEO of the organization, calls it ‘generational change’. When the issues you address include poverty, affordable housing, education and healthcare, the solutions don’t evolve overnight.
“To a certain degree, we’ll constantly focus on systemic change,” Brien said when explaining the effort. “So, we’re not trying to build a program to solve this finite problem. We’re trying to strengthen communities and trying to think about ‘How do we better invest in staff, stuff, space and systems?’ Really those things will transcend generations. No matter what the problem, whether it’s COVID, a hurricane, economic downturn. It’s the systems, it’s the people, it’s the organizations within a broader community that are going to be able to transcend those issues and kind of continue that generational progress forward.”
Brien moved to Wilmington with his wife Alison in 2018, when she took a job with Apiture, a digital banking company. As the community recovered from Hurricane Florence, Brien heard leaders from different sectors talk about how to help non-profits expand their reach and effect. Organizations like Live Oak Bank and nCino spearheaded the effort and needed someone to take the lead. Using seed funding from those groups, Cape Fear Collective was born.
“So, we kind of dove in,” Brien said. “In the first twelve months, the team collectively took 1,500 meetings. A lot of cups of coffee and a lot of lunches and we just listened. The two primary things that came out of that, in terms of needs, there was already a lot of coalition building, the non-profits are very excellent in this community, they are very experienced, doing the right things, the two things we felt were gaps in the market were data and capital. No amount of money, no amount of organizational infrastructure can properly solve some of these really complex, nasty problems that we are dealing with, without really effective, real-time useful data, digestible data that is accessible to both the non-profit leader, but also to the elected official, the voter, to the taxpayer, to the private sector in terms of how corporations interact with the community.”
The data Brien talks about can take many forms. CFC teamed up with the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and dozens of organizations to survey the quality of the workforce and the needs of employers across southeastern North Carolina. Staff has also had face-to-face conversations with residents young and old, to learn their life experiences and daily interactions. The accumulated information can become the roadmap for non-profits to learn where they intersect in the effort to address generational issues.
“You might be working in housing and actually having a huge effect on education or huge effect on health,” Brien says. “How do I show you that? How do I show you the impact, the broader outcome you’re having? Then when we paint that picture holistically at that big population level, now we start to see how the whole system and the cogs start to fit together. That data is kind of the keystone to starting that process and that conversation.”
In February, Cape Fear Collective’s drive to find solutions to the affordable housing crisis got a shot in the arm with a $2.5 million investment from Live Oak Bank. CFC will use the funding to purchase 20 homes, townhouses or apartments in Wilmington and Pender County, and maintain them as safe and affordable housing units. The investment comes with a two percent return over five years. In that time, Brien expects to cycle the initial capital several times, because his is a long-term vision.
“Whereas a for-profit market actor may say ‘That’s not something I want to handle’ or ‘I need to make such a profit off of that, that it takes out of the affordable housing tranche, it’s not going to do anybody any good’,” Brien said. “But we can do that. We can put in the work that can make sure it can happen because it’s a mission-oriented focus for us. So, when we’re out there looking for homes, we’re looking at things that we can keep affordable regardless of the work. But we’re also thinking about ‘Hey, this house needs a lot of work, but if we put in that extra effort and we only get break-even margin, we’re going to bring up the property value of all the homes around it, too, and we’re going to provide safe housing for a family’ and that’s pretty invaluable in terms of how we’re investing that money.”
The Rochester, New York native speaks about a similar effort he worked on in Rwanda, working as Director of Strategy for the University of Global Health Equity. Brien didn’t grow up with a goal of developing a sustainable healthcare system in Africa or using data and capital to offer affordable housing solutions in coastal North Carolina. His wanted to join the military, and he did after graduating with a political science degree from the University of Rochester. He then spent ten years in the U.S. Army, leading combat units during several deployments to Afghanistan.
“The biggest thing the army provided me was that I got to serve alongside probably the greatest crosscut of middle America that my generation has ever seen,” he remembers. As a young adult, I was able to see people from all different backgrounds, socio-economic, gender, racial backgrounds, do amazing things. A lot of these kids were people you would just kind of pass by on the street and never give a second thought to. Here they were, coming from the projects of Baltimore, coming out of rural Oklahoma, and they were leading men and women in combat, doing highly technical jobs. That had a huge impact on me because I saw real value in every human being I came across after that, and really embraced the natural talent that we all have. I was just always in awe and inspired by them. That led me into this world of ‘How can I be a part of that? How can I keep interacting with that type of vision?’ I think it has meanderingly led me here.”
Look for more on Cape Fear Collective’s affordable housing effort in the coming weeks on WECT News, including interviews with organizations working alongside CFC in the endeavor. I hope you enjoy this enlightening conversation as much as I did.
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