Carrboro Commons

Staff of Carrboro Commons

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Editorials/columns by macgod

Commoners

The student staff of the Carrboro Commons gather for a group portrait: (front to back, left to right) co-editors Ashley Christian and Carrie Crespo; second row, Ramsey Bowman, Emily Brown and Features Editor Taylor Stanford; third row, Jordan-Ashley Baker, News and Copy Editor Joe Collevecchio, Kristan Haitz and Kyle Curtis; fourth row, Jack Carley, Tony Kim, Jung A Cho, Promotions Director Anna Swisher; A&E Editor Stephanie Novak and Machaele Stafford. Photo by Jock Lauterer

It’s Carrboro

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Editorials/columns by allisonp

By Emily Brown

When Billy Sugarfix, 39, and his roommate Brian Risk, 31, sat down one day in their Carrboro apartment, they didn’t plan on writing a song that would become a local hit.

But by the end of the day, Risk, a software developer for Rho, Inc. and Sugarfix, a musician and local substitute teacher, had produced a rap song titled, “It’s Carrboro.” The song made its debut on WCOM radio later that evening.

“It was a total fluke,” Risk said, who bartends part-time at Cat’s Cradle in addition to his day job at Rho.

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Brian Risk, co-author of “It’s Carrboro,” bartends at Cat’s Cradle when he’s not playing guitar.

He mentioned that he and Sugarfix had been joking about living in Carrboro versus Chapel Hill when suddenly they started coming up with all sorts of lyrics.

“Every once in a while I’d help out with a song,” said Risk, who had been working on a beat for a while.

“When we got to the part about ‘droppin’ Plenty,’ that’s when I knew we had to write an entire song,” Risk said.

For any Carrboro newcomers, a PLENTY (Piedmont Local EcoNomy Tender) is a kind of local currency. When local businesses in Carrboro join the NCPlenty non-profit group, they pledge to accept PLENTY’s as a form of payment.

Despite growing up in Chapel Hill, Risk considers Carrboro his home. He feels more comfortable with his surroundings in Carrboro than in Chapel Hill. Risk described Chapel Hill as “the city” and doesn’t often venture outside of Carrboro unless it’s to play a game of pool at Zogs.

So where do Risk and Sugarfix like to hang out in Carrboro?

Risk does not have much time in between working at Rho, bartending at Cat’s Cradle and managing two personal web sites, but he does enjoy jogging and hanging out at Padgett Station, an organic bistro located on East Main Street.

Sugarfix is a member of the band Evil Wiener, which is currently getting ready for their upcoming Christmas Show at The Cave. The show is on December 22, 2006 and will beging around 10:30pm. He also runs his own custom song-writing business, customserenade.com in which he creates theme songs for blogs and podcasts.

Some of Risk and Sugarfix’s lyrics make light of Carrboro stereotypes and refer to individuals, like Ron Jeremy, who have nothing to do with Carrboro but were added for humor. However, the local businesses and people mentioned throughout the rap embody what Carrboro provides for so many: a sense of community.

The song got so much attention in Carrboro that Risk and Sugarfix decided to create a music video. With the help of Jason Meeks and Catherine Devine the “It’s Carrboro” music video made its debut at the end of the Flicker Festival at Cat’s Cradle on May 8th, 2006.

Risk said that his favorite part about creating the music festival was having the dance party in the alley by the Kentucky Fried Chicken.

For Sugarfix, the most thrilling and adrenaline rushing part of filming the music video came when he and Risk were rapping on top of the train tracks.

“All of the sudden a train actually did come down the tracks,” said Sugarfix. While they were both able to escape in time, Sugarfix said that he would never forget that moment.

He laughed and exclaimed, “In hindsight it was pretty comical.”

At one point the lyrics go as follows:

“If it’s locally owned: It’s Carrboro!
Organically grown: It’s Carrboro!
Your heart will warm: It’s Carrboro!
Got that hometown charm: It’s Carrboro!”

Carrboro’s hometown charm is alive and well. It’s local economy is thriving due to support residents give to local shops, businesses, and arts venues. Whether it is shopping at Weaver Street Market or sipping a warm cup of freshly brew coffee at Open Eye Café, your heart will warm simply because, “It’s Carrboro.”

To view the lyrics and the music video to “It’s Carrboro” please visit http://itscarrboro.com/

A new year, a new school – Getting ready for Carrboro High

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Growth and development,School news by allisonp

By Taylor Stanford

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A front view shows the construction that continues at Carrboro High School, located off of Rock Haven Road. The school, with a capacity of 800 students, opens in August 2007. Photo by Taylor Stanford

When school starts on Aug. 27, 2007, almost 600 students will call Carrboro High School home

The new high school, built off Rock Haven Road, cost $35 million to build. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools saw the need to relieve crowding at Chapel Hill and East Chapel Hill High Schools and to create a balance in distance among the schools in the district.

“From the beginning, there was strong support for the school,” said Lisa Stuckey, chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board. “There was debate over where it should go, and it took years to secure the site. But it was always understood that the school would be in the south (of Carrboro).”

The location of the school isn’t the only part of planning that got a response from the community. Naming the third high school proved difficult.

The name South Chapel Hill High School garnered a lot of support, even though the school sits within the Carrboro town limits. In a memorandum issued to Superintendent Neil Pedersen on Dec. 5, 2005, proponents for South Chapel Hill High School said, “It preserves the national recognition and strong reputation associated with our other two high schools.”

These two qualities, however, were the two that supporters cited for naming it Carrboro High School.

“Many supporters (of the second name) also contend that community pride is on the line as Carrboro seeks to grow its name recognition and reputation,” the memo reported.

The School Board decided on Carrboro High School in January 2006, but not after a handful of less-than-usual suggestions. Among them were Dean Smith High School, Ronald Reagan High School, Robert E. Lee High School, Carrboro Tie Dye High School and James Brown Funk Spirit High School.

Someone even a suggestion to name it after the superintendent.

“I think it only got one vote,” Pedersen said, laughing.

With the name decided, the next hurdle dealt with the student assignment plan. As with any high school opening, controversy surrounded the rising senior class and the students’ ability to stay at their respective high schools for their last year.

Several plans were suggested, but on Oct. 19 the School Board approved a plan that allows seniors to be graduated from their current high schools. The plan also allows junior siblings of rising seniors to remain at their current high school for both the junior and senior years. Under this plan, there will be no Carrboro High School class of 2008.

“It’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for the junior class,” Principal Jeff Thomas said. “They get to be seniors for two years. They can use this time to improve their class standing, attain leadership positions in organizations or start organizations of their own.”

With the building nearing completion and assignments done, a majority of the planning now shifts to Thomas, who served as assistant principal of Chapel Hill High School for five years. He said he is excited about the opportunity.

“I have credibility in the community,” he said. “I have a lot of support from parents and students, and I knew that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

He first assembled a “design team” of seven teachers from various academic departments, students from the existing high schools, parents and a guidance counselor, all of whom will design and help implement programs at the high school.

He also said the school will run two new programs not seen in the other district high schools: an Academy of International Studies and a Freshman Academy.

Thomas based the Academy of International Studies on a program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Springs, Md. Through the program, students start taking courses in the Academy during their freshman year. They would then take the “Introduction to International Studies” course as sophomores, two related electives as juniors and two more courses as seniors.

“It’s going to be open to all kids,” Thomas said. “It could one day involve international travel, and I hope to have the introductory classes in place next year.”

His main concern, however, is attracting minority students to the program.

“I want to devise courses for African-American and Latino students,” he said. “These students would ideally want to find out about themselves and their heritage.”

The Freshman Academy is also an academic experiment and one that Thomas hopes will make the transition for freshman students much easier. The school will work closely with the middle schools that feed into it in order to make sure students are as successful as possible.

Thomas also said that he wants every student to participate in at least one co-curricular activity.

“This isn’t going to be voluntary,” he said. “Research shows that students do better when they’re involved in their school. It establishes a sense of belonging.”

But the most cutting edge aspect of the school is its size. The school is built to accommodate only 800 students, much fewer than the other schools in the district. He also said that parents want their kids to attend Carrboro High School for the smaller, more personal learning environment.

“Even parents who aren’t in the Carrboro assignment area want their children to go here,” he said. “My guess is that (the School Board) will look favorably on these transfers if space is available. It’s really a win-win-win situation. Parents will have their kids where they want them. The school will benefit from having kids there who want to be there, and there will be fewer students at the other high schools.”

Some parents and students have expressed concerns about athletics, a staple of high school life. According to the school’s Website, Carrboro High School will be part of the 2-A conference. Conference assignment is based on enrollment, according to the N.C. High School Athletic Association.

Athletic fields will be available, as well as practice fields at Lincoln Center off Merritt Mill Road. But there won’t be a football stadium, which was part of a compromise reached with the residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the school. Instead, there will be a competitive field with a track and bleachers but no press box. Thomas said that this was done to keep noise levels down, but he does not expect it to detract from the school’s athletic program.

“We’re still going to offer a variety of sports for our students,” he said.

But what are sports teams without a mascot and colors?

Thomas said that this decision is still in the works. He charged each student on his design team to come up with three suggestions for a mascot and colors. The parameters were that the mascot can’t involve warriors, Indians or any mascot used in their conference or the school district. The same goes for the colors.

He said that suggestions have been made to keep the mascot within the feline family – Chapel Hill High School is home to the Tigers, and East Chapel Hill High School is home to the Wildcats.

“I know the name Jaguars has been suggested,” he said. “If you’re for alliteration, we could go for the Carrboro Cougars. But then again, there has been talk of maybe choosing something indigenous to Carrboro.”

But the decision won’t be made for a while. Once all the suggestions have been collected from the design team and from suggestion boxes in the existing schools, the future students and staff of Carrboro High School will vote.

“The mascot and colors are important because it’s the beginning of giving the school its identification and sense of pride,” Thomas said.

This identification and pride, he said, also carries over to the town.

“I’m looking forward to this experience where I can share in the community,” he said. “This is going to be a welcomed addition to the town of Carrboro.”

A new position for Nelson

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Town government by allisonp

By Ashley Christian

Former Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson is scheduled to be sworn in on Dec. 4 as the latest addition to the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

This latest title comes after a lifelong interest in politics and a dedication to making change. His campaign platform included such goals as valuing diversity, balancing human needs with environmental responsibility and ensuring that people of all walks of life can achieve their dreams and goals.

Nelson said he was attracted to his new position because it would present a new set of challenges. “There’s a whole new set of issues to dig into – social services, education, law enforcement,” he said.

He said the transition will not be too difficult because the day-to-day activities, such as meetings, would be similar.

However, he said that he will have to learn a lot quickly and that he is in “education mode” now. “I can predict that my first year will be a learning experience.”

On the Board, Nelson said that he will be dedicated to environmental issues, along with attempting to create a community that will be affordable for all residents. “The county has experienced 18 straight years of tax increases, [which present] affordability problems for people living in the county,” he said.

His new position is just the next level of achievement in a life devoted to public service and politics. The 1989 UNC graduate stayed very involved in campus life. He participated in student congress and the organization that is now the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) association.

His most memorable moment on campus, however, came as a result of his involvement in Carolina’s anti-apartheid movement. “I was arrested on campus [along with other students] for trespassing,” he said. He added that he was acquitted when the judge laughed at their story in the courtroom, finding it ironic that the students were charged with trespassing on their own campus.

After college, Nelson worked for NARAL and the National AIDS Hotline, along with becoming the founding executive director of NC Pride PAC (now Equality NC), the state’s first political action committee to focus exclusively on issues of importance to the lesbian and gay community. In the early 1990s, he served as vice-chair of the Orange County Democratic Party.

In 1995, Nelson defeated two veteran candidates, earning as many votes as the other two put together, to become Carrboro’s youngest mayor. He served a total of five terms before retiring in December 2005 as the longest serving mayor in Carrboro’s history.

Aside from founding the Carrboro Art Committee and Carrboro Music Festival as mayor, he made Carrboro the first stop in the nationwide “Out & Elected in the U.S.A” tour in 2002. The tour promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans who have served or are currently serving in an elected office.

Though some politicians hesitate to make their private lives public knowledge, Nelson said he would find it self-defeating to hide his personal life as a gay man from his constituents. “Never give others the power to hold something over your head,” he said.

Nelson maintains that the timing was right to relieve himself of his mayoral position. “It felt right,” he said, “I was burnt out as mayor.” For young individuals interested in pursuing a career in politics, he said he suggests getting involved in public service. “If you’re interested in public service, do it,” he said. He warns that, “you might give up a lot personally,” but said that the results can be extremely rewarding.

Carrboro is growing up, and out

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Growth and development by allisonp

By Joe Collevecchio

You wouldn’t know it walking down Weaver Street, but the Carr Mill property is some of the most expensive in the area.

And although the town’s population has declined slightly in the past five years, property values in Carrboro continue to increase.

With town leaders expecting an upsurge in population over the next few years, managing growth to keep Carrboro a close, affordable and livable community is a must.

“Our growth rate in the current decade has been fairly low,” said Trish McGuire, Carrboro’s planning administrator. “Our population density has gone down slightly, but it’s still high. It’s been high for many years.”

Carrboro is the most densely populated municipality in North Carolina. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have submitted plans to build a new elementary school even as Carrboro High School is set to open at the start of the next academic year. The school system stated in an October report that two additional schools, one elementary school and one middle school, will have to be constructed in the next 10 years to keep up with increased enrollment.

Carrboro also faces a problem stemming from a lack of commercial development.
“The town’s tax base here is primarily residential,” McGuire said. “We have some small portion that’s not residential, but primarily that’s where the burden is, and that’s a problem.”

She said balancing growth with Carrboro’s commitment to protecting the environment and maintaining the area’s aesthetic beauty has resulted in development proposals that emphasize growing Carrboro up as well as out. For Carrboro residents, that means mixed-use projects, as well as taller buildings.

“We’ve got a number of (mixed-use facilities) proposed for Carrboro near Cat’s Cradle,” said Marty Roupe, the town’s development review administrator.

“There are probably a few others, situations downtown where people have been living for years and years. They’re just to get people living downtown, reduce dependency on the automobile and everything that goes along with that.”

He said that one of the stated goals of the Board of Alderman is to double Carrboro’s commercial tax base within the next six years, and that mixed-use developments will help achieve that goal efficiently.

“A few of the applications in front of us now are for four- or five-story buildings,” Roupe said. “It seems to be heading in that direction.”

James Harris, director of community and economic development in Carrboro, said Carrboro may be home to taller buildings in the future, but the town is intent on making sure that they don’t overshadow existing historic properties.

“We had a whole conversation about it, because the concern is that if you go up too high … what effect would that have on the small mill houses?” he said. “We took a whole year and a half to discuss that.”

The result of that discussion, Harris said, was a plan to step the buildings back one story at a time from neighborhoods until they got to five stories downtown.
“That way, it doesn’t look like a tall building up against an ittie-bittie mill house,” he said.
Harris also said the commercial square footage in the Northern Transition Area, a development zone in northern Carrboro, might be increased.

“Right now we have about 5,000 square feet designated out there. That really isn’t enough,” he said. “We have to have a conversation with the public. We can’t just say, ‘We’re going to put 50,000 square feet out there, and that’s it.’ You have to deal with the people, because they live out there.

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Carlos Reyes, left, and Alfonso Ramirez check the grade on a newly leveled road in the Claremont development near Homestead Road. Photos by Joe Collevecchio

“Around here, everybody has a voice in how things will grow and develop, so you have to take it step by step.”

The town also is concerned with keeping housing affordable for residents despite rocketing property values.

“Carrboro doesn’t have an affordable housing requirement per se,” Roupe said. “But there is an expectation that 15 percent of affordable housing will be included (in a development).”

Keeping housing affordable is the responsibility of Orange Community Housing Land Trust, a non-profit group created in 2001 when two separate land and housing entities merged. Robert Dowling is the Trust’s executive director.

“Affordable housing tends not to stay affordable here in Chapel Hill and Carrboro because the property values are raised so quickly,” he said. “It shouldn’t be affordable only to the first buyer, but to all subsequent buyers.”

To further this end, Dowling said the Trust leases land to prospective buyers for 99-year terms. Lessees have the same rights and tax privileges as homeowners, but the Land Trust retains all deeds. That way, when a family moves on to another home, the Trust can lease the home again for an affordable price.

Affordable housing units in Carrboro are built to the same quality standards as other homes in a development, and Dowling said the Trust makes sure the homes they lease are well-maintained.

As Carrboro grows, keeping the town’s unique spirit and sense of community alive is on the forefront of local leaders’ minds.

“We have all kinds of people,” Harris said. “We are a very diverse community here in Carrboro. Just go down to Weaver Street on a Thursday afternoon, and you’ll see all the different cultures just blending in together.

“This is a community where all people are involved.”

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From left to right: Hector Reyes Lara, Alfonso Ramirez, Carlos Reyes

Small business gears up for Christmas

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Growth and development by allisonp

By Kyle Curtis

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Christmas decorations at Carr Mill Mall beckon customers to start their shopping early this holiday season. Photo by Kyle Curtis

With the Christmas season fast approaching, Carrboro residents face the sometimes difficult decision of where to shop. Carrboro small business owners have a much more daunting task at hand; convincing residents to spend their money on Main Street rather than at the mall or Wal-Mart.

This Christmas season will be the twenty-ninth for the Carr Mill Mall. Located in an old cotton mill in downtown Carrboro, Carr Mill doesn’t feel like a normal mall. The floors are still old wooden planks and the wide, arching windows bathe shoppers in comfortable sunlight during the afternoon shopping hours. Boutiques and specialty shops are the mainstays at Carr Mill, along with Elmo’s diner and the Townsend Bertram Outdoor Outfitters.

Everything is not all peaches and cream for small businesses these days in Carrboro, though. Small business owners have faced difficult times in recent years as they struggle to remain competitive with corporations. Typically, a corporation can supply a product at a lower cost to the consumer than a privately owned small business. Therefore, the privately owned business needs another angle to attract the consumer.

Bill Simmons owns Head over Heels, a hair salon at Carr Mill. He says that he is the only remaining owner still in business from when Carr Mill opened in 1977. Staying in business and remaining fiscally competitive is a real challenge for the small business.

The picture is not all bleak for these businesses, though. Jayne Coats at Shades of Blue characterized Carrboro as “an activist community dedicated to buying local products and keeping Carrboro dollars in Carrboro.”

Anna Pepper, owner of The Painted Bird, showed off some local artwork she is selling. Pepper said she tries to keep her customers happy by offering things that are distinct and have been largely produced by local artisans and craftsmen. The Painted Bird sells a variety of items, ranging from women’s clothing to artwork and novelty items.

Pepper and The Painted Bird moved to Carr Mill four years ago from University Square in Chapel Hill. She had been at University Square for 28 years, but grew dissatisfied with some of the changes that had taken place and decided to try her luck in Carrboro at Carr Mill. Pepper said she really likes the new location, especially the sunlight from the large windows.

Having been in business for such a long time, Pepper had some valuable insights into the world of the small business owner, as well as the customer. She identified three primary customer types. The first is the early shopper that really wants to shop around and make sure he or she is getting the right present. This type of shopper will often take notes on the merchandise and return later to make the purchase. The second type is the after mall-sale shopper. This shopper will arrive on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, burned out from the mall sales of the day before. Finally, the third shopper of the season will be the last minute shopper. This shopper will arrive in the last two weeks before Christmas. The last two weeks before Christmas are the busiest for Carr Mill, and the stores stay open until around 8 or 9 o’clock instead of the normal six.

Pepper is a little bit worried about how this season will go at The Painted Bird. She says that customer service is a big selling point for her store, and that she always tries to staff with “people that like people.” She said that there is a fine line between offering good customer service and getting a little pushy. Pepper says that if you go too far and oversell your product you can alienate the customer and they will leave and never come back, so you have to be careful.

Worrying Pepper in particular about this Christmas season is the high cost of gas. More on gas means less disposable income to spend on gifts, which could really hurt the small business this Christmas. Furthermore, Pepper expressed that online shopping is becoming more popular and was uncertain what role that would play in the future of her business.

Everyone knows what is available at the mall. This Christmas season, spend a little time shopping at a small business as well. You may find a great gift that you would otherwise never have found. You will definitely help strengthen the community by keeping Carrboro dollars in Carrboro. Even if it costs a couple extra bucks, it is worth it.

La Virgen comes to Carrboro

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Features by allisonp

By Ted Strong
Just above the six different brands of hot sauce and the dehydrated sugar cane juice sit three elaborate statues of the Virgin Mary and a lifelike baby Jesus.

While the babe—just waiting for swaddling clothes—is familiar as part of crèche scenes, the appearance of statues of Jesus’ mother at Don José’s Tienda, 708 W. Rosemary St., represents a distinctly Mexican tradition. As Dec. 12 approaches, the faithful will gather to celebrate the appearance of Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“All Mexico uses these,” said Gloria Valdez. “Each state has different cultures, but everybody uses that.” Valdez has run Don José’s with her husband, Miguel, for the last three years.

According to Catholic tradition, the virgin of Guadalupe appeared to an indigenous Mexican Christian in the sixteenth century, requesting the construction of a new church and offering blooming flowers mid-winter as miraculous proof for a skeptical bishop.

Since then, her following has grown widely in Mexico.

“The Virgin of Guadalupe is the mother-patron of Mexico,” said John Herrera, member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, though he also said that she is important to other Latin American cultures. Valdez said that many people in Mexico have the day off to celebrate.

“It was seen as a sort of affirmation of their own ethnic and national identity,” said Jim Hynes, director of adult and elementary faith development at St. Thomas More Church, 940 Carmichael St., Chapel Hill. “It’s very much a Mexican patriotic feast as much as it is a religious feast.”

And that tradition has followed many Mexicans as they come to the United States. St. Thomas More has a sister parish arrangement Santa Cruz de Juventio Rosas, the Mexican town from which many immigrants come to the Carrboro area. A quarter of the church’s congregation is Hispanic, Hynes said, and the majority of those worshipers are Mexican.

Hynes said that there will be a large celebration after the Spanish-language mass the afternoon of Dec. 10, the Sunday closest to the feast day, including a procession.

In Mexico, some native traditions have fused with the Catholic faith, Herrera said. On Dec. 12, Herrera said the Virgin will be serenaded by a mariachi band, and the devout will perform native dances. And fresh flowers will be put around statues of the virgin.

Each of Valdez’s statues is at least a foot tall. Mary appears luxuriantly robed in green and with a golden aura radiating behind her.

Different religious figures appear with Mary. One statue features Jesus and an angel. Another has just the angel. In the third, Mary is accompanied by Pope Benedict XVI.

From below Mary’s feet rise two horns, representing the Devil.

“The devil has to stay on the bottom,” explained Valdez.

“Footloose Bruce” – Beyond the Weaver Street Market Lawn

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Features by allisonp

By Tony Kim

He’s a fairly lean gentleman, with long hair braided into locks. Nothing about the way he dresses really makes him stand out amid the people sitting at the tables at Weaver Street Market. But when this man starts dancing, the whole town buzzes in controversy.
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Bruce Thomas shows Amelia and Henry Roeth his moves. Photos by Kristan Haitz

Patrons of Weaver Street Market and citizens of Carrboro know Bruce Thomas better as “Dancing Bruce” or “Footloose Bruce” for his three-month standoff with the management of Carr Mill Mall.

In late July, the mall’s security guard asked Bruce to stop dancing on the lawn in front of the co-operative and leave, he said. Ever since, patrons of Carr Mill Mall, town residents and even members of the Board of Aldermen came together in support of Thomas and to ask Nathan Milian, the mall’s manager, to reconsider.

After Paul Greenberg, the mall owner, met with Mayor Mark Chilton and Alderman Dan Coleman, a new open space policy for Carr Mill Mall was introduced Oct. 9 that allows Thomas to dance on the Weaver Street lawn once more.

Although the majority of the protesters were happy with the mall’s decision, “Footloose Bruce” says the issues he has had to face with on the Weaver Street Lawn were some of many struggles with which he’s endured during his life. For Thomas, the issues stem back 25 years, three states and a long journey of self-discovery.
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Thomas, 45, is not a native of Carrboro or North Carolina. His tumultuous journey began in Newark, N.J.

It was there that Thomas, his brother and their cousin joined a gang. Thomas says that the gang asked them to do violent acts – such as beating up random people on the street to become an initiated member. After a couple of years, it sent Thomas down to Florida to “set up camp,” he said. His job was to stake out banks in the area for the organization to rob.
Little did he know, he said, that God would start talking to him right before the robbery was about to happen.

“I heard a voice saying, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it,’ as I was getting in the car,” he said.

But Thomas ignored the voice and performed the task. After passing on the money, Thomas was arrested by police and sent to the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville, Fla., where he spent two years before going to the Union Correctional Institution prison in Raeford, Fla., where he says he was sentenced to for 90 years. He was charged with three counts of robbery with a deadly weapon, according to Florida Department of Corrections records.

While in prison, Thomas started exploring the repercussions of his actions. It took him four years to get out of the gang that led him to prison. He began to pray and listen to the voice that had warned him the day of the bank robbery. He also began to study everything he could get his hands on, from religious texts from Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, to other spiritual books on astral projection, theology, meditation and life after death.

Now, he calls himself a follower of many different religious leaders – Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad, among many others.

“For me, religion is like a tree with many branches and roots and leaves, but it comes from one source and it reaches to heaven,” he said.

He quotes some of the great thinkers he studied in prison, such as civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Don’t judge a man by the color of his skin,” Thomas said, paraphrasing King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, “but the content of his character.”
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Thomas also took advantage of other programs they offered in prison. He learned practical skills such as bread baking as well as yoga meditation techniques from an instructor who taught twice a month at the prison. He also worked outside of the prison in a dental clinic as a custodian and later as a technician.

After serving 17 years in prison, Thomas’ life started to turn around. Because of his good behavior for almost two decades he spent incarcerated, he received early parole.

“I got into prison by thinking negative,” he said. “I got out by thinking the opposite… the grace of God and my self-effort.”

Although he was paroled, he had nowhere to go. Thomas originally asked that he be paroled back to his home in Newark, N.J., but the state denied his request. Distraught and unsure, he turned to the one person he trusted during his time of incarceration – the yoga instructor.

The instructor suggested that Thomas consider going to the Human Kindness Foundation, a non-profit organization in Mebane headed by Bo Lozoff who, among other goals, aims to rehabilitate prisoners through spiritual teaching.
Thomas stayed in Mebane for eight months under the tutelage of Lozoff before he decided it was time to restart his life using the skills he learned in prison and at the Human Kindness Foundation.

“I wanted to go out to the world and face my fears,” he said. “I wanted to work as a bread baker.”

This time, he asked Lozoff to help him find a job and a new place to call home. Lozoff contacted his friends at Weaver Street Market and asked what positions were available. It just so happened that a bread baker position had just opened and available for Thomas.

For three years, Thomas built his life in Carrboro as a bread baker for the town co-op. On Thursdays, he would attend the Carr Mill Mall “After Hours” events that featured music events on the open lawn space. It was here that Thomas started hearing the same voice from the day of robbery talking to him again. But this time, it was telling him to dance.

“When I hear that same voice, I listen, and I obey,” he said.

Although he didn’t know how to dance, Thomas started incorporating the yoga and martial arts he had learned in prison with a little bit of creative movements to do what he calls “Dancing for the Glory of God” or “Dancing with Chi.”

“I was sitting at the table and, in my mind, I was saying I want to dance with the kids,” he said. “And the Lord was saying, ‘Then go dance with the kids.’”

He’s been dancing ever since.
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After he left his bread baking job at the co-op, Thomas worked at the Orange United Methodist Church for two years and then back to the Human Kindness Foundation for a year. He now works at Chestnut Ridge in Efland, a summer camp and retreat center where he teaches bread baking, mediation and – of course – dance and creative movement.

And although the Carr Mill Mall dancing controversy is finally over, Thomas still feels hurt at what he says was discrimination of his dancing by the owners of the property.

“I told God I will not dance here any more unless he tells me to,” he said. “We see others who are happy and we want to be happy, so we get offended enough to try to put an end to the person’s joy. That’s basically what happened. Anything we don’t approve of, we try to put an end to.

“Walking is dancing. All life is a dance. To tell me, somebody, a human being, not to dance – not to speak – is to tell them not to exist.”

But he says that he does not wish any ill will to Milian, the security guard or any of the owners who disapproved of his dancing on the lawn.

“I looked at him and said, ‘No problem,’” Thomas said of the initial incident. “I told him to tell Nathan ‘Thank you. God bless you. God bless him, and God bless us all.’ And I said, ‘Merry Christmas.’

“We have to always love no matter what people say to us or do to us. Like the Buddha and Dali (Lama) say, ‘Love and kindness.’”
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El Centro Latino provides a new outlook on life

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Carrboro Connections by allisonp

By Carrie Crespo

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Mural painted on the side of the former El Centro Latino building saying, “We are a Nation of many colors. Somos una Nacion de muchos colores.” Photo by Carrie Crespo

Many Latinos come to this country not knowing anyone. They don’t know the language or have anywhere to go. All they want is a better life from the one they left behind. But people in the United States aren’t always quite so inviting.

El Centro Latino, a nonprofit organization serving all of Orange County, offers programs, classes and support to their Latino residents need to help them be more successful in the community.

El Centro Latino incorporated in 1999 when local Latino leaders, the Orange County Hispanic Task Force and the Orange County Partnership for Young Children recognized the growing Latino population. It was originally located on Lloyd Street before moving to the Inter-faith Council building on East Main Street.

The Latino population has continued to increase since its incorporation. By 2004, almost 5 percent of Orange County was of Latino origin. In Carrboro, it was more than 12 percent. Since then, Carrboro has grown to more than 14 percent.

“We like to think it provides a lot of services and educational and cultural programs in an environment that is comfortable to the population we serve,” said Ben Balderas, executive director of El Centro Latino.They can come into an inviting atmosphere and one of confidentiality.”

Like others working there, Balderas feels El Centro has helped him be more active in the community by giving him an opportunity to form relationships with many individuals from various political and socioeconomic backgrounds.

El Centro Latino provides many programs and classes for Latinos to come in and learn. The center works with the council, the Carolina Women’s Center, NAACP and many other organizations. But more important, it is there to help and answer any questions. More frequent questions concern immigration, taxes, childcare and work.

“Everyone that wants to can come and talk with the staff face to face to give orientation for issues,” program director Johanna Cabeza-arias, who has worked for El Centro Latino for two months, said. “We translate, help fill out applications, make phone calls in English, deal with problems with bills or the government and can interpret.”

Balderas said that a man came to the front desk a few years ago and said he had Alzheimer’s disease. He wanted to tell his family, but he couldn’t remember how to reach them or where they lived. Diego Torres, who is in charge of intake and referral, worked with the consulates to track down his family and send the man back to his country. This is only one of the many issues the center handles daily.

Cabeza-arias wants to do her best to unite the community and help people to be more active in the community.

She began working in this field for six years when she started in Colombia. When she came to the United States, she wanted a job that dealt with the community and social work. Cabeza-areas said this was the best place for her to work with other Latinos and get them involved.

“If you just stay in your house, just work and go to your house, and you are not a good member of your community and do nothing to help support your community, we are going to have a bad society because everybody will be separate,” Cabeza-arias said.

One way to get more involved is to become a member of El Centro Latino, she said. Members work with El Centro employees to create new programs and get more involved. They also receive more benefits such as specific programs just for them or discounts on their taxes. Members are asked to give only as much as they think they can afford.

El Centro Latino has services that don’t cost anything to join.

English as a Second Language classes are provided for adults, as well as computer classes and GED courses. The center also helps people find jobs that best fit them and help fill out job applications. Companies can also call El Centro Latino when they need employees.

Twice a month, an attorney comes to talk with people who have appointments to get free legal advice dealing with immigration, family law and civil law. Any services are done at a discount. The attorney also held a conference in October about immigration issues, deportation and immigration reform.

A women’s group was formed to help women deal with the culture shock and depression of having to work and still raise children. Women feel guilty when they have to leave their kids, Cabeza-arias said. El Centro Latino’s program teaches them that by being responsible mothers, they will have children who are more responsible. They also talk about education, domestic violence and other issues.

A testimonial on the back of El Centro Latino’s pamphlet is of a woman who used to sit in her house and just watch television. Now that she has joined the women’s group, she said she isn’t as stressed and enjoys the friendship of other women, the communication and the company.

For children, El Centro Latino has after-school programs and daycare while their parents are in classes. El Centro Latino works with Toys for Tots and helps provide Christmas presents to those in need. The center distributes the toys and celebrates with a party during the holidays.

The point of El Centro Latino is not for the people to abandon their culture but to work better within their new community so that they are better accepted. Spanish classes are also available for those who wish to learn.

“Latinos don’t need to leave their culture if they know how this country works,” Cabeza-arias said. “If they respect the law and are active, they won’t need to leave their culture but can enrich the community.”

Encontrar oportunidades para todo el mundo

Posted on December 4th, 2006 in Carrboro Connections by allisonp

Mucha gente viene cada año de varios países en América Central. Bien listos y muy trabajadores, la mayoría viene a buscar trabajo. Con tantas personas buscando el trabajo y una vida mejor, ¿qué puede hacer Usted para conseguir las mejore oportunidades para Usted y su familia? Para mejorar su posición y la de su familia, lo mejor que puede hacer es buscar oportunidades para ganar nuevas habilidades e involucrarse más en la comunidad. Aunque puede resultar difícil encontrar tiempo para hacer algo que no sea trabajo, ¡vale la pena! Lo que sigue es una lista breve de algunos recursos y organizaciones que puede utilizar para mejorar su posición o su participación en la comunidad.

(1) Aprender el inglés – todos saben que saber hablar es muy útil para ser parte de la comunidad y conseguir un buen trabajo. Hay muchas organizaciones que ofrecen cursos de inglés GRATIS, las que siguen son bien reconocidas:

a. MANO (Mujeres Avanzando hacia Nuevas Oportunidades). Instrucción por las mujeres para las mujeres. Se reúnen en Carrboro Elementary School, los lunes y los miércoles 7:00pm-8:30pm. Más información: Derek Taylor, [email protected].

b. BOLD (Building Oportunities through Language Development). Instrucción por los hombres para los hombres. Se reúnen en Carrboro Elementary School, los lunes y los miércoles 7:00pm-8:30pm. Más información: Sarah Long, [email protected].

(2) Encontrar oportunidades para sus hijos – aparte de asistir a la escuela, es importante que los niños tengan otras oportunidades para explorar las actividades que les puedan interesar. Como cada niño tiene intereses distintos, es importante encontrar varias oportunidades para sus hijos y dejar que ellos escojan lo que quieran hacer. Algunas sugerencias:

a. Starworz Community Children’s Theatre. Una organización de los estudiantes de UNC que produce obras en las que actúan los niños. Las obras se producen en inglés, entonces se prefiere que los niños hablan inglés. Más información: http://studentorgs.unc.edu/starworkz.

b. Deportes. La ciudad de Carrboro ofrece un montón de deportes disponibles para los que viven cerca de Carrboro. Hay cursos de fútbol, básquetbol, voleibol, tenis, y mucho más. También hay cursos para los adultos. La mayoría requiere una cuota mínima. Más información: http://www.ci.carrboro.nc.us/rp/athleticprogramsF06.htm#1.

c. CHISPa Chicos. Conecta un niño hispano con un ‘mentor’ de la universidad que pasa tiempo cada semana con él o ella, para ayudarle can la tarea o salir a una actividad social. Si quiere que su niño participe en este programa, debe hablar con su maestra porque todos los niños que participan vienen recomendados por las maestras. Más información: Judy Rodríguez, [email protected].

(3) Aprender más sobre la tecnología – usar la computadora es una habilidad importante. Las bibliotecas en Carrboro, Chapel Hill, y Durham ofrecen varios cursos sobre el Internet, correo electrónico y las computadoras. Más información (la página se pone al corriente cada mes): http://www.lib.unc.edu/instruct/community_workshops/calendar.html.

No olvide que vale la pena involucrarse en la comunidad. Cada comunidad tiene oportunidades disponibles para todos, sólo que hay que buscarlas. La lista arriba sólo representa algunas oportunidades, pero hay muchas más. Si lo que busca no lo encuentra aquí, búsquelo en “Google” o mande un e-mail al correo que sigue para recibir ayuda.

Hasta luego,

Emily Vernon

[email protected]

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