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CYSK: Caroline Emerson

A glimpse into the daily lives, inspirations, and stories of the leaders, changemakers, and community members who call Charlottesville home

Caroline Emerson

Vice President of Community Engagement and Campaigns

United Way of Greater Charlottesville

Hometown: Jackson, TN

Years lived in Charlottesville: 27

Favorite small business: The English Gardener

Favorite local restaurants: The Alley Light, Brasserie Saison, Tavola, and Orzo Kitchen

Favorite community event: Community Table

Favorite place in Charlottesville: Her screened-in porch

What is your educational and professional background?

I always went to really small schools. My high school graduating class had six people in it, which was great because you got to do everything: you could be the editor of the yearbook and the star on the basketball team. Then I went to Sewanee, which is the University of the South, another small liberal arts college. I originally thought I was going to go to Medical School because my mother was a physician and I spent my youth toiling behind her, going to the emergency room, and working for her summer after summer. When I got to college, I realized I hate Microbiology and Organic Chemistry, so I shifted dramatically and ended up majoring in Philosophy. My dad was a theater major and ended up in radio, doing the General Manager side of stuff. So I guess that side of my personality sort of won out: I was really into theater growing up as well. Philosophy lets you think about how to frame arguments, and be very logical, and all those things.

After college, I ended up going to work for the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. It’s an enormous Arts organization with international performers doing really cool stuff. I met everyone from Elmo to really cool international companies that would come in and take over the place. I did museum tours when I first got started, then I worked my way into the Public Relations department, became the PR Director, and then moved over to the development side and got into fundraising there. I really learned the 360 of nonprofits there and also got to work in the arts which was super cool. I’ve been in nonprofits the whole time, but I’ve been with United Way for 26 years. I think my funniest job was selling socks on the street in New York for a couple summers!

What does United Way do?

We focus on financial stability, school readiness, and connected community. We allocate resources, whether that’s leadership, time, skills, or dollars, to solution-oriented organizations and initiatives that address things in those areas. We’re all about trying to create opportunities and overcome equity discrepancies. The overarching goal is to reduce poverty in Charlottesville and our surrounding community.

United Ways are all completely autonomous, local organizations. We are connected through a trade association. This is really important because we are not like Salvation Armies or Red Crosses or anything, we’re just not set up that way. We’re totally local and autonomous, but we are connected. We can share information and resources, which is really important during times of national emergencies. It’s a great way for us to get ideas from each other and learn from what other United Ways have been doing. 

What makes you passionate about your work?

The people that we work with! When you get to know or hear about a family... for example, you have a mom with little kids, and is working two jobs, and she’s also taking classes, and she’s doing everything she possibly can to make a better life for her children… that’s inspiring. That’s hard work. It’s always the people; there are amazingly resilient people. My colleagues and coworkers are also astounding passionate, compassionate, brilliant people. We support each other. It’s always about the people. Charlottesville’s a small town with a lot of big town ideals and brain power.

How would you like to impact the Charlottesville community?

Our original statement is for a strong equitable community, where every person thrives. That is something that is a real driving force for us. We’re trying to attack discrepancies and inequities on a systems level. That takes a lot of work and a lot of time, but we also need to keep listening and learning. We want to reduce poverty, especially in Black families because they are disproportionately impacted by these things. That is really what we’re committed to. We’re launching some community-wide goals related to poverty reduction in the coming year, so tune in for that!

What's been a favorite recent project of yours?

It’s got to be the virtual Community Table that we just did with Tom Tom! I’m really passionate about our Community Tables anyway, the whole idea. Back in 2017, I was deeply involved with beginning that project. It has been so transformative to hear the experiences of people… just when you think you’ve learned something, there’s so much more to learn, so many different perspectives, and so many different experiences. Every time we go through that process, I learn something more about the lives of other people and how I can impact them, for good or for bad. It really makes you see how connected we all are and how important it is that we stay connected.

Check out the Community Table recordings from this past summer on our YouTube channel!

Who is inspiring you right now?

There are a lot of people in Charlottesville that inspire me, so to pick one is really hard. One person that has been rising to the top lately is Leah Puryear. She is the Director of the Upward Bound program at UVA, on the Charlottesville City School Board, and she was a Community Table host. She’s actually been a Community Table host from the beginning, which is how I got to know her. Upward Bound is a program that works with kids in high school, that traditionally would have limited access to college resources, to help get them ready to go to college. Leah is a force of nature with an enormous heart! It just so happens that her mother and my mother live together at a retirement community, and they actually know each other too! It’s kind of sweet.

What is something you're looking forward to?

Everyone is looking forward to getting a handle on the pandemic, of course. I know that for every answer, that’s the bottom line: we’ve all got to get back to something. For me, one thing I look forward to getting back to is a warm Saturday night on the downtown mall with music, laughter, and people waving at each other. That’s very much Charlottesville to me. That’s one of my experiences of Charlottesville. That’s certainly not the only experience of Charlottesville for a lot of people, but for me, I really miss that.

Ready for more?

We'll be highlighting a new C-villian in every edition of our Com Com Newsletter!


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