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Cherrelle Vereen Blackwell

Cherrelle Vereen Blackwell is a Person County native carving out a space for herself as a human resources professional for Duke University and Duke Healthcare systems. She’s also an active member of the nation’s oldest Black Greek-letter sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., wherein she has served as president and vice president of Roxboro’s Sigma Nu Omega chapter. Her story encourages to dream dreams and work hard to accomplish them.

Q) What was your upbringing like in Person County?

I think my upbringing was pretty much similar to a lot of people’s. I grew up with a strong connection to the church and I grew up around a lot of family, immediate and extended family. My family is from Soul City, down in Timberlake. So my weekends were spent there at my grandmother's house, playing with my cousins and all the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. And on Sundays we went to church, which for us was New Hope Baptist Church. So, I think my upbringing mirrors pretty much a lot of people that grew up in Person County, in the country.

I think when I got to high school, that was when I really came into my own and started thinking for myself, started learning different things and different cultures and started being interested in the world outside of Roxboro. When I turned 16, I got my first job and I got my first car, and I started taking the opportunity to travel where I could, started taking college tours and things like that. That’s when I started to find my way and get a feel for the world around me.

I graduated high school in 2004 and I enrolled at UNC Pembroke. And it's funny because I was originally going to go to Virginia Union. But then I went for a tour and decided I didn’t want to go there, and since I had also been accepted to UNC Pembroke, I just went there. In being there that first year though, I realized it was not the place for me. I had always planned to go to an HBCU and then at the last minute I changed my mind, which I regretted. And then also, I had a negative experience at UNC Pembroke with a professor that made me see that that was not my home, that was not where I needed to be. And so, after my freshman year, I came home and went to Durham Tech for a semester while I tried to figure out what my next move was going to be. And then in January of 2006, I enrolled at St. Augustine’s College, which is now St. Augustine’s University. From there, I flourished. Every semester I made the Dean’s List. I was a Presidential Honor. I really excelled when I got there, and I absolutely believe it was because the HBCU environment fit me. There’s nothing like an HBCU. At St. Aug, I knew my professors cared about me and that they were invested in my future and in my education.

 

Q) What is your career path and what are your proudest achievements?

I graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science with a concentration in pre-law, because back then I believed that it was my destiny to become a corporate attorney. I actually did an internship at the North Carolina General Assembly where I was able to see how laws were made. I did that because it was my plan to become an attorney. I took the LSAT with all intentions of going to law school. And then, luckily, I got a job as a legal assistant at a small law firm in Durham and realized that law was not my calling. It was absolutely not what I was supposed to be doing. So, my career path kind of took a turn there. But in 2011, I enrolled at North Carolina Central University for Grad School, and I earned Master's Degree in Public Administration with a concentration in human resource management. And that is the path that my career is on now.

I work at Duke University but I do benefits administration for all of Duke. Our department administers and facilitates benefits for the university, the healthcare system, and every other entity of Duke. So, we have about thirty thousand employees that we service. Duke is known for having a pretty expansive benefit package—not just health benefits, but also tuition assistance for employees, tuition assistance for employees’ children, and substantial retirement packages. My department facilitates all those benefits. And I specifically work with our tuition grant program and another program which is designed to offer assistance to employees who were out on FMLA.

There are so many different avenues that you can take within human resources, so I started out in benefits because I wanted to learn the meat and potatoes of what H.R. is. In H.R., the more you learn about the different avenues, the higher you are able to advance. I would ultimately like to become president of human resources. And I feel like in order to do that, I need to learn a little bit of each role. So, I started in benefits and I have been in the benefits department for the last six years. I'm not quite ready to leave this area yet but I know what my ultimate goal is and I am positioning myself to try to get there.

 

Q) What organizations or community endeavors do you participate in?

I am a part SHRM (Society of Human Resources Management) which is an H.R. career development organization. And I also just recently got invited to become a member of the Triangle Women's Leaders Association which is an organization of women leaders in the triangle who come from all different professional backgrounds to be a resource for one another within the workplace.

And of course, I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. I joined back in the fall of 2007 at St. Aug, and I hit the ground running. I was working with the local chapter and doing community service with students in the Wake county area specifically. I worked a lot with the Boys and Girls Club that was near St. Aug. So that's kind of where I started to get my roots in the work of the organization. And then after I graduated in 2008, I kind of took a break from a lot of the community service I was doing and just participated in the organization as a general member. My life became busy—I got married and bought a house and went to grad school. I had other things occupying my time. But after a while, I was ready to get back to work. And as I thought about how I could be of service, I realized that I needed to be somewhere where I could see the fruits of my labor and know that I was making a positive impact. Also, I felt like it was time to give back to the community I grew up in. So I came back to the Person County chapter in 2014, and I served as president of the chapter from 2014 to 2019 and then vice president in 2019 and 2020. AKA has quite a few national platforms that align with my personal community service interests, like working with youth in trying to get them prepared for college and prepared for what's next after they graduate high school. So, there is plenty of work for me within AKA.

 

Q) Why is it important that women be recognized for their foundational work in our community and our nation?

National Women History Month is the time that we take out to recognize and salute women for their contributions to the American family and to society. And I think it's especially important for us to salute African-American women and women of color for their contributions, because for so long we’ve been completely overlooked and pushed aside.

We know that this country was built on the backs of Black women and men, and so much of the success of Black men, and so much of the success of the Black community, can be attributed to the Black woman. I think it's important that we take this time to recognize them and allow them to shine. Gone are the times when we were expected to just sit at home, having and raising babies—and even back then when that was the case, those babies were growing up to be amazing individuals because of the women who raised them. So it’s time to give women their due.

 

Q) What do you envision for the future of Person County?

I want Person County to grow and change. I want there to be more opportunities and activities, especially for young people. More things to help prepare them for their futures. Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t great things about Person County. I love being home. I don’t come back often but when I do I love just being out in the country. It gives me a peace. In Durham where I live, there is construction and traffic and noise all the time. But when I go back home to the country I can sit on the porch for hours and just relax and listen to nothing. So that's one of the things that’s great about Person County. But Person County itself needs growth and change.

And to be completely honest, I have no plans to ever move back because of the things that I experienced growing up in Person County as a young black girl, such as bigotry and lack of fairness and opportunities. Growing up, there weren't a lot of people pushing me to go beyond Person County. I didn't have guidance counselors pushing me to go to college. Children need that. All children need that. And my husband and I don't have any children yet, but when we do, I just don’t want to raise them in that same environment, because it hasn't changed much from 17 years ago when I was in high school. I hope that it does change, though.

My Husband’s best friend is Ray Jeffers. So even though we’ve been living in Durham for the last 10 years, when Ray first ran for County Commissioner, we made sure that we went back and campaigned for him and got the word out for him because we believe that him sitting in that seat and being on the board would make a difference. And in the years that he was there he was able to do quite a lot and I was so sad that he wasn't able to pull it out this past election because there was so much work for him to do. Person County really needs some new blood. They need some innovators to challenge old ways and challenge biases and inequities.

 

Q) What is your advice for girls and young women who may look to you as motivation?

Dream big. Don't be afraid to have a dream and to work towards that dream. Growing up, I had dreams and aspirations that were beyond Person County. And I knew that if I were to ever achieve those dreams, I had to put in the work. And I was blessed to have a mother who instilled that in me and supported me. But I still had to do the work myself to try to reach for my dreams. So, my advice is don’t be afraid to have those big dreams, and don’t shy away from the work that is needed to accomplish them. There are going to be obstacles. But you're just going to have to continue to work and push yourself because there is so much to life beyond what you can see, and you deserve to have a piece of it. So be willing to get out there and work for it.

Background image: Aaron Drumwright (Aarondphotography.com)