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CSEM intern Sierra Chesnutt charges ahead

By John Railey

CSEM Writer

Last week, Sierra Chesnutt, like all other WSSU students, moved off campus and, this week, adjusted to virtual classrooms. It has been a setback in what has been an exciting semester for her, especially in the momentum she has gained as a CSEM intern.

Chesnutt, a junior, will keep charging ahead. Her fellow CSEM staff members have come to appreciate her friendly passion for social justice, as well as her insightful ideas and work commitment.

Growing up in Greensboro, Chesnutt was encouraged by her parents from an early age to serve her community, most notably, by visiting residents in nursing homes. She graduated from Southeast Guilford High School. Her parents and maternal grandmother are all WSSU graduates, so the school was a natural fit for her, just far enough from home, but not too far. “I knew I was in the right spot,” she said.

She decided on social work as her major. “It’s such a broad field, It really gives me the opportunity to make a big impact on others, just through the lives of people in the community who need help. It will allow me to help others, and that’s something that I’m passionate about. “

A classmate told Chesnutt about CSEM. She was looking for ways to get more involved in the community. CSEM, she said, was the perfect match. “I just want to gain work experience and expand my knowledge about the community with regard to economic mobility,” she said. “I am pursuing social work, so it’s important to understand things that are going on in the community and ways to address issues, connecting, building relationships.”

“I do love my job. It allows me to apply skills and knowledge,” she said. “It allows me to build relationships and just connect with leaders in the community who have influence. I just love the hands-on aspect of my job.”

Helping filmmakers working on the documentary Rigged, which spotlights CSEM and a few other educational initiatives nationwide that seek to better the communities beyond their walls, has also been part of Chesnutt’s job.

She has joined in CSEM’s research to confront the effects of “the benefits cliff,” which occurs when a worker receives an hourly wage increase but loses other public benefits, such as child-care subsidies. CSEM has been part of a community push on that effort. CSEM Founding Director Craig Richardson has found that the situation might go beyond the cliff effect to the broader economic system, and might even be called an “incentives desert.” To research that, through a cooperation CSEM has set up through Victor Isler, the head of the Forsyth County Department of Social Services, Chesnutt will mine DSS data.

“I have taken a tour around the DSS building,” she said. “I have kind of got my foot in the door, and am excited by the prospect.”

Trying to connect her fellow students to CSEM is a goal of Chesnutt’s. “The CSEM team is so hardworking and determined, extremely intelligent and passionate about what they do. It’s kind of an ongoing process of trying to connect more with students and increase student awareness, and just knowledge, of what CSEM does. That’s a goal, but with the Corona virus, it’s something that’s kind of been put on hold.”

After graduating from WSSU, Chesnutt wants to earn a master’s degree in social work. After that, she says, “I’m very flexible as to what agency I will be working with, but I am interested in juvenile justice. Just being able to advocate, to speak for those who might not feel comfortable or be able to, that’s something I would love to do. I’m kind of open to wherever life takes me geographically.”

Chesnutt is committed, talented and dedicated to CSEM’s mission. We hope her career brings her back to Winston-Salem.

John Railey is the senior writing and community relations consultant for CSEM. He can be reached at