Tracey Weaver has suffered more than her share of setbacks in life. As a teen she struggled with abuse, molestation, major financial problems, and the deaths of loved ones. But she overcame these and other tragedies and began to devote her life to helping others through hardship. Then, almost all at once, Weaver's brother died from kidney failure, her uncle murdered his wife and killed himself, and drug dealers murdered her cousin. Weaver hit a wall. She fell down on her knees and prayed for something bigger. "I couldn't take it anymore," she said. She began a process of soul-searching and praying. Finally something came to her, "and that's when the name hit me — Urban University."
Weaver dreamed of a school devoted to teaching people how to transform their lives. She began mustering resources to create a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group. "I was scared as hell to walk into a law firm; I didn't even own a suit," she recalled recently. So she went to the Bar Association of San Francisco's Volunteer Legal Services, and the program linked her to a San Francisco-based law firm that helped her receive a nonprofit certificate to start Urban University.
Five friends became Weaver's board members and helped her develop a mission statement: to improve the socioeconomic status of impoverished people through training, coaching, and employment. Urban University became a culmination of her work and her passion for social justice. Through the Legal Employment Action Program, Urban University's first project, Weaver helped fifty women transition from welfare to work.
Weaver's own difficult upbringing snuffed her innocence at a young age. Still, she describes her beginnings as humbling and inspiring. Born in New York City to a single mom who couldn't cope with the responsibility of a child and a full-time job, Weaver was sent to the South Bronx at a young age to live with her aunt and uncle, who were missionaries. Weaver's altruistic nature helped her develop close relationships in a diverse neighborhood. Then, when she was seven, her mother unexpectedly came back into her life, readopting her and taking her to Southern California with her new stepfather.
That transition was rocky. Not long after the move, Weaver's stepfather began molesting her. Her mother, who also was molested as a young girl, couldn't bear the pain of her daughter's abuse and murdered her husband. She spent four years in prison and was unable to function normally upon her release.
In an effort to find the comfort and love she'd lost at home, Weaver married at age eighteen. The couple entered adult life without high-school diplomas or employment skills. Her husband joined the military and was stationed in Northern California. The couple moved to Yuba City, where they had a son and a daughter. "The predominant racism in Yuba City really affected me and my family," Weaver said. She began to feel isolated, while marital and financial problems drove a wedge between the young couple. Her husband began to abuse her. When her employer offered her a job in Sacramento, she took her son and daughter and fled her abusive marriage.
Overnight, she became a single mom. She got a second job as an employment specialist for the homeless at Episcopal Community Services in San Francisco. Since her life experience had made her sensitive to those in need, she felt at home helping people who were down on their luck. Her class grew quickly from only a handful to fifty homeless men and women. She began supplying her trainees with resources and teaching employability skills. She taught them how to find shelters, keep their clothes clean, and locate work.
Her achievements were eventually recognized by Goodwill Industries, which hired her to teach life skills such as self-esteem and employability. She began volunteering for a nonprofit called One at a Time Foundation, which also provided employee training and life-skill classes. Her experiences developed her own confidence and sense of self. As she realized her leadership skills, her ambitions began taking shape.
She began Urban University with the help of some local organizations including Jewish Vocational Services, the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Community Investment, the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation, SFWorks, Growth Sector, and the San Francisco Bar Association. In 2006, Urban University created the "Moms at Work" program, out of which Weaver's most current project evolved.
Shortly after Barack Obama was sworn in as president and called on Americans to participate in business and social change, Weaver opened a second-hand furniture store called Urban Furniture located in Oakland's trendy Lakeshore District.
Urban Furniture employs three or four single mothers and sells inexpensive donated furniture. Since November, Weaver has been working with two mothers to develop their employment and personal skills. "I will be there with them through the process, forcing them to delve into their own issues and come out empowered," Weaver said.
On a recent Saturday morning, shoppers bustled in and out of the store, checking price tags and admiring couches. The brightly lit space houses couches, chairs, and tables all donated by locals through Craigslist.
Urban Furniture is one of the newest members of the Bay Area nonprofit retail world. Weaver views Urban Furniture as a place where single mothers can work, learn, and receive individual counseling. It joins nationwide nonprofit retailers such as Goodwill; Salvation Army; and St. Vincent De Paul; as well as businesses such as Out of the Closet, a statewide thrift-store chain operated by AIDS Health Care Foundation; Global Exchange, a fair-trade store that sells high-end gifts and promotes environmental, social, and political justice programs; and Uhuru, a furniture store that seeks to "address disparities in education, health, healthcare and economic development in the African American Community."
Now remarried, Weaver plans to continue her own education with a bachelor's degree in Human Development. "The process is slow, and it's not easy to go to school, work, fulfill my mission through this new business, and be a loving wife and mother," she admitted. After putting her own kids through college, Weaver feels content working on the floor of Urban Furniture. She remains energetic and hopeful as she continues her other projects, as a case manager for Oakland's Green Jobs Corps and a veteran work reentrance program, workforce development programs that help fund Urban Furniture.
Her future plans include a day-care center. "I really want to facilitate some real skill-building, employment opportunities, and change, right here in the East Bay," she said. She smiles, and then quotes Martin Luther King. "You can't really help people," she said, "unless you love them."