Peter Skillern (Master’s of Regional Planning ’91) is working to help expand the reach of the American Dream.
Skillern works as executive director of the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina (CRA-NC) to improve financial literacy for minorities, so they can become homeowners.
A social entrepreneur, Skillern was drawn to a joint specialization in real estate development and urban planning at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Some of what he learned along the way now appears in a telenovela CRA-NC produced. "Nuestro Barrio" uses the trauma and drama of a Spanish soap opera to teach the steps to owning a home. Viewers learn financial lessons by identifying with what the characters do and learn.
“Ten members of the cast and crew on "Nuestro Barrio" went on to buy a home,” Skillern said. “That helps illustrate the outcome we’re hoping the viewership will realize.”
The telenovela was a team effort. CRA-NC’s media advocacy director, Dilsey Davis (Master’s in Public Health ’04), came up with the idea for the show in 2004 and supervised production. Skillern and Davis raised the money for the pilot episode on fair housing. The pilot persuaded Freddie Mac to pay for all 13 episodes of the mini-series.
In 2006, "Nuestro Barrio" aired in the Carolina markets on WB. It was the first Spanish-language show on English-language TV stations. Since then, Davis has shopped the telenovela around the nation. So far, it has reached more than 25 million households, with opportunities to penetrate more markets. The show is broadcast in the Washington, D.C., area on Telemundo.
The storyline involves love interests and intrigue as characters learn financial lessons. The Sanchez family transitions from tenants to homeowners. Heartthrob Fedi gets his first credit card and learns the price of buying now and paying later. Javier learns the importance of checking and savings accounts after his home is robbed of all his savings.
A fire destroys Manuel’s business, and viewers see how his property insurance saves him. Roberto loses his job and learns to get help from a counselor and the bank when he falls behind on his mortgage payments.
“You learn the financial lessons by identifying with the characters,” Skillern said. “But you watch it because it’s entertaining. You don’t get this on Telemundo, Univision and WB if it can’t get good ratings.”
Over his 20-year career, Skillern has leveraged millions of dollars for housing and community development. He has used the business lessons he learned at UNC Kenan-Flagler to make a social justice initiative a commercial success at the national level. By knowing how capital works in the global markets and how to structure and win a deal on the local level, he has forged a connection between national policy and local community development.
“I wanted hard tools to develop housing and influence public policy,” he said.
An Eisenhower Fellow, as well as a William Friday Fellow for Human Relations, Skillern has won local and national recognition for his work. He recently presented a shareholder resolution at a national bank’s stockholder meeting. There he argued against what he sees as predatory credit card practices. His next projects range from developing a studio for public access television in East Durham to redeveloping a non-profit manufactured housing community and challenging unfair mortgage lending practices.
UNC’s Center for Community Capital evaluated "Nuestro Barrio" and found it effective in changing attitudes and behaviors about financial responsibility. In May, Skillern won a HOPE Award from the National Association of Realtors for his success in promoting minority homeownership.
“There’s still opportunity for people to become homeowners, and they should,” Skillern said. “Nuestro Barrio" is a way to make sure they do so successfully.”