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Peace and love at the Safety & Wellness Task Force

Here’s a phrase you thought you’d never hear in a local government meeting: “Nothin’ but love on this Zoom screen.” 

There was talk of justice, gratitude, and love at the recent virtual meeting of the Durham Community Safety & Wellness Task Force on Feb. 8. 

The City of Durham, Durham County, and Durham Public Schools created the 16-member task force in 2021, to discuss complaints and alternatives to traditional policing. The group’s official mission is to propose programs that enhance public safety and wellness, with a focus on creating alternatives to policing and helping people avoid the criminal justice system.

Isaac Villegas, 42, an ordained minister and task force member, said in an interview that the group also aims to address the forces “upstream” from violence. Villegas said, “How can we create the conditions in our community that mitigate against the violence that happens downstream?”

This also means supporting people coming out of prison, Villegas said. “After someone has gone through the trauma of being separated from their life, their loved ones, their community, having to be in a jail… how can we as a community make it so that those people can pick back up and become part of their communities again?” 

Xavier Cason, co-chair of the group, called the February meeting to order with a warmhearted welcome. “We hope that your household, your street, your community, your neighborhood and all the adjoining neighborhoods are operating in safety and awareness today.” 

After a review of the agenda, Cason invited Marcia Owen, the co-chair, to unmute her Zoom mic. Owen encouraged task force members to reflect on the value of gratitude as they began their monthly meeting. “I just want to give a lot of gratitude for you and our mission and for our beloved community,” Owen said.

First on the agenda: a presentation from the Crisis Response/911 Roundtable, a subcommittee of the group. Jennifer Carroll, a member of the roundtable, explained that the group had concerns about the city’s no-tolerance policy for employees using drugs. The policy, which enforces drug-free workplaces and mandatory drug testing, has not been reliably proven to create safer workplaces, Carroll said. In fact, Carroll told her colleagues, “Mandatory drug testing in the workplace is shaped by, and produces, racial bias.” 

Carroll recommended that Durham end all stigmatizing practices, including no-tolerance drug policies and mandatory drug testing. Instead, the city should establish supportive, equitable policies that provide substance-using employees with pathways to recovery. 

In the discussion after the presentation, task force members emphasized the importance of justice and equity in drug-related policies. Member Jesse Huddleston said, “The punitive and stigmatizing approach doesn’t track with actually creating cultures of wellness and care.” People using recreational drugs are often “not hurting anyone,” Huddleston said. “If it’s keeping them in a good place, to be able to do their jobs well and live full, good lives in Durham, more power to them.” 

Next up was a vote to extend the work of the task force for another six months. The group is scheduled to dissolve on April 28, but members proposed an extension to complete ongoing projects. Member Manju Rajendran noted the need to “fulfill our existing commitments with greater care and at a more sustainable peace.” All 10 members voted “yes,” with smiles on their faces. 

“It’s clear that we all want a better world,” Villegas told The 9th Street Journal. “There’s energy around creating better conditions of life and we’re all very invested in that, and I’m just always grateful for the passion that everyone has. It’s contagious.” 

To close the meeting, co-chair Owen posed a question for members in the Zoom chat. “What are you leaving this meeting with?” She read the responses aloud as they came.

“Excitement. Community. Resolve. Time. Faith in our community. Connection. Creativity. Hope for liberation of many kinds, in many ways. Gratefulness. Perseverance. Revolutionary Love.” 

Owen then said,“Hear, hear! Blessings to all, you revolutionary lovers. We’ll see you next month.”

Screengrab above from the Zoom meeting of the task force. Source: YouTube