A little over a decade ago, when Ruebe Holmes was a student at Duke University double-majoring in history and African American studies, her family lived in a homeless shelter in Durham. She visited them on weekends.
“My siblings were dealing with a lot, with the homeless stigma,” said Holmes.
That experience is one of her many motivations for serving on the Durham County Women’s Commission. In 2019, as a member of the commission, Holmes helped organize an event that helped women at the shelter her family called home just five years earlier.
The event included panel discussions of homelessness and domestic violence. Attendees donated sanitary napkins, which were later given to women living at the shelter. It was a full-circle experience for Holmes, who now chairs the commission.
The group, which has a dual mission to serve the community by organizing events and advising the Durham County Board of Commissioners, has been advocating for Durham’s women since its founding in 1987. An Instagram post from the group last month said, “WE NEED EQUAL PAY NOW,” a sentence that sounds like it could have been written in the 1980s (or even earlier).
Leaders of the commission say the group has always played an important role, addressing the unique challenges that Durham women face. When the group was founded, the leaders aimed to keep the community informed on available resources and encourage women to advocate for themselves. The difficulties women faced in the ’80s — homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, and workplace discrimination — have not abated in the 21st century.
“This commission needs to exist solely to bring knowledge and awareness to women,” said Rheda Denning, a new member of the group.
The group’s official mission is to “educate the community and advise the Durham County Board of Commissioners as necessary on issues relating to the changing social and economic conditions of women in the County.”
Each year, the group focuses on three objectives. This year, these are volunteerism, community health, and financial literacy.
According to Denning, the group is “a buffet of diversity.” The 19 women have day jobs that range from a project leader at the Duke Clinical Research Institute to a statistician at RTI International.
They meet monthly to discuss the quickly changing issues that women in Durham face.
The group’s subcommittees speak to the overall priorities, including black maternal health, communications and social justice.
In addition to meetings, leaders also organize activities and promote other organizations’ events, such as a drive-through diaper giveaway organized by Diapers for Black Durham and Community Love Direct Primary Care, and a resume review session organized by NCWorks.
According to Tiffani Reeves, the current vice chair, the group advocates for the “women and femme-presenting people of Durham County.” The word “woman” carries a different level of complexity than it did when the commission started. Though every member of the commission is a cisgendered woman, the group aims to keep its language and mission as inclusive as possible. “We understand that however you choose to present, that is personal,” Reeves said in a conversation with The 9th Street Journal.
Reeves, who was wearing an orange crew neck that read “COMMUNITY,”said she feels strongly that continued involvement from citizens is critical to a well-functioning community. “Community is a verb,” Reeves said.
With a budget of $500 per year, the group does its best to advocate for its priorities.
Sometimes, though, these issues don’t end up at the top of the county commissioners’ list. “Our elected officials can only be focused on so many things at once,” said Bland. Citing issues like Covid-19 and gun violence, Bland said she sympathizes with commissioners’ need to prioritize other issues.
But Holmes, who has been involved for more than nine years now, continues to be impressed by the shared values of the county commissioners and her fellow members. When the county helped pass the Black Maternal Health Resolution, the Women’s Commission initially suggested a broad maternal health proposal. According to Holmes, however, the county commissioners would not sign the resolution until it explicitly referenced Black mothers, a sentiment Holmes appreciated.
Said Reeves, “There are so many different ways that you can be involved in your local government without having to necessarily be involved with capital letter ‘P’ politics.”
Photo at top: The Women’s Commission held a Women’s Health Walk on Duke University’s East Campus. From left, Tiffani Reeves, Cynthia Bland, Mesina Reddish, and Ruebe Holmes. Photo by Jacqueline Cole – The 9th Street Journal