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Meet the candidate: Jovonia Lewis

Editors’ Note: Eleven candidates — all Democrats — are vying for five seats on the Durham County Board of Commissioners in the March 5 election. No Republicans or Libertarians have entered the contest, so the March 5 results will determine who sits on the commission. The 9th Street Journal is profiling candidates in the race.

In February of 2012, Jovonia Lewis was a young mother. She sat on her couch watching her infant and toddler when her world shook. The TV was painted with a heartbreaking visual: Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager, had been shot and killed in cold blood. At that moment, Lewis decided to pursue public service.

“I remember looking into my brown boys’ faces, being a new mother, and committing to working to create conditions where people can thrive,” she says.

Today, Lewis is one of 11 Democratic candidates vying for a spot as a Durham County commissioner. You can find her sitting in the Durham school board’s meeting room, where she has served as a board member since July 2020, or leading Empowered Parents in Community, a nonprofit she founded that focuses on equity in the public schools. 

In recent weeks, Lewis’ time has been dominated by the school system’s recent payroll crisis. After the school district granted pay raises to nearly 2,000 workers, the school board discovered that the raises would cost the district nearly $9 million over budget and backpedaled on the raises. The pay dispute has prompted “sick outs,” protests and school closures.   

When she first heard about the debacle, Lewis, who supports higher pay for district employees, says she was in disbelief. Then she was angry. Hurt. Then, she says, she took a deep breath and got to work, including meeting with numerous workers. 

At the school board’s Feb. 22 meeting, Lewis voted with the majority to give raise classified workers an 11 percent pay raise over last year. Even with the raise, though, many workers will make less than they did in the fall. In explaining her vote at the meeting, Lewis cited budget concerns. 

“This was built on an inaccurate financial model that our budget cannot support,” Lewis said. 

Lewis was also recently named to a panel that will meet with worker representatives to discuss salary issues. 

“The board needs to listen to the people who were impacted directly. We need to hear their stories,” the former therapist says. “We need concrete structures and procedures around salaries, rebuilding public trust, transparency, communication and accountability.” 

When Lewis moved to Durham in 2013, it marked a return to her North Carolina roots. Born in Bertie County, N. C., Lewis experienced formative years in Germany, where she moved at age 13. She lived on a military base with her father, learning about different cultures. She graduated high school in Germany and moved back to the United States, attending UNC-Greensboro (she pumps her fist, shouting “Spartan Spirit!) . 

After graduating with a degree in psychology and pursuing a master’s at Georgia State University, Lewis followed her mother’s path in social services and became a licensed clinical mental health counselor in 2004. She worked with group homes, foster children, and victims of domestic violence to help them get help. “My heart’s work is mental health and destigmatizing, getting mental health support.” 

In 2013, Lewis stepped away from clinical practice, moving to Durham to be closer to family and to become the franchise owner of the city’s first Smoothie King, which she ran for several years. “‘Where is Jovonia?’” Lewis recalls people asking. “She is the one who has to make my smoothie!’”

Knowing her customers’ orders by heart was essential to Lewis, who after spending time in government, nonprofit and entrepreneurial spaces, says she still considers personal connections paramount. If elected as county commissioner, Lewis would prioritize economic growth, workforce development, public safety, mental health, public housing and supporting public schools. 

For this race, Lewis has received endorsements from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham, among others.

Kaaren Haldeman, who served on the city’s inaugural Racial Equity Task Force with Lewis, describes her as “someone who leads with empathy and a listening ear.” 

In the spring of 2023, students and families were experiencing acute grief after classmates at area high schools were shot, some killed. Haldeman recalls how, one evening in April, in a packed gathering at St. Joseph’s AME Church, Lewis led a difficult and emotional conversation with community youth about violence, grieving, and healing. 

“She ensured that youth were driving the conversation with our young people, and her presence was one of a calm and attentive leader who cared,” Haldeman said. 

On the school board, Lewis has been a proponent of social-emotional learning, such as when she organized a day of remembrance for victims of gun violence. “Someone said ‘This is not our lane; we educate kids.’ Then I must not know how to stay in my lane.” 

“I am a people person. I feel things deeply,” she adds. “That is what fuels me.” 

Early voting continues through March 2 ahead of the March 5 election.


Jon Kuperschmid