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Posts published by “Veronica Niamba”

Renovated Durham main library closer to reopening, but no date set yet

After more than three years of renovations, Durham Main Library was slated to reopen in April. 

But the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in those plans, and now a library official says it’s still uncertain when the library will be open to the public again.

Library director Tammy Baggett said construction is complete. However, not all of the library’s technology was connected before the malware attack in March affected Durham city and county operations just as COVID-19 spread in the U.S. The library still needs to set up computers and other equipment in accordance with social distancing guidelines, she added.

This renovation has been years in the making, and many people are anxiously awaiting for the doors to open. Though she does not directly work on any library boards, Durham Board of County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said it is vital the library reopens by the time schools start up virtually in August and resume in-person classes in October.

“The libraries are going to be very important resources for our families, for students and families to study and work,” she said. “The Main Library, all the libraries, will be a very big part of prioritizing our kids and education.”

Baggett wouldn’t release any specific details about reopening plans, but said she is eager for it to happen — with social distancing rules in place, of course. 

“Once we get to a point of opening, it will be with what is always done,” Baggett said. “Anyone is allowed in the library. We are the great equalizer. Everyone is always available through our doors.”

Libraries are hubs for the Durham community. They bring in thousands of people every day, including those seeking books, internet access and shelter.

People drop off books at a Durham library. Photo by Henry Haggart

According to the library system website, 15% of Durham households do not have access to the internet and under 40% have access to a broadband connection. Just over a quarter of library computer users have searched for, applied for or secured a job using library resources.  

Durham libraries are also some of the few places in the city that offer programs and resources to community members free of charge. For those experiencing homelessness, libraries can be a place of refuge during extreme weather events or during the day when they need bathrooms or computers. 

According to Durham County’s website, the original building was too small to accommodate the city’s growing population and technological needs. In November 2016, a bond referendum passed to fund a major expansion and renovation of the 40-year old library, and it closed two months later. The renovated building — which cost the city $44 million — is nearly 20,000 square feet larger

Baggett said work is still ongoing throughout the county’s libraries to get them ready for visitors. County libraries are closed to the public except for book pick-ups, but offer many free online services like virtual story readings, book clubs, and games over Zoom. 

For now, employees are answering patron questions through an online service called LibChat and members can check out items like books and DVDs without going inside.  

Durham Main Library is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for book drop-offs Monday through Friday. Baggett said all books are placed into 72-hour quarantine when returned and then individually cleaned. 

“We are just making sure when we do open, the environment is as safe as possible, for community and staff,” Baggett said. “Safety is priority one.”

9th Street Journal Reporter Veronica Niamba can be reached at veronica.niamba@duke.edu

Top photo: Durham library signs during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Henry Haggart. 

Drive is on to get more of Durham counted in 2020 census

Durham County ranks last in the Triangle for its response to the 2020 census, with 56.4% of residents having submitted census forms as of June 28.

During a typical census-taking year, the U.S. Census Bureau would have sent door knockers to find those who have not responded on their own. But with the coronavirus’ unexpected arrival, efforts to count everyone have shifted. 

How many Durham County residents are tallied will dictate many important things in the next 10 years. Public school funding, congressional representation, and millions of federal dollars are some of what is at stake.

For every person uncounted in Durham, the county loses more than $1,600 a year. This amounts to more than $16,000 per person missed over a decade, according to Kate Fellman, co-chair of the Durham Complete Count Committee. 

“It’s really important that we get this right,” said Aidil Ortiz, an East Durham resident and volunteer member of the Durham Complete Count Committee. 

Aidil Ortiz, an East Durham resident and member of the Durham Complete Count Committee, at the recent Juneteenth celebration. 9th Street Journal file photo by Henry Haggart

Census enumerators, better known as census takers, will begin a soft launch next month in six yet-to-be-announced regions, according to the Census Bureau. Each will be trained on social distancing protocol and provided with personal protective equipment (PPE).

Enumerators start by interviewing people in households that haven’t yet responded to the census. The effort to count people experiencing homelessness will begin in September. 

Some communities are harder to count than others during a census. Immigrants, especially those without legal immigration status, Latinx and Black people, non-English speakers, people with low incomes, and people who are homeless tend to be less likely to respond to the census unless someone reaches out, according to Ortiz. 

Ortiz emphasized the need for institutions to leave the four walls of their office and do more than just electronic outreach. With Durham’s ever-growing population, accounting for everyone living here is a top priority.

“Doing distribution of anything is very hard work and taxing, and it carries risk,” Ortiz said. “You have to do the work with more than one mission in mind, to try to be as efficient as possible.” 

Creativity has shaped a lot of the ground effort for getting the word out on the census here, especially with social distancing requirements in effect. 

A Juneteenth car parade in East Durham on June 20 combined a celebration of African American freedom, handouts on coronavirus safety information and masks, voter registration information, and census information.

Local organizers supporting a full count in Durham sent out 1,000 flyers last Friday to food pantries and organizations that provide meals to people in need. These flyers explained how to vote in upcoming elections and how to fill out the census.

Ortiz and other organizers plan to work with grocery stores like Compare Foods and Los Primos to get census flyers in grocery bags and park outreach vans outside the stores.

Local and state groups are publishing messaging in Spanish about the need to answer the census. Source: NC Counts Coalition

Ortiz says that these groups, which include SpiritHouse NC, El Centro Hispano, and My Black Counts NC, are considering replicating the Juneteenth parade in another location if response to the census along the original parade route increases within the next few weeks. 

Outreach at places like neighborhood parades and grocery stores allow people who are local and known in the community to apply their expertise, Ortiz said. Part of this work is myth-busting, especially among people who are suspicious that any information they share could be used against them. 

“People want to know what is going to happen with their information and how it is tracked,” said Ortiz. That includes whether social security numbers or citizenship status are required when answering the census. (They are not.)

The census “is a way of putting in a vote for resources if [you] can’t actually vote,” referring not only to undocumented immigrants, but to young residents and other non-citizens as well, says Ortiz said. 

Due to the new coronavirus outbreak, the deadline to respond to the census has been extended to Oct. 31, 2020. For more information, visit https://census.nc.gov/.  

9th Street Journal Reporter Veronica Niamba can be reached at veronica.niamba@duke.edu

At top: Due to the coronavirus outbreak, participants in the Juneteenth parade encouraging people to fill out the census drove rather than walked the East Durham route. 9th Street Journal file photo by Henry Haggart

County commissioners label racism a public health crisis

As a young woman, Wanda Boone was the first African-American to work outside of the kitchen at the hospital where she was employed. Later, while an executive elsewhere for 20 years, she endured daily racist treatment on the job, she said. 

Such experiences take a toll. That is one reason why Boone, a member of Durham County’s health task force, spoke Monday about the importance of county commissioners approving a resolution declaring that racism is a public health crisis in Durham.

“I think what happened with the murder of George Floyd, his death for me personally opened the floodgates. The trauma I experienced as a child, throughout all of my life, until the day that it happened, came rushing down on me, so this resolution wasn’t something that’s taken lightly,” said Boone, co-founder of Together for Resilient Youth, which works to reduce substance abuse among young people.

At a time when protests against police violence against black Americans continue across the United States and elsewhere in the world, commission members made time Monday to discuss the resolution, which all five commissioners have signed.

It lists ways racism affects people’s daily lives, from police violence within the African American community to disparities in the birth weight of black newborns in Durham. It notes  eight steps commissioners will take, including promoting equity through all county policies and supporting policies that prioritize the health of all people, especially people of color,  by decreasing exposure to adverse childhood experiences. 

Discussion about the resolution was scheduled to last 10 minutes. But it went on for almost an hour while commissioners and staff members spoke about their commitment to fight racism in all things, including land use, economic development, and transportation plans.

“There is no room for racism or hatred within our community,” said County Health Director Rodney Jenkins. “Policy change is the only way we’re going to bring about true health care throughout our community”.

Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs wanted to expand the discussion beyond the resolution. She brought up a letter from the City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials about a Confederate memorial outside the former courthouse in downtown Durham. Protestors tore down a statute of a Confederate soldier atop the monument in 2017.

Jacobs said she wanted the board to move toward declaring the pedestal of the 96-year-old monument a public health and safety hazard. An inscription on it reads “IN MEMORY OF THE BOYS WHO WORE THE GRAY”.

Commissioner Brenda Howerton said she was hesitant to bring up the letter at the meeting. “I don’t understand forcing this thing on the agenda tonight,” she said. “The statue is important, but right now I think people are really suffering around black and brown people being shot and killed”.

Commissioners also spent more than an hour discussing the $675.6 million 2020-2021 county budget, which passed by a 3-2 vote. The discussion revealed that revenue losses linked to the coronavirus outbreak will limit some of what commissioners can do, at least in the coming months.

Commissioner Heidi Carter argued that, in line with the racism-is-a-public-threat resolution, that the budget should include full funding to provide Durham Public School employees such as bus drivers, administrative assistants and janitors with a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Facing budget restraints caused by the coronavirus, a majority of commissioners did not agree. But commissioners are expected to return to the topic in January.

At top: A portion of  the proclamation declaring that racism is a public health threat. Durham county commissioners signed it Monday.