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Jillian Johnson: Sustainability, affordability, public engagement

At yet another Durham City Council candidate forum, three very vocal challengers were questioning the competency of three incumbent City Council members.

Among the targets was Jillian Johnson, Durham’s mayor pro tem and council member since 2015.

The challenger candidates, often joined by supporters in the audience, huffed skeptically when Johnson  dug into policy and community engagement plans like her “Beyond Policing” conflict resolution solution to gun violence in Durham. 

Johnson remained calm, unemotional and confident. “I have tried very hard to focus on the issues and to not publicly criticize other candidates positions during the campaign. We just have different policies,” she said after the October forum. 

Johnson is running for re-election for an at-large City Council seat. A big theme of her campaign is collaborative leadership, a commitment made concrete by her joint “Bull City Together” platform with fellow incumbents Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

Johnson moved from Virginia to Durham in 1999, an 18-year-old Duke University freshman drawn to public policy and community activism. Four years later, she stayed, eager to put her newly earned degree to work for the city. 

“Durham just felt like home. It felt like a place where I could do the kind of work I wanted to do, have the kind of community I was looking for, and have my kids in a diverse and fun city,” she said.

Jillian Johnson has refrained from criticizing other candidates during her City Council re-election campaign. That held during a Inter-Neighborhood Council candidate forum at city hall last month. Photo by Cameron Beach

Though cool and often reserved in the council chambers, the one-term councilwoman has sparked controversy with her unashamed, leftist takes on gun violence and policing. 

In 2016, she posted on Facebook that “the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers.” In an interview with The News & Observer after that, she was quoted saying she believes that “the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling, and Islamophobia.”

Critics called for an apology; some wanted her to resign. But Johnson carried on.

Johnson’s 20-year history in Durham is deeply rooted in activism and the nonprofit sector. She co-founded Durham for All, a grassroots organization that works to mobilize people of all races and socio-economic status to support progressive candidates and causes.

She is the former director of operations and a current board member for the nonprofit, Southern Visions Alliance. The group supports teenagers and young adults working on social justice issues in the South. 

While on the City Council, Johnson was a primary proponent of the raise in minimum wage for part-time Durham workers in 2018. She’s also the council representative for the Durham Housing Authority, Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, and the Race/Equity Task Force. 

The Bull City Together platform points that are most important to Johnson are promoting public safety and community facilitated conflict resolution, increasing eco-friendly infrastructure, and increasing affordable housing opportunities for residents, she said.

During a council budget working session in June, Johnson was one of four council members who rejected Police Chief C.J. Davis’ request for funding for additional police officers. The money was better spent on wages, they concluded.

Three challengers vying for council seats criticize that move. Although violent crime dropped in Durham in recent years, the city is seeing a spike in gun violence this year. That unwelcome shift was made especially stark this week, when several shootings, including drive by assaults, killed two people and injured eight. A 17-year-old was among the murdered.

At an Oct. 17 council candidate forum, Johnson said intervention and prevention are the keys to reducing violent crime in Durham’s inner city. “Unfortunately, in North Carolina we can’t stop people from carrying their guns around, but given that, it’s very important for people to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way,” Johnson said. 

Intervention means engaging people at risk of committing gun violence on a peer-to-peer level, Johnson said. She likes gang-intervention programs like Project BUILD and Bull City United, which hires community members to try to diffuse conflicts before violence can occur. 

Prevention consists of implementing conflict resolution training,  providing workshops on bystander training and de-escalating anger tactics, Johnson said. She hopes to expand on Durham Local Reentry Council’s effort to support and help re-integrate people recently released from jail or prison.

In her campaign, Johnson also emphasizes expanding renewable energy use in Durham. A renewable energy resolution the council passed on March 25 commits Durham to switching to 80% renewable energy sources in all city operations by 2030 and to 100% renewables by 2050. 

The city recently invested in a couple of electric buses, some hybrid police cars, and solar panels on Durham Fire Station 17, Johnson said. And it will use energy efficiency infrastructure in the affordable housing council members hope to build.

“Everyone who believes in science and cares about the future is concerned about climate change,” Johnson said. 

Investing in sustainability and renewable energy infrastructure in Durham is not just an environmental issue, it’s an environmental justice issue, Johnson said. 

“We have a history of not having the same level of environmental amenities in places like east Durham,” she said, referring to the now gentrifying part of the city that for years was home to many low-income households.

Johnson’s “Housing First” philosophy depends upon passage of the $95 million Housing Bond, also on the ballot next week. “We have a $160 million five-year plan and the $95 million closes the funding gap between the money that the city gets from state and federal resources,” she said. 

The money would help the city provide housing for over 15,000 Durham residents, primarily in permanently affordable units, supporters say. In partnership with the Durham Housing Authority, the council would use the money to build more multi-family rental housing like the Willard Street apartment project, which includes 80 units of permanently affordable housing for people at or below 60% of the area’s median income, Johnson said.

City Council candidate Jackie Wagstaff has been skeptical that the City Council will create permanent affordable housing. But Housing Authority housing is by its nature permanently affordable, Johnson noted.

The city needs private developers to help expand affordable housing too, even though the units would likely remain affordable for a limited time: 15 to 20 years, Johnson said. “People need housing now, and so we might build housing with a 15 or 20 year affordability period knowing we’re not getting the permanent affordability that we really want because the trade off is we can get people into housing now,” she said. 

Johnson, Caballero, and Reece’s joint platform has not been embraced by all. Challengers accuse the incumbents of being interchangeable. Where others see weakness, Johnson sees strength.

“You can’t do anything on council on your own. I think the idea that this sort of collaboration is anti-democratic is misguided. We have to work together, we have to collaborate, we have to have a shared vision, and shared policies in order to make anything happen in the city,” she said.

At top: Jillian Johnson sits outside the Durham Co-op Market on West , the city’s food coop on West Chapel Hill Street. Photo by Cameron Beach

Jackie Wagstaff: 31 years of controversy, commitment, black pride

It’s a rainy, cold October day and early voting for the city council general election has kicked off with a whimper. A parking lot outside a downtown polling station is nearly empty except for a few cars and Jackie Wagstaff’s foldable, blue campaign tent. 

Wagstaff, a North Carolina native and a former city council member, is running for an at-large seat on the council. A champion to some, she’s controversial to others and has starred in lots of drama in Durham politics over the years. 

In 2003, Wagstaff almost lost her Durham school board seat after she acknowledged falsifying two city check requests after the city council froze funding for the nonprofit she led. Wagstaff filed a restraining order against the school board, a difficult start to a three-year term. 

In an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2005, Wagstaff called for a replacement of all school board members, herself included. In 2013, leaders of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People censured Wagstaff and suspended her as chair of their political committee after accusing her of being “insubordinate, uncollaborative, and extremely impolite.”

While commending the move to reduce discord back then, Durham columnist Carl W. Kenney II also praised Wagstaff. “As controversial as she has been, Wagstaff is that rare leader in Durham. She has carried the torch for the poor and maligned for a long time. Her concerns are legitimate… ,” he wrote

Such turbulence has never deterred Wagstaff. “God never gave me the spirit of fear. So when there is a problem in my community, I’m not going to sit back and hope that it works itself out. I’m going to advocate, I’m going to be vocal about it, and I’m going to stand with the people until we get some resolve,” she said. “I have a passion for people, and if that looks like anger, I can’t help that.” 

Wagstaff moved to Durham from New Rochelle, New York in 1981 after attending her youngest brother’s high school graduation here. She fell for the city’s black pride and vibrant black social and business communities, so much so that she never caught the bus back to her life in New York. 

“I had no plans of living in North Carolina ever in my life again after I left. But there was something about Durham,” she said. 

Wagstaff’s 2019 platform centers around principles she said she has always valued: expanding affordable housing, achieving higher wages, and reducing both homelessness and gang violence. All of these issues remain relevant to a share of Durham’s diverse black community, Wagstaff said.

Jackie Wagstaff calls out to potential voters near an early voting site at the Criminal Justice Resources Center on East Main Street. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

“I’m not one of those people who need a dissertation to tell you what I’m about. I know because I’ve been out on these grounds, boots on the ground in this community,” she said.

Like all challengers on the City Council ballot this year, Wagstaff opposes the incumbents’ vote in June which rejected police chief C.J. Davis’ request for 18 new police officers. The council instead opted to put some of those funds toward an increase in part time worker’s wages, council member Jillian Johnson stating that the long term crime statistics do not indicate a need for more officers.

Wagstaff disagrees, claiming that whatever statistics the incumbents use to justify fewer police officers mean very little to the community members who live with persistent gunfire and often lethal, violent crimes.

She blames most crime and gang violence on economic depression in parts of Durham, and believes the best way to reduce these issues is to expand affordable housing and local jobs. 

“The strategy for livable wages is simple,” Wagstaff said. The city should require all businesses to pay workers at least $15 per hour, even though state law forbids cities from raising a state-set minimum wage, she said. From there city officials could fight for the right in court, she said.

The council should also expand funding for the Parks and Recreation department, Wagstaff said, and reinstating programs like Night Flight’s Midnight Basketball program, which opens school gyms at night for teens to use. She wants to ensure youth centers are available for local young people, so disadvantaged teens who join criminal gangs can redirect their energy, she said.

Jackie Wagstaff has campaigned rain or shine. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

Wagstaff’s other primary platform point, affordable housing, addresses the current council’s push for a $95 million Affordable Housing Bond, which supporters say will pave the way for reasonably priced housing for 15,000 people over five years. Although the City Council is planning permanently affordable units if the bond is passed, Wagstaff is not convinced that will ensure affordable units stay affordable. 

Rhonda Willis, Wagstaff’s campaign treasurer, is also skeptical. “These units were not made for us,” she said of some affordable housing in Durham. Strict credit checks and criminal background checks have made it difficult for many impoverished or homeless people in Durham to take advantage of affordable housing options, she said.

In a written statement to the People’s Alliance PAC, Wagstaff took aim at the city’s recently passed Expanding Housing Choices (EHC) ordinance too. “There is a very real homeownership and wealth gap for blacks in Durham which continues to grow and EHC does not fully address the need to create affordable housing options for Durham’s poorest residents,” she said.

Wagstaff wants the City Council to use “inclusionary zoning” practices when approving future development projects. “We have to have something in place to make sure that developers honor their agreement of keeping units affordable. Inclusionary zoning would guarantee that and guarantee that they couldn’t hike the rent more than $5,” she said. 

She said requiring the city to favor Durham-based contractors would be the most promising solution for creating affordable housing and local jobs. “The city needs to become their own developer,” Wagstaff said. Local developers are more likely to provide Durham residents with longterm construction positions than the out-of-city developers who bring in their own work force, she said.  

Wagstaff has spent the last few weeks canvassing, campaigning at early voting sites and speaking at meet-the-candidate forums to spread the word on her positions. 

A forum hosted by the Durham Business and Professional Chain on Oct 10, attracted mostly black residents. Fellow challengers Joshua Gunn and Daniel Meier attended; incumbents Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Javiera Caballero did not.

All three challengers are on the attack against the incumbents, especially when it comes to them campaigning with a joint platform called Bull City Together. (Wagstaff calls it “Bullshit Together”.)

“If you’ve got three people that eat alike, sleep alike, think alike, and vote alike 99% of the time, why do you need all three?” she said. 

In that parking lot on Oct. 16, Wagstaff was in nearly constant motion, running to her car to get change for a passing homeless person, yelling proudly after voting for herself, and encouraging others to cast their ballot.

Not necessarily for her, she said, but for themselves.

At top: Jackie Wagstaff makes a point at a recent Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidate forum at Durham City Hall. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

Daniel Meier: Yes to more police and equitable criminal justice

In a Nike Dri-Fit polo, khaki shorts, and a Notre Dame baseball cap, Daniel Meier reclines casually in a leather chair at his downtown law office.

But once he starts talking about conditions in Durham that concern him, the city council candidate is anything but relaxed.

“Local elections actually matter. Everyone focuses on the presidential elections, but whoever the president is has nothing to do with our law enforcement policy, whoever the president is has nothing to do with us getting a new bike path,” Meier said. 

Despite polling last among the six candidates who won October’s primary, Meier is working hard to reach voters. The criminal defense attorney’s platform focuses mostly on reducing crime and equal opportunity for Durham residents. 

Like other challengers to three incumbents seeking re-election, Meier said he is frustrated with the current city council. “The current city council says, ‘Let’s just ignore the short-term solutions and focus on long term.’ And I say no we can do both,” he said. 

Reducing crime is Meier’s biggest priority. He understands this problem better than most, he said, due to both his profession and his wife’s work. After a long career in the Durham Police Department, Leslie Meier is now a county deputy sheriff.

Despite decreasing in recent years, violent crime in Durham increased in 2019, with 35 homicides in the last nine months. The second-quarter crime report released by police chief C.J. Davis revealed a 16% increase in violent crime within the first six months of this year compared to 2018.

Daniel Meier explains his thinking at Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidates forum at city hall last week. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

“There are three components to crime: ability, opportunity, and desire. Everyone has the ability to commit a crime so you can never do anything with that. You need to take away the opportunity to do crime,” said Meier, who studied law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Meier supports hiring more police officers in Durham. The city council rejected Davis’s budget increase request to hire 18 new police officers with a 4 to 3 vote in June. Instead they approved a budget that provided an increased minimum wage for city employees. 

That vote inspired Meier to run. “What really pushed me was the tone-deaf response to the rise in crime and request for more law enforcement officers,” he said. 

Friends of Durham cited Meier’s understanding of crime in Durham, where he has lived for 17 years, when endorsing him. The business-oriented political action coalition noted Meier’s  commitment to furthering ties between police and residents of Durham as essential. 

“No one else on the Council or running for a Council seat can speak to the public safety and community engagement aspects of the law enforcement community like Daniel can,” the endorsement reads. 

Also endorsed by the Durham Fraternal Order of Police, Meier acknowledged racial discrimination and bias in local law enforcement and the judicial system during his 2018 run for district attorney. He recognizes the necessity to rebuild trust between community members skeptical about the police’s role in Durham.

“Right now in society there is an awful lot of us versus them, but we really are all in this together. The community members want law enforcement, law enforcement wants safe communities,” he said. 

Long-term solutions to many problems are embedded in the economic and social development of Durham, he said. These efforts also go hand-in-hand with crime reduction. “If you have a stable job, if you have stable housing, you are less likely to engage in criminal activity,” he said.

In addition to three at-large city council seats, a five-year $95 million dollar affordable housing bond is on the ballot Nov. 5. The bond proposes construction of 1,600 new affordable housing units as well as the preservation of 800 affordable rental units.

Proposed construction projects are intended to benefit the homeless and homeowners, as well. A main component of Mayor Steve Schewel’s affordable housing platform, the bond is strongly supported by the three incumbents

Meier opposes the bond, which Schewel introduced in February, not on principle but in its current form, he said. He recognizes that fast-growing and gentrifying Durham has an affordable housing shortage. But he said he found planning for the bond too rushed.

“I don’t like high-pressure sales, it sounds kind of like I am trying to buy a used car and they are saying do it now, do it now, do it now,” he said. “It might be something that is really needed, but I don’t know why we can’t wait six months on it, I don’t know why we can’t wait a year on it and make sure it is right,” he said.   

In 2018 Santana Deberry beat Meier and incumbent Roger Echols to become district attorney.
After his 2018 loss, Meier said a voter turnout of 15% made him realize the importance of voter engagement. “One of the things I still regret is an inability to communicate with the 85 to 90% of people who don’t vote,” he said. 

Meier hopes support for his ideas motivates more people to vote this time.

Daniel Meier at the Kid Voters Candidate Forum at Riverside High School Thursday evening. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

Like challengers Joshua Gunn and Jackie Wagstaff, Meier is not afraid to take aim at incumbent council members running for three at-large council seats.

“In my mind, it has become increasingly clear on certain things like public safety and some of the economic developments, the current city council is out of touch. They are focused on national issues and a national agenda rather than Durham,” he said. 

That said, he is willing to find a common ground with council members if elected through open and frank discussions, he said. By nature his job is argumentative; by training he has learned to negotiate. Both skills holding equal value when enacting policies the city needs, he said. 

“I work with people I disagree with every day. That is my job,” he said. “You can be adversarial  without being disagreeable.” 

At top: Daniel Meier at Riverside High School. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

Joshua Gunn: Hip-hop artist, entrepreneur, council candidate

In a music video dropped in May called “What a Wonderful Durham,” Joshua Gunn sits at a desk in a high school classroom. Wearing a black windbreaker and a Durham Bulls cap, he raps about his dream for a future Durham.

There are no ICE raids, he says. No one loses a home to gentrification. No food deserts. All religions, races and genders are respected. Everybody has health care. Opportunity abounds. 

Five months later, in Durham’s city council chambers, Gunn is wearing a navy jacket, crisp white shirt and a red striped tie. A Gunn for City Council button is pinned to his lapel.

He’s explaining his dream again, not with rap but with data about crime, poverty and economic development needs. And he’s taking aim at three incumbent council members whose shared campaign platform, he says, doesn’t serve all of Durham.

“We have a homicide rate that has doubled from 2018 to 2019, we have a crisis of public safety in our community, and I fear that our council lacks the proper perspectives to address those concerns,” Gunn said.

Gunn’s family has been in Durham, where he grew up, for four generations. After leaving to pursue his music career, Gunn said he found a changed city when he returned in 2013. New condos, apartments and restaurants lined downtown. While some of change was positive, Gunn noticed stark problems with the way the city was growing.

“There was a food scene and a theater scene, and all these amazing new additions to our community,” Gunn said. “But on the other side of that, I noticed that people were being displaced and that not all of Durham was being able to participate.”

Gunn in “What a Wonderful Durham,” his 2019 music video, filmed in a high school classroom.

Gunn quickly got involved, co-founding the annual festival Black August in the Park to “celebrate blackness.” He and friends launched the annual Black Market, a gathering for black owned businesses to gain exposure and to network. Gunn is still rapping and works at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, where he is a vice president. He tries to bring new jobs to Durham and help existing businesses expand, he said.

The fourth-place finisher in last month’s primary and youngest candidate in the race at age 35, Gunn continues to build his campaign. A campaign disclosure report filed early this month counted only $4,608 in contributions, but he’s fundraising.

And Gunn has notched some key endorsements. Current city councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton, not on the ballot this year, supports Gunn. So does former Durham Mayor Bill Bell.

Middleton said he endorsed Gunn because of his intelligence and his ability to bring a wide range of voices to the council. As a young hip hop artist, Gunn can bring a new demographic  into the fold, Middleton said. 

“He’s a generational voice and he pulls from a lot of different areas of experience, from business to activism to the arts community. He’s one of those rare candidates that brings so many different elements,” Middleton said.

Like Gunn, Middleton is concerned by the nature of the three incumbents’ shared platform, called Bull City Together. “From a democratic point of view, when you have three people that are currently sitting on a deliberative body, telegraphing publicly that they’ve already made up their minds on some things, prior to having any public debate, I think that should give us all pause,” he said.

Gunn during one of his Facebook live video “Ask Me Anything” events staged from his Durham home.

In his campaign, Gunn emphasizes the need for more comprehensive economic development, more direct and pragmatic crime prevention, and an affordable housing solution that is linked to accessible jobs.

The Jordan High School and North Carolina A&T grad says he sees an absence of engagement from city council members with the private sector.

“Real estate developers are going to build what’s easiest for them if we don’t engage with them,” Gunn said. And what’s easiest are the luxury apartment buildings that seem to be taking over downtown, in lieu of offices and other commercial developments that bring jobs.

To help get Durham’s economy on track for everyone who lives here, Gunn favors incentivizing business development downtown. “Downtown is a live, work, play environment,” Gunn said, “but work is a very important component of that.”

Gunn says his top priorities are the economy and public safety, issues that are closely connected. 

Despite a decline in recent years, Durham is experiencing an uptick in violent crime and gun violence. Members of the Durham community are split on how best to approach a solution, candidate forums have made clear.

When Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis requested 72 more officers for her department in March, the city council denied her funding. Later, a split council vote denied a compromise that would have funded 18 officers.

The short-term route to improving public safety is to trust Chief Davis and give her what she needs to run her department, Gunn said. As a black man, he understands the complex and sometimes painful relationships between residents and officers. But Davis is focusing on the right ways to train a police force, including using de-escalation techniques, implicit bias training, and crisis response services, he said.   

“The reasons behind Chief Davis’ request were very logical,” Gunn said, given Durham’s growth.

Durham’s rapid growth has worsened the affordable housing shortage. While Gunn says he supports an initiative to provide affordable housing for Durham’s most vulnerable residents, he sees major issues with the city’s proposed $95 million dollar affordable housing bond

Most of these issues can be traced back to a lack of long-term, comprehensive planning, he said.

“The bond overemphasizes downtown,” Gunn said, and doesn’t do enough to expand jobs where people can afford to live. Many of Durham’s jobs that pay above the living wage are located outside of downtown, he said.

Gunn’s platform emphasizes policy, but it is also fueled by his desire to expand points of view on city council council. 

Gunn said he wants a spot on the council for the Durhamites who do not live in the booming downtown core. That includes people who are facing the impacts of gentrification and poverty, and who are struggling to make progress in a city that is celebrated as being the most progressive in the area.

At top: Joshua Gunn makes a point at Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidates forum at city hall last week.  Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal


Sylvester Williams: A prophet’s pick for mayor

Sylvester Williams lowers his voice and leans across the booth in the dimly lit basement of Triangle Café. “I’ve had a prophet tell me…” – he pauses –  “‘Sylvester, you’re going to be the mayor of Durham.’”

It’s a hopeful prophecy for Williams, who has already run for mayor three times and lost decisively every time. In 2017, he received less than 2% of the vote. And this year, he faces Mayor Steve Schewel, who is expected to win by a large margin.

Why run again? Williams says that as a black man who has spent his entire life in Durham, he understands the plight of the city’s disenfranchised. The black community remains “the face of poverty” in Durham and continues to suffer despite the city’s newfound prosperity.

“Nothing has really changed…the poverty rate hasn’t really changed, the homelessness, affordable housing. Those issues are still at the forefront of life here in the city of Durham.”

Progressive voters would certainly rally behind this call for greater socioeconomic and racial equality. But many of his beliefs would give them pause. 

Williams, a former financial analyst and current pastor at The Assembly at Durham Christian Center, represents an anomaly in the liberal city of Durham. As a born-again Christian, he remains faithful to a strict interpretation of scripture that rejects many progressive social mores.

Williams, 64, has come under fire for his staunch opposition to gay marriage, abortion and the teaching of evolution. He has described homosexuality as a path of deviance, argued it is incompatible with Christianity, and linked same-sex marriage to Durham’s crime and gang violence. 

Williams insists that he’s not homophobic. He doesn’t hate people in same-sex relationships. They just need “saving.”

“I know that there are some that try to present this false narrative about me… ‘He’s full of hate, he’s homophobic.’ No. There’s nothing hateful that I’ve said, no hateful quotes that I’ve made about anyone, ’cause I realize I’m a son of sin saved by grace too. Had my mistakes, had my issues. I wasn’t always with the Lord Jesus.”

Williams lived a life of “rebellion” prior to turning to Christ. He grew up as the son of a preacher in East Durham but did not devote his life to the “Lord Jesus” until his early 20s.

Since then, Williams has preached living and learning Christ’s word – at least his interpretation of that word. He believes the education system has failed its students by neglecting to include biblical teachings. “Pretty much as I went through the school system, I didn’t hear anything about Christ or God…they brainwashed a whole generation of people believing that there’s no truth to the Christian faith.”

He describes the Bible as a matter of “fact” rather than “faith,” and doesn’t want students to learn about evolution. “There was no science behind it,” he says. “Evolution teaches you one race evolved more than the other race.”

He’s just as fervent when it comes to discussing the issue of abortion. Williams says he would support the Trump administration if the president were to come “at us saying he supports ending abortions.”

While Schewel has a Wikipedia page and a robust website outlining his stances on the issues, Williams primarily runs his campaign through his personal Facebook page. 

Still, Williams says that he’s in touch with Durham. “I believe that my message has resonated…a lot of the candidates are just there for PR, they’re not really invested in the community.”

Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal










After 30 years, Big Sweep Clean Up is more than a litter pick-up outing

Every fall, Michael Shiflett tugs on sturdy waders and protective gloves, treks into Ellerbe Creek and extracts plastic bottles, abandoned basketballs and any other floating garbage he sees. 

Shiflett is a regular in the Big Sweep Clean Up, an annual multi-month event where volunteers pick up trash abandoned in Durham’s parks, creeks, and other green spaces.

Organized over several days in September and October, Big Sweep is not a one-time, good-deed outing. Thirty years of effort have turned what started as a statewide endeavor into a reliable way to recruit locals to help clean up Durham.

Durham’s Ellerbe Creek watershed has been Shiflett’s clean-up pet project since the 1990s. Winding through several city parks, its waters eventually reach Falls and Jordan lakes, Raleigh’s primary drinking water sources. That motivates Shiflett to keep it clean.

“We’re very fortunate because we’re at the top of the watershed. No one pees in our streams, so we get fresh water. But everything we flush from our washing machines and our toilets goes downstream into Raleigh,” said Shiflett, a retired medical technician.

Big Sweep volunteers receive bags filled with supplies needed during clean ups, including heavy duty trash bags, gloves and bright yellow vests. Photo by Cameron Beach

Established in 1989, the clean up is now co-hosted by Keep Durham Beautiful, the Durham Public Works Department and the Durham County Soil and Water Conservation. With other initiatives, the outings help Durham stay in step with water quality standards set by the U.S. Clean Water Act.

“We work to keep stormwater clean that goes into our storm drains and ditches and then goes into our streams and rivers and eventually the ocean,” said Laura Smith, public education coordinator at Durham Public Works. 

Programs like the Big Sweep are guided by the county’s sustainability roadmap and Durham Strategic Plan sustainability provisions that address environmental, equity and economic dimensions of local pollution problems.

People familiar with Big Sweep clean up sites say they see less trash at some places. But Durham’s litter problem is nowhere near solved. People still use sites like Northgate Park and Ellerbe Creek as mini trash dumps.

“I meet so many people who have no idea how bad our creeks were. It’s gotten better but every single year we do this we find Styrofoam, plastic bags, and things like athletic equipment in the creek,” Shiflett said. 

That’s why volunteers are needed to keep trash from accumulating across the county. 

An empty, crumbled cigarette pack sits where only leaf litter should be found at Ellerbe Creek Trail. Photo by Cameron Beach

“I’m not going to make an argument that using volunteers is the most efficient method, but we have seen success in terms of long-term engagement,” Smith said. “Our goal is to empower people to go out in their communities and become leaders in solving these problems.

Volunteers help Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association (ECWA) tend a number of preserves along the creek. Creek Week is an educational week of creek cleanups, tree plantings, and informative events in the Spring geared toward stopping littering at the source.

Keep Durham Beautiful conducts regular litter inventories, pick ups and tree plantings outside the Big Sweep season. That group also hands out gloves, trash bags, and neon vests in litter-prevention kits to elementary school students.

Shiflett said he enjoys introducing newcomers to a clean up. “You’re cleaning up somebody’s negligence, you’re making somebody else’s drinking water more palatable and the connections start hitting,” he said. 

But after all the work, what happens to the waste?

Big Sweep volunteers last year they collected 17,000 pounds of trash. They sort what they find into clear recycling bags and black landfill bags. The county’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department carts all that to the Durham Transfer Station.

This year’s Sweep started with a Sept. 11 Day of Service at Long Meadow Park and will continue until Nov. 6. October sessions start Saturday with 29 groups and 39 individuals signed up to get to work at Hillside Park, Long Meadow Park, South Ellerbe Creek Trail and more.

Shiflett will be out there.

“I’m one of hundreds,” he said. “There are hundreds of people in Durham who do small things like this. It makes you feel good because there are a lot more better people in the world than there are negative people.”  

To learn more about Big Sweep, visit Keep Durham Beautiful’s website or the Big Sweep 2019 event on Facebook.

At top: Michael Shiflett, right, poses in a photograph taken during a 1996 clean up, one keepsake he held onto during decades of volunteering. 


Demolishing an old railroad bridge to improve a downtown gateway

As a building boom in Durham transforms the cityscape, new developments under construction downtown such as the Willard Street Apartments building and the 555 Mangum Street office space are beginning to rise on the skyline. It’s a time of change for the city. 

But modernizing requires demolition too, and that’s the case at a key route in and out of the heart of downtown. An inactive railroad bridge spanning over downtown Durham’s West Chapel Hill Street has been taken down.

The removal last month is expected to improve safety and help beautify a city that is still growing. “That road is a key gateway into downtown, and it’s sort of an eyesore. It’s dark and it’s industrial,” said Rachel Wexler at Downtown Durham, Inc. 

While taking down an old bridge may seem like a simple step for a developing city, many organizations helped make it happen. North Carolina Railroad is collaborating with Norfolk Southern, Downtown Durham, Inc., and the City of Durham.

The recently removed segment of rail line was owned by North Carolina Railroad (NCRR), which leases a still-active rail bridge on the same stretch of road to the freight and transportation corporation Norfolk Southern. 

A gash of dirt stands where a rail bridge once spanned West Chapel Hill Street between West Pettigrew and Great Jones streets. Photo by Cameron Beach.

The destroyed span had not been in use since two of Durham’s five freight rail line junctions were abandoned many years ago, said Megen Hoenk, director of corporate communications at NCRR. 

Not only was it not needed, the rail line bridge was becoming a safety liability, said Tom Haning, a contractor working on the project with W. M. Brode Company. Norfolk Southern proposed removing it and North Carolina Railroad approved and provided funding for the $1.5 million project, Hoenk said. 

The obsolete bridge wasn’t the nicest to look at, and its removal is the first step of many to be taken to clean up and improve the West Chapel Hill Street corridor near Durham Station. Revitalization is important because pedestrians and vehicles flow through there every day. 

A private corporation with 100% of its stock owned by the state of North Carolina, North Carolina Railroad owns and manages a 317-mile rail line that stretches from Charlotte to the Port of Morehead City, making its way through the center of Durham along the way. 

While Durham officials did not propose the bridge removal, city staff and community members support the project because it helps clean up a congested area downtown. “It was an unused railroad track that had been out of commission for I don’t know how long,” said Bill Bell, former Durham mayor and NCRR board member.

As Durham city planners work to accommodate a growing population and increased traffic congestion downtown, giving West Chapel Hill Street a facelift is a key step in the right direction, Bell said. 

The bridge demolition project disrupted car traffic on West Chapel Hill Street starting in August and redirected foot traffic as recently as last week. Photo by Cameron Beach

Those working on this project, however, plan to go beyond basic structural fixes, which include painting and repair of the underpass walls and improvements to the nearby bridge still carrying trains. Durham City General Services and nonprofit Downtown Durham Inc. are also planning a public art installation at the West Chapel Hill Street underpass, once construction is complete. 

What that will look like hasn’t been decided. But Durham City General Services staff plan to apply for funding during the next budget cycle, said Stacey Poston of City General Services.

Wexler, director of special projects at Downtown Durham, Inc., said that the underpass has been an area of interest for some time. 

“It’s definitely been an interest of ours to try and beautify that street and make that gateway more of a pleasant experience for people. And the taking down of that second bridge has been the impetus to bring that project to the forefront,” she said.

Poston said she is excited about the new space for public art that the removal of the bridge has created. 

“If you walk through there now, it’s so nice and light. Before it was so dark, and now there’s basically a big gallery wall that we could do something great on,” she said.“The bridge had to come out before you can put the art in.” 

Photo at top: Where two railroad bridges long stood, now there is one. North Carolina Railroad Company recently demolished an unused span over West Chapel Hill Street, opening a tight stretch of road to more light and design possibilities. Photo by Cameron Beach

Do the rot thing: Inside Durham’s push for composting

Residents of the city of Durham recently received a survey about a sexy topic: food waste and composting.

Composting can sometimes seem like the province of hippies and/or actual farmers, but Durham’s current strategic plan calls for the city to evaluate ways to increase residential composting. The compost survey, which will be open to residents until the end of May, is the first step in that process. Muriel Williman, the senior assistant manager with the City’s Solid Waste Management Department, is leading that effort.

We want to take the temperature of our city—compost humor—to see what type of services would really work. Would people be willing to pay for it? Can we do a subscription-based program? And so on,” Williman said. “The pilot will be designed, hopefully, to construct a program that is accessible and that works.”

Looking through my own kitchen trash can, to the distress of my roommates, revealed that food waste makes up about a fifth of our apartment’s trash: eggshells, fruit peels, asparagus stems, avocado skins and pits, piles of coffee grounds, and a decaying bunch of aspirational cilantro could all be sent to a composting facility instead.

For Durham, that’s a pretty typical breakdown of household waste. A 2015 city “Waste Characterization Study” found that around 30 percent of Durham residential trash sent to landfills is “food and soiled paper,” both of which could be composted instead. If food waste were its own country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S., according to the United Nations. Most food waste in the U.S. occurs at the consumer level, rather than during food harvest, processing, or even sales.

Durham waste management’s goal is to reduce the weight of city garbage by 10 percent within three years. After reducing the amount of trash we produce in the first place, compost and recycling are the two most obvious options.

The city government isn’t alone. A growing number of local people are already composting, either in their backyard or using a service. CompostNow, a Raleigh-based community composting company, serves more than 2,600 Triangle residents, up from 639 members in 2017, according to Kat Nigro, who is the company’s head of marketing and engagement. (She previously worked at Tilthy Rich, a bicycle-focused composter that CompostNow bought in 2018.)

I think composting is stepping out from the shadows of something your grandfather did or something crazy hippies do, and now it’s kind of stepping into mainstream culture. I think it’s having its moment right now,” Nigro said. “Our members are really vocal about the value of composting and they are not afraid to share it with their neighbors or their school, or get their office on board, and it’s been really amazing to see.”

CompostNow has diverted a little more than 4,000 tons of Triangle trash from landfills since 2011, but according to WRAL, Durham County produced 285,477 tons of waste in 2015, with a population of 297,219 people. In other words, we each produced approximately ten times our own weight in trash. But of course, not everyone produces the same amount of trash.

The people who are contributing to climate change the most are the more privileged affluent communities, but unfortunately the people who are going to feel the effects of climate change first are going to be the lower-income communities. So that discrepancy is obviously on my mind,” Nigro said. “Some people look at us and say, ‘You guys charge for the service?’ and we say, yes, we have to charge for the service because of where we’re at with waste management right now. it’s still cheaper to throw away things, that’s the bottom line.”

CompostNow costs around $29 per month for weekly pickup. But in Durham, trash pickup is paid for by taxes and has no additional fee, though residents can pay $7.50 a month for weekly yard-waste pickup. It’s those customers who would most likely be targeted by the pilot program, Williman said. Of the 20,000 current subscribers, about 10 percent might have the opportunity to also add their food waste as as a test of potential curbside compost collection.

Williman hopes to design a program which is not only functional but accessible to all residents. The composting survey is offered in English and Spanish to help reach different communities in the city.

“We want to make sure this program is accessible to people that come from different demographics—maybe English is not their first language, maybe they’ve never composted before, maybe they’re in a lower economic bracket than someone with a college education who has property and has been composting forever,” Williman said.

Durham has more eco-friendly options for residents than just about anywhere else in the state, and Mayor Steve Schewel’s campaign website even included an entire page about his position and priorities on waste management, which includes the improbable sentence, “Steve believes we can find opportunities in trash.” According to Matt Kopac, chair of the Durham City-County Environmental Affairs Board, Schewel as a city councilman spearheaded the 2015 waste characterization study, which was the first time the city had real data on the breakdown of waste in the community.

I would definitely describe Durham as a sustainability-focused city. In addition to being a city that advocates for environmental justice, there is palpable action around issues concerning social and racial equity and inclusive growth,” Dr. Cristian Roberto Valle Kinloch, a member of the Durham City-County Environmental Affairs Board, wrote in an email.

On a practical level, Durham already has a state permit to compost yard waste and biosolids—also known as treated sewage—from the waste-water treatment facility. That project has been delayed some due to the unusually rainy winter, Williman said.

“This is a system we want to get right,” Williman said. “Once [the city’s contractors] have that well in hand and it’s operating perfectly as permitted—and that includes reaching temperatures that are necessary to kill pathogens—once they have that straight with the biosolids and the yard waste, they’ll be able to add food waste.”

In addition to fertilizing depleted urban soil, composting can also slow down the rate at which landfills are used up. Durham’s landfill closed in 1998, and the land can never be used for anything else. The city now sends its solid waste to a landfill in Sampson County, east of Fayetteville, where decomposing food produces methane, a greenhouse gas.

CompostNow sends what it collects to the Brooks Compost Facility in Goldston, N.C. (Courtesy Brooks Contractor)

“It’s a waste of a valuable resource, it’s a waste of money,” Kopac said. “So not only are we not harvesting these organic materials to be turned into compost to help enrich our soil, we’re also paying money to ship and throw away this valuable resource, so it’s sort of a double loss. so I think the city’s move toward having more residential composting is important and powerful.”

Even without the city’s composting service in place, residents who are willing to pay extra to lower their carbon footprint have a range of private-sector options. There’s Fillaree, which offers refillable glass and aluminum containers of toiletries and dish soap; GreenToGo, a service which lets Durhamites get reusable to-go boxes at participating restaurants; and Ungraded Produce, a produce delivery service founded by two Duke students that sends subscribers boxes of aesthetically imperfect fruits and vegetables which might have otherwise gone to waste. Advocates view this market as evidence that Durham is primed to compost more.

“I don’t think something like Tilthy Rich could have done as well as it did in any other place at that time,” Nigro said. “Durham was so special, and I just think back to the year 2016. The next year we doubled our membership, and that could have only happened in a place like Durham where a lot of us have that collective mindset of protecting this community and protecting our natural resources.”

Images of Brooks composting facility, the site CompostNow uses, reveals that the operation is basically a dirt lot in Goldston filled with orderly long piles of compost-to-be, which Nigro said are usually eight feet high. The temperature of each pile can reach 160 degrees due to the exertions of worms, mites, fungi, and bacteria, and as a result, the process from trash to humus takes only three months. Backyard composting, Nigro said, can take six to eight months.

The city currently provides a 25-page guide to composting at home, which is helpful because there’s more to composting than just putting all your biodegradable trash into a pile in the yard. Good composting—the kind that produces usable fertilizer and limited amounts of methane gas—requires frequent turning and a relatively consistent balance of different types of waste. It’s easier, and cheaper, to send food scraps, like the rest of our trash, to a landfill. Because of that, Nigro says, CompostNow isn’t worried about the competition from a possible municipal government program.

We do not care how people compost—if it’s in their backyard, using a drop-off service, a municipality service, our service,” Nigro said. “For us it doesn’t matter, we just want people to be composting. Food waste is huge. This is a huge problem to tackle, and there’s enough of it that it’s going to take so many different people, so many different players in this game. So we don’t shy away from that, and we don’t want to discourage the city in any capacity because we believe there’s enough of it to go around.”

(Photo at top by Bailey Garrot)

Celebration and conflict convene at Durham City Council meeting

If you walked into the Durham City Council meeting Monday night the first thing you likely noticed were not the elected officials or 13 members of the New Black Panther Party, it was the little girls.

Ten Girl Scout troops packed themselves into the chambers. Some scouts sat on the floor and others two to a chair to hear March 11 designated the start of Girl Scout Week in Durham.

So it goes at City Council meetings, where topics celebratory and serious rub shoulders, taking observers on a roller coaster of experiences that are inspiring, friendly, somber and, at times, deeply contentious.

In addition to honoring the scouts, Mayor Steve Schewel celebrated recently retired U.S. Circuit Judge Allyson Duncan, Council member Vernetta Alston read a declaration celebrating Women’s History Month, and former Mayor Bell bid farewell to city attorney Patrick Baker.

The tone grew more heated when Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton lamented Duke’s recent refusal to donate a tract of land to the Durham-Orange Light Rail project. It became both somber and angry after Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis presented the city’s 2018 crime report.

First celebration

Girl Scout Troop 04033 Immaculata Catholic School posted this photo on Facebook after city officials honored local scouts on Monday.

“I would like to turn this over to our City Council Girl Scouts,” Schewel said when honoring the gathered Brownie, Junior and Cadette scouts, beckoning Council members Alston, DeDreana Freeman and Jillian Johnson forward.

“You can see in my City Council colleagues what good leadership the Girl Scouts develop. That’s proof right there,” he said.

In keeping with the female empowerment theme, Schewel celebrated Judge Allyson Duncan, a Durham native who recently retired from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Duncan was the first African-American woman to serve on the N.C. Court of Appeals and the first African-American president of the North Carolina Bar Association.

Alston read the Schewel’s declaration marking March as Women’s History Month in Durham, noting that women have had to fight to secure their own rights of suffrage and equal opportunity yet still contributed to business, government, medicine, social justice and more.

Schewel and former Mayor Bill Bell praised Baker, who is leaving Durham to become city attorney of Charlotte. Then Schewel opened the floor to Council members to make public statements.

Then conflict

Middleton jumped in to criticize Duke University’s decision to decline to sign the cooperative agreement with GoTriangle and voluntarily give land to the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project. Middleton suggested eminent domain could be a viable next step to surpass a hurdle that could stop the project.

“I was raised in a community where elders gathered youth at their feet and regaled us with stories of young boys who faced giants, and young girls who went to see kings unannounced. We learned of stories of people, ordinary men and women, who faced down not one wealthy institution, but a nation, an entire legal system, an entire economy that said we were less than,” said Middleton.

He ended his critique of Duke with a joke.

“So I apologize if I have not shown the appropriate amount of deference or fear and trembling in the face of a wealthy institution. I get it from my mama,” he said.

The most tense stretches came after Davis gave presented the 2018 “crime and police measures report”.

Davis reported a decrease in violent and property crime by 13 and 6 percent respectively. Robberies, aggravated assault, burglaries and larcenies all decreased. She also noted efforts by the department to decrease domestic violence such as Safe Spaces in which businesses identify themselves as places offering refuge.

Miguel Stayton, uncle of slain North Carolina Central University student DeAndre Ballard, took aim at Davis and her department for not sharing information regarding his nephew’s death after a security guard shot him in a parking lot of the apartment building where he lived.

Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis presented the city’s 2018 crime report Monday. (Photo by Pierre Stephan Barbee-Saunders)

Davis said she has been in contact with Ballard’s mother, as department policy dictates. She cannot share information in an investigation unless the primary family contact of the deceased explicitly permits or requests is, she stressed.

“Those individuals are not here tonight. Those individuals do not want to be here tonight. We have been in constant contact with them,” Davis continued, “We trust that individuals that are related are provided the information that the father or mother wants them to know.”

Resident Victoria Peterson, dressed in red head to toe, criticized Davis’ report saying it did not adequately break down where reductions in crime have occurred.

“Crime is still running rampant in the Black community and we have all these African-Americans sitting on the City Council and one Hispanic,” said Peterson, saying the city must increase patrols in her area near Alston and Ridgeway avenues and add 20 additional officers.

Emom Akbar took the podium with 11 members of the New Black Panther Party behind him. He encouraged peace and respect between community members and the police department, which he accused of neglecting Black residents.

Expect these conversations to continue. City Council grapples with the complexity that is the Bull City at 7 pm on the first and third Mondays of each month.

(Photo at top by Pierre Stephan Barbee-Saunders)

Balancing facts and feelings in the discussion of Confederate monuments

Deondra Rose, assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, is accustomed to letting facts drive the discussion of policy. But as a member of the Durham City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments, she realized that feelings were important, too.

During a Sanford lunch event to discuss the committee on Friday, Rose praised the group’s emphasis on opens discussions and the diverse backgrounds of people involved. There were two types of meetings: official ones with guest speakers and wide-open discussions.

The official meetings included speakers with expertise on aspects of Confederate monuments. Many were academics whose research focused on the Confederacy, monuments and the legacy of the Civil War.  

Deondra Rose

Rose felt the small group discussions were especially helpful. The committee asked participants to answer three questions about the values the government should highlight, the people who should be publicly celebrated and the recommendations participants had for the committee.

“The best part of this process was to sit around these tables and hear citizens grapple with these questions,” said Rose, a political scientist who recently published the book “Citizens By Degree: Higher Education Policy and the Changing Gender Dynamics of American Citizenship.”

At the meetings, Rose found her academic approach, which focuses on facts over feelings, was not the best way to approach delicate and emotion-filled topics.

“One of the things I got into trouble within this process is that I tend to approach things with facts. I am not someone who typically deals well with emotions,” she said, adding that “I realized that this is more personal to people and it is hitting them in a place of emotion. I had to really learn to step back and learn how to be quiet.”

She quickly learned that people felt like statues were viewed very deeply by people, often because they honored ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War.

“This isn’t just Confederate Statues to people. ‘This is my great-great-great grandfather’ and so by saying this statue represents X, Y and Z people take that to mean you’re saying my great-great-great grandfather represented X, Y and Z,” said Rose.

She applauded the diversity of the committee, from academics to lawyers to a Confederate reenactor.

“It was a really diverse group in terms of age, in terms of gender, in terms of race and ethnicity, in terms of where we lived in Durham County and how long we’ve lived here,” said Rose.

Rose noted that the committee became fiercely protective of each other through the process. They defended each other even when they had vastly different opinions.

This became particularly important when County Commissioners Vice Chair James Hill criticized the committee’s recommendation to move the statue base with additions to honor the enslaved, union soldiers and women and children to one of two publicly owned cemeteries, one of which is historically black. Hill compared the movement of this new monument to a historically black cemetery to placing an SS statue in a Jewish cemetery.

The co-chairs responded with an op-ed emphasizing that the potential new statue would have additions honoring the enslaved and others and emphasizing the other recommendations the committee had.

Other recommendations include publicly honoring other members of Durham’s history like Pauli Murray, C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, tobacco workers, and more. The committee also recommended including the crumpled statue in an educational display inside the courthouse.

Despite the vast array of opinions, the committee found a shared commitment to recognizing history. It was who and how we remember our past that people disagreed about.

“Across the board, people said they wanted to memorialize history,” Rose said. “There was a shared disagreement with us somehow paving over history or failing to acknowledge even our painful past.”