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Despite calls for radical change, City Council funds the police department

For the second time this month, frustration and outrage over police misconduct against Black people dominated a Durham City Council meeting on Monday.

Council members reported receiving thousands of emails demanding that they defund the police department. Dozens of community members spoke at their virtual meeting urging the same thing.

Despite repeating their support for reforming the city’s police department, city council members unanimously passed the city’s $502 million 2020-2021 budget, which includes $70 million for the police department, a 5% increase from last year.

That doesn’t mean change isn’t coming, they stressed.

Before that vote, council members passed the Durham City Council Statement on Community Health and Safety, which commits the city council to continue the process to “transform policing” in Durham.

Written primarily by Mayor Steve Schewel and Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, the statement calls for reforming the Durham Police Department’s use-of-force policies.  It also requires an analysis of 911 calls to identify police activities, such as responding to mental health crises, that other city departments could handle.

The statement pledges $1 million to fund a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force. Johnson championed the body last year as a means to research and present proposals for alternative community safety measures.

Schewel and Johnson emphasized that $1 million was not the only amount elected officials will commit to new community safety measures. 

“A million dollars is a down-payment on the work we need to do to be transforming community safety in Durham,” Schewel said.

That amount was too low, argued two council members, Mark-Anthony Middleton, who represents Ward 2, and DeDreana Freeman, who represents Ward 1.

“I think the million, even as an initial down payment, the pure power of the symbolism of it is just not enough,” Middleton said.

He criticized what he felt was the council’s reluctance to commit at least $2 million to exploring measures, such as universal basic income, which he says would help reduce crime by addressing poverty, a root cause.

“I think we have an opportunity to literally transform the budgetary culture of our city and be a beacon for the rest of the world,” he added. “Do you want to put police out of business? Let’s start spending real money on those things that will put them out of business.”

Middleton noted that the city council spent $2.4 million in 2018 on the Durham Participatory Budgeting initiative spearheaded by Johnson.

“Some of us fought like hell for $2 million for participatory budgeting, and 60% of the voters were white,” Middleton said. “We need to fight like hell now to send the right message for the folk that are dying right now.”

Council member Freeman said she would have preferred a figure closer to $11 million.

“It’s almost like we’re saying that these Black lives are worth a million dollars,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”

Johnson, Reece, and Caballero campaigned last fall on a joint platform that included addressing police brutality and developing new community safety institutions. They have favored decreasing the police budget and reducing the number of officers while supporting community-led task forces to create proposals for community safety. 

While Freeman and Middleton have also supported calls for police reform, on Monday they emphasized the continuing need for policing due to what they say are unacceptable levels of violent crime affecting lower-income neighborhoods in Durham.

Freeman and Middleton also questioned the need for a task force to investigate solutions that they said the city council and community already understand. 

“I don’t need the task force to tell me that mentally ill people don’t need people with guns being the primary responder,” Middleton said. “We can move on that now. And we can start preparing the groundwork now for a budgetary revolution.”

Freeman emphasized that some in Durham are alarmed by campaigns to defund the police.

“The people I speak to in the community have a very different understanding of what that means and how it’s going to impact their lives,” Freeman said. “There’s a whole lot of folks that we are scaring this evening, and we have to be mindful of the fact that they are still residents in this community, and they deserve to be represented.”

Approval of the statement passed 4 to 2, with Middleton and Freeman voting no.

The passionate discussion took place immediately after a heated public commenting session where almost 50 people addressed the council about the city’s proposed budget.

Noting that a large number of people wanted to speak, Schewel limited comments to those who pre-registered, giving each one minute. That angered several community members who criticized the council during their remarks. Others voiced their complaints in a virtual chatroom.

Of those able to make comments, 35 spoke against the budget, demanding that the city council defund the city’s police department. That is something included in an alternative budget proposed by Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of local activist groups.

Some speakers expressed outrage that council members were considering any increase in police funding at a time people are protesting across the county against police violence directed at Black people.

“How dare you — at a time like this — give $70 million, a 5% increase, to cops when cities are burning in rage and mourning across the country,” said Erin Carson, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission. “Our city workers’ wages and our vital programs are frozen, but the police never miss a cent while delivering nothing.”

Others emphasized what they felt was the community’s desire to have police funding redistributed to other services. “To say defund the police, we’re just saying give the people back our money, and that’s what we’re asking for now,” said Mabelle Segrest, a resident.

Four people spoke in favor of passing the budget as it was drafted. Sheila Huggins, who represented Friends of Durham, a moderate political action group focused on public safety, asked council members to commit to working with residents on a “comprehensive plan for community policing”.

Middleton stressed that approving the budget did not preclude advancing police reforms.

“This budget is increasing the police budget, full stop. It’s not buying tanks, it’s not buying tear gas, it’s not hiring more officers to be on the street. But it is going up,” said Middleton. “Because inflation happens. Things happen.”

This year’s budget, rewritten after considerable revenue losses during the coronavirus pandemic, canceled raises for city employees. Reece explained that he supported the budget because he says it avoids further layoffs, preserves essential city services, and safeguards city finances in case revenues continue to decrease.

Reece noted that the thousands of emails he received asking to transform public safety and policing was the most he had ever gotten for any city council matter. Still, he said he felt more dialogue and understanding were needed. “There are lots of folks in Durham who have a hard time imagining a Durham beyond policing,” he said.

With the budget issues seemingly settled, the city council meeting moved onto seemingly less contentious topics such as community development grants. But a public hearing on that matter provided another opportunity for comment from audience members.

“You don’t have the moral courage to take a very small step toward addressing the centuries-old damage that’s been done to our community at the hands of government,” said Donald Hughes, who had earlier spoken in favor of the Durham Renewal Project, a budget proposal by activist group Other America Movement Durham calling for more spending on community services. 

“Before there was COVID-19, I want to remind you again, there was COVID-1619,” he said, referring to the date frequently linked to the start of slavery in North America.

At top: Members of the Other America Movement have set up camp in front of the city police headquarters downtown. Photo by Henry Haggart

Virtual arts and exercise classes offer innovation and community

At the end of class at Empower Dance Studio, director Nicole Oxendine tells her students to unmute their Zoom sound. They extend their arms to the sides of the screen, as if holding hands in their usual “empower circle.” 

“That’s our connection, that’s like our church. Faith is ingrained in everything we do,” Oxendine says.

They “tendu” their right foot toward the camera — even though it may not fit in the video frame.

Oxendine counts to three and the students yell “empower.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Oxendine will teach dance over Zoom. Her studio is among other Durham arts and exercise studios that recently made the switch. It has required many adaptations: bathrooms with tile floors have become tap-dancing studios. Sneakers have replaced blocks in yoga classes. iPhone cameras have sufficed for photography workshops. 

They’re temporary fixes, but the Zoom classes help Durham maintain its artsy flair during a trying time. Durhamites stay connected virtually as local businesses try to stay afloat. 

Dance like Zoom is watching

March 21 was the first day of what Oxendine called the “testing” period for online dance classes. Her studio started with a “Tiny Tots” Zoom class for 2 year olds.

She’s optimistic that students will continue taking classes. Despite the quick transition to online dance, class attendance remained above 50%.

Still, she said, “we don’t know what the final (financial) repercussions are going to be.”

Oxendine held a Facebook Live meeting to update parents about creative modifications for dancing at home.

Bathrooms with tile floors have become tap-dancing studios. Kitchen chairs make decent ballet barres. “And if there’s an across-the-floor combination, we recommend you try it outside,” she said. 

It’s not only a question of staying in shape and maintaining dance technique. Empower Dance Studio teachers also want to reinforce the studio’s values over Zoom.

“Faith is a core value of Empower. We have faith in ourselves, we believe in ourselves” she said. “You have your own power, you have your sense of agency, and you have a gift.”

Still, faith has been difficult to cultivate over Wifi. Oxendine hopes to encourage faith and community by allowing dancers to lament about the coronavirus or share their stay-at-home experiences. She’ll ask them about their homework or TV shows they’ve been watching. 

“These kids, they have anxiety around what’s happening now, too. I tell the teachers to take a minute to check and sit and be present with them,” she said.

‘A la carte’ yoga

Though the online yoga scene has been growing for a while, Yoga Off East founder Kathryn Smith hadn’t thought her studio would join in. 

But once the coronavirus outbreak began, customers started reaching out to Smith, saying they’d pay for online classes. One yoga instructor offered to share her Zoom account. 

Fifty customers signed up for the studio’s first online yoga class on March 21. 

Classes have taken new forms. Music is optional because Zoom’s sound quality is unreliable. Students can choose whether to use video, enabling them to opt for the instructor to correct their movements over the screen or not. 

“There’s an a la carte menu of options that people don’t typically have,” Smith said. 

Students can do prop-free yoga, or they can try household substitutions: a sneaker for a block, a pillow for a bolster, and a towel for a mat. 

It’s been going well enough that Smith is considering making online classes a new staple for Yoga Off East. 

“Our 9th Street community, we have people traveling for work constantly,” she said. “I always see us as a small neighborhood studio, but it looks like we will be moving in the direction of expanding our online offerings.” 

Smith is appreciative that her customers have wanted to take online classes. But she misses the community-building element of meeting in-person. 

“(Online classes) meet the needs of alternative ways to feel connected and not get sucked into isolation,” she said. “But the energy of an in-person class is really irreplaceable.”

A new perspective

Last year, Martha Hoelzer offered photography lessons during a pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland, that focused on spirituality beyond organized religion.

“I was teaching components of using photography as a means to delve deeper spiritually,” said Hoelzer, who runs A Breath of Fresh Air Photography.

She was set to teach photography again in April at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, NC. Now, she’ll offer a photography workshop over Zoom on Thursdays from 1 to 2 p.m. 

Students will take photos from different perspectives in their homes, maybe standing on a chair or crouching behind a couch. She anticipates they’ll use iPhones, Androids, and iPads: that’s how it was in Scotland.

Photography student captures images while quarantining in her home. Photo contributed by Sienna Smith

While part of the upcoming class will teach smartphone semantics, she wants to focus more on “composition and challenging people to think about their perspectives.” She’ll also encourage each student to share 10 or 20 recent photos they’ve taken as a way to facilitate discussion and inspiration. 

Hoelzer is no stranger to self-isolating. She’s gone through multiple severe concussions — two since 2016 — and has recently been working on a photography project about brain injuries called What Lies Beneath.

She compares the concussion experience to quarantining. 

“What we’re doing now isn’t that unsimilar to what I’ve had to do off and on over the last four years. Minus the fact that you can’t enjoy things like cooking because somebody whose brain is injured might not be able to follow the directions,” she said. “You can’t watch TV, or you can’t read a book.”

Hoelzer hopes that as students crouch to get a new perspective for their photograph, they may also gain a new perspective on quarantining and the coronavirus.

“Let’s reframe the current situation of what we’re having to face,” she said. “Turn lemons into lemonade or whatever.”

At top: Yoga Off East students finish a Zoom class in Namaste pose. Photo contributed by Kathryn Smith

Five ways Durham’s ‘stay at home’ order differs from others

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel’s “stay-at-home” order issued Wednesday requires city residents to stay at home unless they have very specific, approved reasons to leave. 

The document is intended to prevent a global pandemic from spreading serious illness and loss of life here.

Italy has been ravaged with nearly 75,000 coronavirus cases and about 7,500 deaths. The United States could follow that path if communities don’t act to protect their residents, the mayor said.

“We are fortunate that the numbers in North Carolina and Durham are still low and we hope to keep it that way,” Schewel said during a press conference Wednesday.

Yet many people, particularly young people, had been “unhealthy and unsafe” by gathering in large numbers rather than practicing social distancing.

After announcing the stay-at-home order during a press conference streamed on several platforms, Durham officials spread word of the changes on social media.

Schewel’s order is similar to others across the country affecting more than 100 million Americans. But different states, cities and counties are customizing them to a degree.

Schewel said he closely crafted Durham’s 14-page order with city attorney Kim Rehberg while looking over orders from Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, and the village of Clemmons, near Winston-Salem, because both apply in North Carolina. 

All three orders ban public and private gatherings of more than 10 people. They require non-essential businesses to close. Grocery stores and pharmacies are among those exempt, along with restaurants serving take-out, drive-through and delivery meals only. Gas stations and other commerce vital to transportation can remain open.  

But Durham’s order differs from the others in this state and elsewhere in the country a bit. Here are five ways.

You probably won’t get arrested for violating the order 

Maryland isn’t messing around with its coronavirus response. 

Gov. Larry Hogan said last week that police were prepared to arrest people for violating restrictions on businesses and gatherings even before he issued guidance similar to “stay at home” orders across the country. 

Schewel skipped a law-and-order tone when he announced Durham’s order. 

Police have the power to enforce the order, he said, but the plans are not to arrest, cite or penalize anyone for violating it. Schewel didn’t rule out further action being taken for egregious offenses, though. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, contending with the country’s worst outbreak, struck a different tone in announcing his order. 

“These provisions will be enforced. These are not helpful hints,” Cuomo said. “These are legal provisions.”

Not a ‘shelter-in-place’ order

Before digging into the details of Durham’s order, Schewel was careful to distinguish it from a “shelter-in-place” requirement like one California implemented last week. 

The term “shelter-in-place” is often associated with shooters and nuclear attacks. This name might engender fear, he explained. 

“This isn’t something we need to be afraid of if we act,” Schewel said. 

No explicit curfew

As part of  its “safer-at-home” order, Hillsborough County in Florida, home to Tampa, will implement a mandatory curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. on weekdays and for 24 hours on weekends.

Durham’s approach, on the other hand, doesn’t specify hours. It bans residents from being in public or partaking in business in public, except for travel for exempted essential purposes, at all times. 

New Jersey implemented a similar policy, but Gov. Phil Murphy described on Saturday it as a 24-hour curfew. 

“We want you off the roads. That’s basically 24 hours. We don’t want you out there, period,” Murphy said

Durham’s order is hyper-detailed

Durham’s stay-at-home order is 14 pages long, close in length and similar in wording to Mecklenburg’s 13-page document. 

Other jurisdictions have been much more concise. California’s finishes in two pagesThen again, Ohio’s runs a whopping 23 pages

The Durham order brings lots of specificity when describing exemptions, which include golf and tennis, with social distancing required. Golf is deemed “non-critical” in some parts of Florida. Mecklenburg allows it. Clemmons is silent on that sport.

Weddings, funerals allowed 

Washington State, which also has been hard hit, has canceled weddings and funerals. Most jurisdictions, including Durham, do not go that far.  

Durham is allowing weddings and funerals, granted that they follow relevant restrictions in the order.

This indicates those with only 10 or fewer people practicing social distancing will be allowed.

Durham’s order goes into effect Thursday at 6 p.m. and runs through April 30. Mayor Schewel stressed that it could be extended or shortened. 

 

 

Duke Health starting limited drive-up COVID-19 testing

By Jake Sheridan
and Cameron Beach

Duke Health will begin piloting drive-up coronavirus testing today, The 9th Street Journal confirmed.

This limited pilot will be available only to patients who were prescribed COVID-19 tests via Duke Health tele-health appointments, where patients meet with clinicians online. Health system officials hope to make drive-up testing open to the community soon. 

“A limited pilot of a drive-up testing approach will be conducted today for a small group of patients who will have already received a ‘prescription’ from a tele-health appointment to obtain the test,” according to a written statement from Duke Health. 

“This first-run is not broadly open to the community at this point, but we hope to expand capabilities moving ahead, and will notify the community when additional locations are available. People who believe they may have COVID are encouraged to speak with their health care provider to determine the advisability of testing.”

The statement did not disclose where drive-up pilot testing will occur.

One advantage of drive-through testing is that it can prevent some people infected with coronavirus from spreading the disease inside hospitals and clinics.

Duke Health placed restrictions on hospital and clinic visitors on Monday “to minimize the spread of both COVID-19 and seasonal flu.” Visitors aren’t allowed inside Duke hospitals between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., except during emergencies, and all visitors will be screened for signs of illness before they enter.

Duke is also limiting how many people can accompany patients inside the hospital, including in delivery rooms.

North Carolina officials announced Saturday that testing is expanding across North Carolina. 

Hospitals in New York, California and elsewhere, including spots in North Carolina, have launched  drive-through testing efforts in recent days. This is the first confirmed in the Triangle.

Duke’s statement noted that Duke Health is continuing to develop its own in-house COVID-19 test. “We anticipate having our in-house testing available soon,” it said.

 

Natalie Murdock: Education and environment advocate, state Senate District 20 candidate

If Durham voters select her as the Democratic candidate for state Senate on Tuesday, they will accomplish several things, Natalie Murdock says.

They’ll embrace the leadership of an African-American woman, the only elected office holder of the three candidates in the race, she says. And they will reduce how severely black women are underrepresented in the General Assembly.  

“Quite frankly, a woman of color should have been recruited in the first place to seat this seat,” Murdock said at a panel called “Race, Womanhood and Deconstructing Political Barriers” earlier this month. 

“The double standard is clearly there. But, on this campaign trail, I have embraced this challenge because it’s great preparation for the battles I will fight in the Senate,” she added.

Natalie Murdock spread the word on social media after she scored a People Alliance, endorsement. The political action committee is influential in Durham politics.

Murdock; artist and entrepreneur Pierce Freelon; and local lawyer Gray Ellis are competing for the District 20 Democratic nomination. Because Durham voters strongly favor Democrats, whoever wins Tuesday is most likely to become state senator. 

Multiple organizations, including the influential People’s Alliance PAC of Durham, INDY Week, Equality North Carolina and Lillian’s List have endorsed Murdock, who has worked in transportation planning, communications and other areas, including politics. 

A product of North Carolina public schools, including the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Murdock emphasizes the need to improve public education. Specifically, she wants to help raise the wages of teachers and other school workers. 

“My grandmother was actually a cafeteria school worker, so I know the value of the bus drivers, the custodians, the folks that are serving your food. It takes all of those individuals to make sure our schools run properly and they deserve to get at least $15 an hour,” Murdock said.

In a plank of her platform called the Lucas & Parker Education Plan, she also calls for increased funding to historically black college campuses and community colleges. 

Murdock named multiple sections of her platform after influential black women in North Carolina. The Lucas & Parker Plan honors Jeanne Lucas, the first black woman to serve in the state Senate, and Omega Parker, a one time Durham Public School board member.

Mudock, who grew up in Greensboro, favors criminal justice reform too. She says North Carolina has not done enough to dismantle a school-to-prison pipeline.

“There’s a rise in young black girls getting suspended and expelled from school. There’s a direct correlation between those suspensions and expulsions, and them ending up in the justice system,” Murdock said.

Murdock was elected a Durham Soil and Water District supervisor in 2018, a position focused on protecting drinking water quality, agriculture, and open space in Durham County.

Her platform supports the Green New Deal for North Carolina, a switch to 100% renewable energy by 2050, higher water-treatment standards, greater energy efficiency and expanded mass transit.

“I have been an environmental advocate for as long as I can remember,” she said. Much control over environmental policies rests with state legislators, she notes, including management of the Clean Water Management Fund, parks funding and support for farmers. 

Murdock’s affordable housing platform — coined the Andrea Harris Plan — focuses on expanding renters’ rights, building public-private housing partnerships and helping homeowners keep their homes, among other things.

Murdock chatted with voters after a recent candidates forum at Duke University. Photo by Corey Pilson.

At a candidate forum held at Duke University last week, Murdock emphasized the need for safe affordable housing — one of the most high-profile  issues in Durham currently “Wages in combination with housing is really something we have to get a handle on,” she said.

Murdock’s plans and experience appealed to members of the People’s Alliance PAC, said Tom Miller, an alliance leader.

“Our members really liked the fact that Natalie has real experience in governmental and public policy making, as well as her platform,” Miller said. ”It shows networking, experience, and the ability to make decisions and get it done.” 

Launching the firm Murdock Anderson Consulting in 2017 gave Murdock a new understanding of the challenges Durham business owners face, she said at the forum.

“As a new business owner. I actually know what it feels like to go without health insurance. There were times where I chose to make payroll and not have health insurance,” she said.

Candidates for the Democratic nomination were congenial during much of the Duke candidates forum, but they made moves to distinguish themselves.

Ellis said the fact he is older than Murdock and Freelon could bolster his readiness. When Freelon noted that he favors marijuana decriminalization, Murdock quickly inserted that she did too.

“I’m somebody that’s going to boldly state my opinions – not just when it’s convenient. – and that’s what we really need,” Freelon responded.

When asked what she wanted voters to know about her at the close of  the forum, Murdock shared three numbers: twelve, four and zero. 

“It’s been twelve years since Durham has had a woman to represent them in the Senate. We only have four women of color in the Senate right now. We have zero black women under 40 in the House or the Senate,” she said. “I think we can provide our state with the representation that it needs for the marginalized.”

At top: Natalie Murdock speaking at the panel “Race, Womanhood and Deconstructing Political Barriers” earlier this month. Photo by Rebecca Schneid.

 

The enigma of Union Member House, Durham’s hottest new club

If you’re a yuppie, or soon-to-be yuppie, on Facebook in Durham, it’s hard to escape the somewhat mysterious advertisements for something called Union Member House.

If you google “union member house durham nc,” the first result is a get-offline.com blog post titled “Is Union Member House the Coolest New Hangout Spot in Durham?” The interior design of the club depicted in the advertisements seems designed for Instagram: a green vintage sports car, a shelf of coffee-table books. A pink fluorescent cursive sign mounted on a wall of green plants reads “Come as strangers, Leave as friends.”

And that’s the idea. Actually, the idea is for Union, as founder Sonny Caberwal calls it, to be a “third place,” which isn’t home or work. In practical terms, Union Member House isn’t that enigmatic. It’s a social club: pay $250 a year as an entry fee, and you gain access to the club. During the day, it’s like a coffee shop. At night, it’s dinner or a bar. It host events for networking. When I interviewed Caberwal recently, people were having a book club at a table nearby, discussing Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.”

Caberwal has always connected people. As an undergraduate at Duke, and as a Sikh from Asheboro, he says he disliked going to parties with only white people or only black people. He took it upon himself to “throw parties where different people would come together.”

Caberwal says Union is the 10th startup he’s been a part of, and the fourth he’s led. Most recently, Caberwal founded a company called Bond, which would mimic a handwritten note for $3.50. All you had to do was type the message and your recipient’s address into the site and enter your credit card information.

“Being nice to your customers isn’t just the nice or right thing to do,” he told a Entrepreneur.com. “It’s also good for business.” The site closed last month.

Caberwal, who graduated from Duke in 2001, says that his newest effort came about because in the modern age, most people are “poorly networked,” and because of that, social clubs are more important.

“A library can be a social club, a church can have a social club aspect to it, fitness groups,” Caberwal said. But whereas the hallmark of traditional social clubs, Caberwal is aiming for something different. “We live in a world where we try to be more equal-access as a society, and yet social clubs continue to have an exclusionary tone to them. The Wing is for women. WeWork is for entrepreneurs, Soho House is for… creatives. Country clubs are for, you know, people who like golf and tennis and live in a certain area.”

Union Member House certainly doesn’t look like how I imagine a country club—there’s a lot of concrete and exposed brick, for one. Artistically mismatched leather and velvet furniture form little seating areas throughout. And it’s actually in a basement, so every few minutes, the light from the windows gets blocked as a truck rolls past on Roxboro Street outside. Still, when I tried to describe Union Member House to my mother, she replied, “That’s a country club for yuppies who live in a city.” I put that to Caberwal, but he says Union Member House is different. Comparing the club to Crossfit, he says Union Member House is not for everyone—but it is for anyone who wants it.

“If you apply to Union, you will get in,” Caberwal said.

To claims of exclusionism—after all, $250 isn’t cheap—Caberwal says he’s working on ways to make it more accessible, but also that Union is already more accessible than it seems.

“We’re certainly more accessible than the YMCA. We’re more accessible than your parking pass. We’re more accessible than buying Starbucks every day,” he said. “So at the price point that we’re offering, $20 a month, and staffing people—there is a huge financial undertaking to build an institution that’s just dedicated to connecting people, without any financial incentive for us, and I don’t ever want there to be incentive to the connections that we provide people.”

Nonetheless, Union Member House has already been a target for criticism, first for a photography exhibit it initially called “Do It Like Durham,” also the slogan coined by activists who toppled the Confederate statue—the club later posted an apology note on Facebook explaining that the person who titled the exhibit wasn’t aware of its connection an existing movement—but also for the name of the club itself. The average Union Member House member is almost certainly not a union member.

“I think names should represent what you do, and I think that there are a lot of meanings of union, but the goal of Union is to bring people together,” Caberwal explained. “We’re doing it in college towns, and I thought it was like student unions, but really it’s about bringing people together. That’s our No. 1 goal.”

A storytelling event at Union Member House (Photo courtesy of Union Member House)

But why union members? Surely to most people the combination of the two words signifies members of a labor union.

“It is a challenge, it’s a challenge that people are like, hey it’s a worker’s union. My last company was called Bond, and bond means lots of things to lots of people. A bond is literally a financial instrument; it can also mean a relationship,” Caberwal said. “Union can be a labor union, it can also be a marital union, you know? For many people, and calling it Union Member House is particularly challenging, and probably not the best long-term name, right? Because like, a union member, that’s like even more loaded. It’s not intentional. My goal is to make it inexpensive, my goal is not to make it free. The reason I don’t make it free is because people don’t put effort into free. You have to put effort into making community.”

Part of the reason Union Member House came about, Caberwal says in the interview and in a letter posted on its site and Facebook, is because last year he experienced some unexpected health complications—a growth in his lymph nodes—and began to “re-evaluate.” Caberwal canceled a move to New York, enrolled his two children back in school at Durham Academy and asked his wife, who he says is “really cool,” if they could stay in Durham and he could try to do Union Member House full time for a year. The building previously housed the Durham Masonic Lodge, and later the Durham Health Department, but has been empty since 1992. According to the UMH website, a second location is planned to open in Austin, Texas, in 2019, and a third in Madison, Wisc., in 2020.

“I feel less risk around what will happen if we do this, than like, what will happen if I don’t try? I just want to try,” Caberwal said. “And if it doesn’t work out, I take that as a sign too.”

Caberwal, who describes himself as a “fairly scrappy entrepreneur,” views his role as setting things up for other people to succeed. He doesn’t see the club as his life’s work, and suggested that he plans to eventually hand it over to new management.

“Union is not my thing,” Caberwal said. “I don’t view it that way. My role as a founder and a leader is to empower and support talented people. So if you were to ask, ‘what are the things that keep you up at night?’ It would be people. People are the asset and the focus. And my job is to find and support great people. So I don’t think of this as ‘my task.’ I have a dream and a goal.”

Union Member House employed eight people in late November of last year, according to the tour guide when I toured at that time, around when they opened. Caberwal says he can’t disclose how many people are employed there now, but he says there are four people whose full-time job is to facilitate connections between people.

Of course, facilitating connections between people is Union Member House’s whole mission. It’s neither a standard coworking space nor a country club, but it functions as both—a place for people willing to pay for access to an attractive space where you can never be totally sure whether you’re at work or not. Caberwal isn’t really concerned about people who take issue with the name or concept. He’s selling connections, and he’s confident that there are buyers.

Photo at top courtesy of Union Member House.

Early voter turnout on track to double from 2014 midterm election

In Durham County, the number of ballots cast during early voting is likely to be double that of the 2014 midterm election, according to Derek Bowens, director of elections at the Board of Elections.

In 2014, about 15 percent of registered voters (33,291 of 209,797) took part in early voting. By the end of Monday, 23 percent (53,322 of 230,326) had cast their ballots.

Bowens said that he expects 70,000 people will vote before the end of early voting on Nov. 3.

“This is a huge expansion of early voting,” said Gunther Peck, a Duke professor and volunteer for Durham for Organizing Action, which lists “Resisting Trump and Trumpism in all forms” as one of its priorities. “That’s a direct reflection of the strength of local organizing as well as voter enthusiasm.”

In Durham, Peck said, the vote is heavily Democratic as the county gets bluer. However, this is not the case across North Carolina.

“Republicans are not likely to mobilize in Durham because it’s the bluest county in the state,” Peck said. “Statewide, there’s much less evidence of a blue wave. A lot of Republicans are turning out in Republican strongholds.”

Bowens attributes this year’s voter enthusiasm to the current political environment.

“Some of the narratives we’re engaging in are encouraging people to come out and make their voices heard,” Bowens said. “People are fired up.”

Another explanation for increased early voter turnout is that Durham County has a longer early voting period and more early voting sites compared to the 2014 midterm election. This year, the early voting period lasts 18 days instead of 10, and there are additional early voting sites at the East Regional Library and Duke University.

Former Durham councilman calls for ringing bells on 100th anniversary of Armistice Day

Durham’s first public historian hopes to honor the upcoming 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of World War I, by ringing bells across the city.

Former Durham City Councilman Eddie Davis asked the Durham County Board of Commissioners to adopt a resolution to promote awareness for what he called Bells Across Durham County. The effort — also happening around the world — calls on houses of worship, civic organizations and other groups to ring bells Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. to honor the armistice that ended the war.

“People from Durham did go to the war, people from Durham did sacrifice their lives during this war, so we ought to honor those people who were involved,” Davis told the 9th Street Journal.

Davis said in a prepared statement at the meeting that the war’s veterans should be honored because they fought to defend democracy. Davis said he expects the board to decide on the proposed resolution within the next month.

A former public school teacher, Davis served on the city council from 2013 to 2017 before opting not to run for another term.