Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Marcia Owen, vigilant against violence, with care for its victims

CorrespondentJuly 6, 2013 


“When I’m quiet and listening to the universe, it’s like I can hear the blood crying from the ground. I can hear that suffering," says Marcia Owen, who has organized hundreds of vigils for murder victims as director of the Coalition for Nonviolent Durham, based on North Driver Street. She is outside the office here on Friday, July 5, 2013.

CHUCKY LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Marcia Owen

    Born: Aug. 18, 1955, in Durham

    Career: Executive director, Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham; former executive at Soho Natural Soda

    Education: B.A., history, Duke University

    Publications: Co-author with Samuel Wells of “Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence”

    Family: Husband, Robert Truesdale; sons, Linus Owen-Garney and Tom Truesdale

    Fun fact: Owen’s husband, a geologist at Research Triangle Institute, also plays bass in a band called the Duke Street Dogs. Made up of pals he’s had since high school, the band has a regular gig at the Blue Note Grill playing a mix of blues, gospel and other genres.

— Not long after Robin Oliver’s 21-year-old son was fatally shot in front of her home in the Bluefield neighborhood, a stranger paid her a visit.

Marcia Owen brought flowers and food. She listened as Oliver talked about her son. Eventually, she helped plan a candlelight vigil that drew more than 50 people – many of whom had never met DeAndre Oliver – to Oliver’s yard late last month.

Owen, 57, has attended hundreds of such vigils over her 20 years with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. She works with families to mark violent deaths with public mourning, including larger annual events that honor all those killed in the past year.

In addition to the vigils, the coalition has employed various means to stem the violence that engulfs some Durham neighborhoods and to ease the pain of those touched by it – community roundtables, youth programs, help for families of victims and inmates leaving the prison system.

Owen also co-authored a book on nonviolence that chronicles the wisdom she has gleaned as the longtime director of the coalition. Through it all, she says, the problem has only become more personal.

“When I’m quiet and listening to the universe, it’s like I can hear the blood crying from the ground,” Owen says. “I can hear that suffering.”

She has learned that violence is not a problem that can be paired with a single solution. And she has chosen to attack it on the most personal of levels, by witnessing the heartache that comes in its wake and building relationships among those who want to fight it.

“We seek to address the needs that violence creates,” Owen says. “And there are a lot of needs, including my need and the need of our community to stop this violence, because this should not be happening here or anywhere else.”

So far this year, 13 people have been killed in Durham – all of them black males, according to the Durham police. Last year, the city had 22 homicides.

At the June 29 vigil, the group passed around candles and shared stories and prayers – both remembering DeAndre Oliver, who left behind a 5-month-old daughter, and decrying the cycle of violence of which his death was a part.

Among the speakers was 70-year-old Lindsey Riley, whose own son died 15 years ago. He says the work of the coalition, including a vigil, helped him feel that his son’s death was not only a personal tragedy.

“It’s a comfort to see that the community is there with you,” Riley says.

Allen Jones, a coalition member, says Owen helps to spread the word that the largely black-on-black crime in Durham matters to people of all races and backgrounds.

“She brings the reality of the homicides and the deaths to focus in a light that brings people together,” says Jones, who is black. “Her passion is genuine.”

Returning to her hometown

Owen grew up in Durham, the child of progressive Methodists. She was part of the first integrated class at Hillside High School, among a minority of white students to attend a school that was formerly for black students only.

Many of the friends she knew from elementary and middle school went to private schools or moved to a different area instead, but her parents felt strongly that she stay.

“My parents kept saying, ‘Marcia, if things were really equal, they wouldn’t be separate’ ” she recalls. “My parents were good, authentic Christians. They got the meaning of it, and they lived it.”

She studied Chinese history at Duke and then went to New York City, where she helped start a natural soda company with a group of women.

Owen says her activism began in New York, when she was involved in efforts to help victims of the then-rampant AIDS epidemic.

‘My eyes were opened’

She continued that work when she returned to Durham, and it was then that she was exposed to the gun violence in her hometown. Through connections with AIDS activists, she made friends with a woman who showed her gunshot holes sprayed across her MacDougal Terrace home.

“My eyes were opened, and I started reading about these same things every other week,” Owen says. “It was unbelievable to me that this was happening.”

Owen’s approach to Durham’s violence problem has changed dramatically over the years.

When she first started working with the coalition as a volunteer, the group of faith leaders from across Durham tried unsuccessfully to push legislation that would restrict the sale of guns at the federal, state or local level.

“We lost over and over again on gun control,” Owen says. “But we would come together and say we can’t just live with this without a response.”

Why vigils matter, work

A visitor to one of the organization’s monthly roundtables suggested they hold vigils for murder victims, and the group immediately ran with the concept.

The vigils work on several levels. They raise awareness of the violence among the general public, and humanize the victims by allowing their stories to be told.

And they offer a chance for people who seek to address violence as a social problem with those who suffer from it directly. Owen says she has come to see this last role, of connecting people who might not otherwise cross paths, as one of her most important ones.

“I used to think I could look at a problem and come up with a solution and have a change,” Owen says. “But problems between human beings are best understood in relationships. Sometimes we need to just be with one another and affirm one another’s dignity and listen.”

Meeting the needs

After years as a volunteer, Owen is one of the coalition’s two part-time employees. Beyond organizing the vigils and other events, her days involve a lot of visiting, keeping in touch with victims’ families, religious leaders and others who are working to curb the violence.

She guides families as they navigate the court system, brings them meals, and helps them in whatever ways they need most, from finding counseling to buying a gravestone.

The coalition also runs faith teams that help inmates leaving the prison system in the same way – even those who have killed others.

Owen says such contradictions are natural to a problem that sprawls far beyond the criminal justice system. For her, tackling violence in the long term would mean addressing economic disparities and a host of other issues.

“It’s about mental health, public schools, race,” Owen says. “If you touch this, you end up touching everything.”

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