Durham News

May 16, 2014

Reducing poverty, as the mayor sees it

Recently, The Durham News spoke with Mayor Bill Bell about the “neighborhood by neighborhood” initiative to reduce poverty in Durham. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

In his 2014 State of the City speech, Mayor Bill Bell set “reducing poverty in our city, neighborhood by neighborhood, year by year, starting in 2014” as a “key priority.” Since then, Bell has made followup presentations to various civic and neighborhood groups and created six task forces of citizen volunteers, city and county government staff members and elected officials.

The task forces, on education, finance, health, housing, jobs and public safety, are organizing themselves. Meanwhile, the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Services department is holding a series of “listening sessions” at which residents of Census Tract 10.01 are invited to speak their minds on what their neighborhoods need, with public officials allowed to attend but not to say anything.

Recently, The Durham News spoke with the mayor about the “neighborhood by neighborhood” initiative. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Q. Reducing poverty in Durham, neighborhood by neighborhood, year by year – that’s a very big undertaking and very open-ended. You have said it would be up to the six different task forces to come up with their ideas (of) how to measure success, but you must have some idea what changes you would like to see.

A. I do, and again, I don’t want to be heavy-handed with the task forces. I really want them to take ownership of their particular area that they’re handling. ...

I like to quantify measurements. So, if you talk about housing, I could see looking at the status of housing in that area in terms of are they up to code, are they not up to code? How many are boarded up, how many are vacant? And where would we like to see that level of housing six months from now, maybe a year from now? That’s just one indication of how it could be a benchmark.

I’m not saying it needs to happen, but – in education, there’s a whole broad area you could set benchmarks for. How many kids are in pre-K, how many are eligible for pre-K, how many a year from now? That’s a longitudinal thing. ... In terms of jobs, that’s pretty obvious, you know. If you can tell how many people are employed now, what kind of a goal would you like to set as far as seeing that employment increase? But again, that’s the type of detail that the task force would get into.

So, the question people will raise is, “You said ‘reducing poverty’ ..., after a certain period of time has that been reduced? That may not have been reduced, but I think the qualities of livability that people go through that are in poverty such as housing, education, jobs, public safety, health and finance, are areas that can represent improvement for people ...

who are in poverty while they’re trying to get out of poverty.

Q. How do you see your own role in the campaign?

A. I don’t want to say I’m steering it because I’m not steering it, but I think that I’ll be able to work across all sectors to hopefully bring this stuff together and keep it focused on what its objective is.

I’ve said it and I don’t think people really grasp it, but it’s not an overnight accomplishment. It’s not months, it’s really years and that’s hard for some people to imagine and some people to stick with.

Q. Why is it so important to go out and have these listening sessions, to bring in the people who live in these two block groups?

A. We sat around that table (at City Hall) and talked about the issues but none of the people who live in those issues were there. I think you’ve got to get their feedback and their input as to what are the real issues in living in poverty in those particular areas we’re talking about. ...

We’ve got to work in a partnership to make this happen. I don’t think we can do it by ourselves. I don’t think we as a task force can go out and say “This is what’s going to happen” without having the support of the individuals. ...

Q. I’ve heard this term “poverty mindset,” referring to people who don’t have much income, don’t see much way out of it and don’t have a conception that there may be a way out of it. How do you expect the task forces and the city in general gain the empathy and to gain the trust of these people?

A. I think a lot of this is going to have to be on the one-on-one type basis. Relationships are going to have to be developed. I think we start with whoever the leadership is in those communities. That might be hard to define, but I guess we’ll get a sense of that when we hear back from (the listening sessions) about the input we got back and just as important who were the people that were attending that were providing the type of input. ...

I think that gets to the issue you raised, it’s more one-on-one, demonstrating and explaining and really helping people understand here’s how the system works and here’s how you can make it work to your advantage. ...

Q. Changing mindsets can be pretty difficult.

A. Especially when that mindset is 24/7 for some people. ...Some, it might not be 24/7 because they get a break away from it if they’re in school or maybe they’re at work. But if you’re coming right back into it, it is difficult.

We have people who are sort of generations of poverty. Their parents were born into it, they’re in it, and if they haven’t seen their parents break out of it then it’s a lot more difficult for them to see their way out of it unless they are shown a different path. Hopefully, the things we’re doing will show them here’s some of the paths you can take to improve your lifestyle.

Q. Have you ever had much direct exposure to poverty?

A. Yeah. I grew up around it.

I was born in Washington (D.C.), but I moved to Winston-Salem when I was 5. My parents had divorced and I went to live with my mother’s mother and father, my grandparents. I was fortunate, because my grandparents – they weren’t well off but they were comfortable.

... And the street that we lived on was 14th Street, and 14th Street at that time was probably similar to what Fayetteville Street was back during that time. Nice houses, big houses – but a block over, there was an area called Curry’s Alley. Curry’s Alley was basically shotgun houses, dirt streets, when it rained it was mud, liquor houses and all that other kind of stuff. And some of my best friends lived over in Curry’s Alley. ...

So I saw how they lived. They knew they were poor, but it was – a different type of poverty. It was something they accepted, they lived with and got along. You’d hear about – not gunshots, but somebody getting knifed every now and then, but none of the stuff you see now. ...

So yeah. Close up.

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