East Durham speaks its own mind at anti-poverty meeting

06/09/2014 12:53 PM

02/15/2015 11:26 AM

To hear what the people of East Durham think would help alleviate its poverty, Durham officials held five “listening sessions” for residents to speak their minds.

To make sure Durham officials hear what the people of East Durham think would help alleviate its poverty, the people held one of their own. What was said was pretty much the same. The difference was, who was running the show.

“One of the eye-opening things for me was the amount of turnout we had,” said County Manager Wendell Davis.

Attendance at the city Neighborhood Improvement Services Department’s five listening sessions ranged from 8 to 25, according to Community Engagement Coordinator Nick Allen.

Davis estimated there were about 75 at the town hall meeting, organized and promoted by Communities in Partnership, an informal organization of East Durham residents who began coming together after a drive-by shooting left two children wounded in their home.

“We live, love and work in Old East Durham; we love this community,” said Ernest Smith, a Park Avenue homeowner who moderated the town hall meeting May 31.

Mayor Bill Bell made poverty relief, “neighborhood-by-neighborhood, year-by-year” a top priority in his State of the City address in February. Since then, he has created task forces led by city, county and public-school officials and they have begun organizing themselves to deal with jobs, public safety, housing, education, finance and health, focused on Census Tract 10.01.

Tract 10.01 covers a large section of Northeast Central Durham, an 84-block area east of Alston Avenue that the city designated as a top priority district for revitalization more than 20 years ago.

To those who live there, census tract and block groups mean little. “It’s all Northeast,” said resident and community organizer Steve Hopkins. And at the Northeast Central Durham Town Hall, neighbors were seated according to their particular, traditional neighborhoods: Albright, Old East Durham, Old Five Points, Sherwood Park, Y.E. Smith and so on.

“There was a need,” Smith said later, “for the community to have that opportunity to speak and to be encouraged to be involved.”

Some familiar, general issues – jobs, vocational training, irresponsible landlords, sudden evictions, trash – came out as residents described troubles the authorities should address.

Some, though, were very particular – a bus stop moved from a convenient location to one that is not; a city youth-job program that was abruptly discontinued this summer; and the sense that youngsters feel unwelcome at the Holton Center, which local governments and institutions developed just to be a neighborhood resource.

Bell and City Councilman Eddie Davis, two of several city and county officials who attended, said nothing they heard was really surprising.

“Folks seemed pleased they had a chance to talk about things from their own perspectives,” Davis said. “I’m glad there were (official) ears and not tongues.”

The thing that impressed Councilman Steve Schewel was the devotion he heard residents express for their neighborhood and their drive to make it better on their own.

Bell opened the meeting by describing the “Reducing Poverty Neighborhood by Neighborhood” project. After that, though, it was a ground rule that officials just sit and listen.

“That was important,” said Smith, who attended a project kickoff breakfast Bell called in March.

“He had a lot of institutional folks and introduced the formation to start this. He invited one or two community folks and so they were starting to form committees, and the voices of the people most affected weren’t at the table,” he said.

Without them, “You’re not going to get a good solution,” Smith said.

“You’re going to get an institutional perspective and you’re going to get a lot of ‘They, they, this, they, they that,” but you won’t have that perspective and we felt like that was important.”

After that breakfast, Smith said, “A few of us began to organize and say we need to make sure that community folks are heard. And after we started making noise about doing that, interestingly enough, the city said, ‘Oh, we’ll have Neighborhood Improvement Services do some community listening sessions.’ ”

Smith was skeptical how well those official listening sessions represented Northeast Central Durham. And, he was not ready to say that those officials who sat and listened at the town hall had really got the people’s message.

“But they were present,” he said, “so that was a very positive thing.”

Hopkins said the town hall meeting accomplished its purpose.

“What we were planning for, hoping for, was to inform the community, number one. Number two, to get feedback from the community on what they thought about the (mayor’s) project, which we did.”

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