Durham News

June 15, 2014

Walkout forces Durham’s anti-poverty project rethink

Stating in no uncertain terms that they felt undervalued and under-represented, about a dozen residents of Census Tract 10.01 stood last week and walked out of a meeting on Mayor Bill Bell’s program of poverty relief. Their words and action reined in the effort Bell has made the city’s top priority, and sent Bell and other officials away to re-think how the “Poverty Reduction Initiative” is organized and run.

Saying they felt undervalued and under-represented, about a dozen residents of Census Tract 10.01 stood last week and walked out of a meeting on Mayor Bill Bell’s poverty-relief project.

“When are you going to take us seriously?” said Steve Hopkins, who has lived in long-depressed Northeast Central Durham for more than 20 years. “Where are our people? This is our neighborhood!”

By consensus of those who remained at the meeting, the walkout and the words that preceded it put a hold on what Bell has made the city’s top priority, forcing the mayor and other officials to re-think how the “Poverty Reduction Initiative” is organized and run.

“There’s no accountability,” said Clarence Terry, who walked out with other members of the grassroots Communities In Partnership, an organization of Northeast Central Durham residents. “There is no process for community signoff on any initiative.”

‘Lack of credibility’

Since proposing the initiative in his February State of the City speech, Bell has said residents’ voices would be important in the still-undefined effort to improve the quality of life in the two poor sections of impoverished Tract 10.01 east of Alston Avenue.

Tract 10.01 covers a large part of Northeast Central Durham, an area of more than 80 blocks between downtown and U.S. 70 which the city targeted for revitalization more than 20 years ago. Several plans and studies since then have left the area still poor and crime-ridden.

“Part of the issue is, there is a lack of credibility and trust,” said resident Camryn Smith.

The walkout prompted a swell of support from those who remained at the meeting, one of three scheduled last week for initiative leaders and volunteers to plan a course of action.

“The process here is going to be changed to ensure that the Northeast Central Durham community is going to be heard or I’m going to have to raise some hell,” said retired District Court Judge Craig Brown.

Although Bell suggested the meeting continue as planned, others disagreed.

“I know that you want to go on with this here today, but we just need to regroup, Mr. Mayor,” said Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden. “I love you and I want this to work. But it cannot work without the people we’re trying to help.”

Bell agreed to cancel the third planning meeting and put off any more until more neighborhood people are brought in.

“We’ve got to find a way to reach them in a better way than we’ve done now. I heard that,” he said. “Trust me, I’m not just saying words.”

Left out of leadership

One of the residents’ greatest complaints is that, despite what has been said about involving them, no one from the tract is in the initiative’s leadership. Bell set up six task forces, each led by an elected member of the City Council, Board of County Commissioners or school board.

Only two tract residents appeared on the task forces’ initial rosters, and, while inivitations have been issued and more have joined, planning has been government controlled and meetings for the most part called to suit the schedules of public employees and voluteers from more affluent parts of Durham.

“When you plan a meeting at 3:30 in the afternoon you’re not going to get community representatives here,” said Tract 10.01 homeowner Ernest Smith. “We’ve seen this process over and over in Durham and if you don’t want to hear from the community, then we don’t need to be here.”

The meeting that Smith and the others walked out of was the second of three planned afternnon sessions, three hours each, of “focused conversation” for task force members to devise a “neighborhood vision” and “a winning strategy to realize the vision.”

“You have people who aren’t even part of the community defining the history of the community,” Smith said.

Redefining needed

Bell picked Census Tract 10.01 as the initiative target after a University of North Carolina study listed it as a “distressed urban tract,” and because the availability of census data would be helpful in measuring progress.

But Erik Landfried, a Triangle Transit planner who volunteered for the Initiative, said that might need rethinking, too.

“This is not how people define where they live,” Landfried said. “It needs to be redefined to words ... that people understand and the communities understand.”

Last week’s meetings were scheduled after the city held five “neighborhood listening sessions” to hear resident opinions. Attendance, according to Community Engagement Coordinator Nick Allen, ranged from eight to 25, but no count was taken of how many were from Tract 10.01 and how many were outsiders.

Ernest Smith said few were residents at the city sessions, but about 75 turned out for a Saturday-night “town hall” which Communities in Partnership organized and which Bell and several others attended with the understanding they were invited to sit and listen.

Before leaving, Smith said Communities In Partnership’s monthly neighborhood potlucks would be a place for officials and Initiative voluneers to meet and hear the community.

Volunteer B. Angeloe Burch, a minister and director of the African American Dance Ensemble, said he, for one, would go.

“Before I stand in the pulpit and preach about going to hell,” he said, “I want to deal with the folk who are living in it.”

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