Everyone can think back to a time, Nia Wilson says, when neighbors looked out for each other and communities held their members accountable: if the old lady sitting on her porch, say, saw a kid acting up, she’d tell the mom. Students misbehaving in school landed in the principal’s office, where they faced appropriate consequences. There was no need to escalate minor situations by involving the police.
“Bringing accountability back to ourselves and to each other is our goal of this kind of work. It’s returning to what we already know,” Wilson says. “We’re not creating something new, we’re trying to resurrect something we remember and bring it back to what was.”
Wilson is the executive director of SpiritHouse, a community organizing nonprofit founded and led by African-American women that boasts 16 years of history in Durham. Among its missions is Harm Free Durham, an ongoing initiative that aims to create more community-driven accountability rather than lean too heavily on law enforcement or the court system. Minorities are disproportionally arrested and imprisoned, statistics and figures that SpiritHouse keeps handy show, and Wilson finds this unacceptable.
Through book studies, education, and community organizing, SpiritHouse aims to empower neighborhoods, improve the way people of color are treated in the justice system and other institutions, and focus on the needs of Durham’s culturally, ethnically and economically diverse population.
“I think it’s really important to listen to the community,” says Cultural Alchemist Tia Hall, her title at the organization reflective of SpiritHouse’s neighborhood-level mission. “A lot of times, decisions made for the community are made by people not in that community, or when they’re here they’re not really listening to things being said: they’re listening with a solution in mind.”
So SpiritHouse educates. It organizes citywide book studies in Durham. In the first one this year, 13 churches and organizations participated, reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” By the second, which focused on Mindy Fullilove’s “Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-out Cities,” the number of participating organizations had grown to 22. Another book study starts in February, with the book still to be determined.
Rather than rush to react, then, SpiritHouse lays foundations and takes the long view.
“A lot of community organizing comes through issue-based campaigns,” Wilson says. “We are not issue-based. We are family-centered and community-centered, which means we will be around for a long time.” The needs of the community shift, she says, and SpiritHouse responds to these shifting needs.
Stability and long-term relationships are central to what they do: Middle-schoolers Wilson worked with are now finishing college and returning to the community to volunteer. They are returning to a different Durham, one celebrated for its upscale restaurants and hip downtown, changes driving up housing prices and rents citywide.
“Gentrification isn’t something that just happens. It’s rooted in history, it’s rooted in the structural history of our government,” Hall says. SpiritHouse teaches about practices like redlining, in which housing and services are purposely priced out of the range of people based on race or ethnicity. Racially divided neighborhoods result.
“I prefer to use the word displacement,” Wilson says. “Incarceration is definitely another form of displacement.”
With its focus on long-term education and community organization, SpiritHouse gives people from all parts of Durham the foundation to get involved in their city. The people who were involved in book studies are the people who show up at City Council meetings, or who came out to support Carlos Riley Jr., a Durham man accused of shooting a police officer in the leg. He was eventually acquitted of all but one charge.
“As a community, people who read the book (“New Jim Crow”) were very interested in the dynamics of policing in our community and wanted to get involved,” Hall says. It can be eye-opening to see what young people of color deal with on a daily basis, she says, particularly for people without those experiences.
“You can’t experience just a little bit of that and walk away untouched,” she says. “It’s helped provide a new lens and another layer of accountability. We’re all in this together.”
P.O. Box 61865
Durham, NC 27715
Contact: Nia Wilson, 919-697-8090
Description: SpiritHouse is a multigenerational, black-women-led organization. We use culture, art and media to support the empowerment of communities impacted by racism and poverty. Our strategies, which include cultural organizing and coalition building, are based in community customs, culture and practices.
Donations needed: Projector.
$10 would buy: Snacks for our 15-week Harm Free Zone community training.
$20 would buy: One book for a community member to participate in our 15-week Harm Free Zone citywide book study.
$50 would: Go toward a scholarship for one community member to attend our 15-week Harm Free Zone community training.