Local News

Progress made but more remains after a year of social change in Durham

Posted February 4, 2021 6:55 p.m. EST
Updated February 4, 2021 7:49 p.m. EST

The national backdrop of civil unrest this year came with a call to action to make a difference in local neighborhoods, homes and workplaces. Locally, it is what energized many to reinvent what the city of Durham looks like.

Elaine O’Neal, former chair of Durham's racial equity taskforce, believes many community issues are fixable with the right attitude.

"These are not hard issues, these are heart issues," O'Neal said. "And it’s not rocket science to solve."

O’Neal and Kaaran Haldeman sat on the city’s first racial equity taskforce. The group, formed long before 2020, provided the structure needed for a year like no other.

"We want racial equity to be a driver, not an afterthought," Haldeman said. "Not like something that gets tacked on at the end. It’s a way of seeing, it’s a way of crafting policy, it’s a [way] of ensuring ongoing dialogue."

And that they did, as Durham began to lead the charge for change.

Juneteenth became a paid holiday for employees. An ordinance was passed to protect people against hair discrimination in the workplace. Durham Public Schools employees received raises - and the list goes on.

Haldeman is encouraged, but quick to point out that the work isn't finished.

"Yeah, I think we just have to be careful about saying, 'well oh we’ve checked this off, this off, and this off. Now we’re done,'" Haldeman said.

Nia Wilson, executive director of the Durham organization SpiritHouse Inc., agrees progress has been made, but says it’s not enough. She believes the city and county need better partnerships with organizations like hers to invest in Black communities.

“It has been intentional divestment over decades and Durham has to reckon with that," Wilson said. "Some of the hoops that folks have to jump through in order to get support from the city or the county are things that folks cannot necessarily do.”

O'Neal says that despite the progress, she still sees inequities on a daily basis.

"I can’t be satisfied if one end of Main Street has million dollar apartments and you walk three blocks down and people are living in poverty," O'Neal said. "That unsettles my soul. We want the people who are closest to the pain to be closest to the power."

A racial equity commission is now in the works involving Durham County, the city, the school board and the community. This will be a more permanent initiative to address race-related issues.

"You see it moving, you feel it moving. It makes you feel good, but you know that the work is just on-going." Haldeman said.

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