Durham County

Bull City Politics: Jillian Johnson gets Racial Equity Task Force, but won't lead it

Durham City Council, left to right: Council member Vernetta Alston, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, Council member Charlie Reece, Mayor Steve Schewel, and Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton, Javiera Caballero and DeDreana Freeman.
Durham City Council, left to right: Council member Vernetta Alston, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, Council member Charlie Reece, Mayor Steve Schewel, and Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton, Javiera Caballero and DeDreana Freeman. City of Durham

Welcome to Bull City Politics, where I tell you what's going on in Durham and what your elected leaders are doing. Follow me on Twitter at @dawnbvaughan and #BullCitypol.

Racial equity on the table

One of Jillian Johnson's priorities since becoming mayor pro tem has been starting a Racial Equity Task Force.

Mayor Steve Schewel suggested she be the one to chair it. But that won't be happening after City Council members discussed who and how to appoint the group, which will spend the next year working to make sure as Durham grows and prospers, nobody gets left behind.

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Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson.

Johnson has been on council for more than two years. She was elected by her fellow council members as mayor pro tem at the same December meeting when Schewel and three new council members were sworn in. A mayor pro tem's role is largely symbolic; they stand in for the mayor when needed.

Her objectives for the Racial Equity Task Force:

Educate the community about the racially inequitable circumstances and outcomes that exist in Durham;

Research and collect public opinion on ways to address racial inequity that have worked well in other cities; and

Issue policy and funding recommendations to the city, other governmental bodies, non-governmental organizations, local businesses, and the community at-large to address racial inequity.

It's the third objective — policy and funding — that council member Mark-Anthony Middleton used to reason why an elected council member should not lead the task force. Just having a politician in the room could change the nature of the conversation, he said, so they should appoint a chair from the community instead.

Council member Vernetta Alston said having it community-led rather than institution-led was a great idea, in spirit with the group's charge.

Middleton agreed, saying having it community-led would help dispel any notion "we’re shaping what we vote on before we vote on it."

The task force is supposed to last one year. The application process hasn't started yet.

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Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

Middleton also thinks everyone on the task force should have taken racial equity training already or be planning to take it soon, and the rest of the council agreed. Council member DeDreana Freeman said there should be scholarships for the racial equity training so the cost is not a burden on the task force members. She also said just going to racial equity training "does not make you an equity expert."

Council member Charlie Reece said the task force should be an accountability board for the council.

Schewel, who is white, said they can make sure that a majority on the task force are people of color.

"As long as we’re on council, that stands. The reason institutional racism works is because it can’t be specified in a bylaws document," said Freeman who is African-American, as are Alston, Johnson and Middleton.

"It’s the most important work we’re doing in this city, now, so let’s do it now," Schewel said.

"If I had to choose a white mayor, you’d be it, man," Middleton quipped.

The City Council will vote on the bylaws for the Racial Equity Task Force at its June 18 meeting.

Former council candidate on city board

LeVon Barnes, who ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 2 Durham City Council seat, was appointed to the Citizens Advisory Committee. His term runs through June 2021. The 15-member committee works with the Community Development Department on community development block grants.

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LeVon Barnes

Barnes is not the only former council candidate who serves on a city board. John Rooks, who also ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 2 seat, serves on the Durham Human Relations Commission.

Mark-Anthony Middleton was elected the Ward 2 member of council in November 2017.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan
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