In Spring 1972, Duke undergraduates decided to elect Steve Schewel, Trinity ’73, as their student body president. This fall, a new generation of Duke students is faced with that decision again—this time, as Schewel runs for mayor of Durham.
Since earning his undergraduate degree from Duke, Schewel has maintained strong ties with the University and Durham. Schewel went on to receive his Ph.D. in Education from Duke in 1982, and was a visiting assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy from 2000 until last semester. He has also been on several boards and councils around Durham, most notably as a member of the Durham City Council since 2011.
Schewel wants to address three issues in Durham in his platform for mayor—how to make sure everyone is included as Durham prospers, how to project Durham's values into the world and how to maintain the small-city quality of life as Durham grows.
Duke in Durham
He noted that the first issue is making sure that “the city we love is a city for all.” This includes affordable housing, the kinds of jobs residents have and transportation to these jobs, as well as the wages that they are paid, he said.
Schewel commended Duke for increasing its minimum wage to $15 an hour, emphasizing the huge impact the University would have on Durham as it is the city's largest employer. However, he noted that Duke could increase its support of the public bus system. Thousands of people are riding the bus to Duke, which saves the University money, he noted.
“Duke is huge—it’s enormous—and it pays no taxes, and yet it receives all the benefits of Durham,” Schewel said. “When Duke does pay for various services, one of the questions is what services Duke should be paying for.”
Schewel added that Duke could also be more involved in affordable housing work in Durham. He noted that the University has supported affordable housing through land banking, but that it could be more of a contributor.
However, he also emphasized more positive impacts that Duke has had on Durham, including the revitalization of downtown Durham.
“The renaissance in downtown Durham would not have been possible had Duke not decided very consciously to move some of its offices downtown and to really provide the anchor for a lot of downtown’s redevelopment,” Schewel said.
Projecting the city's values
The second part of Schewel’s platform is addressing how Durham projects its values of diversity and peacefulness to the world, while examining how residents live those values at home.
He noted that an example would be Durham adopting a sustainability plan if Trump officially pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, something Trump promised in June. Another example, Schewel added, would be utilizing what he calls “Durham work-arounds," a solution to the problem of mass incarceration and high recidivism rates.
“For example, we have our misdemeanor diversion court, which diverts people from our regular court system and gives them community service or something like that that keeps them out of the criminal justice system if they had some sort of small offense,” he said.
This is not the first time that Schewel has considered national issues at a local level. As a student, he was deeply involved in the anti-war movement and the women’s movement.
Schewel’s third platform plank is enhancing Durham’s small-city way of life as its population grows. Parks, trails and bicycle infrastructure are part of his plan for enhancing the quality of life, he said.
Schewel also emphasized the importance of Durham’s tree canopy. The tree canopy is old, with the willow oaks that line Durham’s streets being planted around 80 to 90 years ago. But thanks to this tree canopy, over 50 percent of the city is currently in shade, Schewel noted. Equitably replenishing the canopy is one of his priorities.
“If you look at the old red-lining maps from the 1930s, you’ll see that those neighborhoods that were red-lined from banking—from people not being able to get loans for their mortgages and so forth—those same neighborhoods are bereft of a tree canopy," Schewel explained.
He also noted that because Durham's population is expected to nearly double in the next 30 years, having good transportation systems is essential. This includes improving any means of transportation that doesn't involve getting in a car—buses, rail, bicycle trails and sidewalks.
“We are already in gridlock at rush-hour on the way to Raleigh and on the way to Chapel Hill,” he said. “We will have way more than that unless we have a good transportation system that can help us keep the quality of life that we have now.”
Impact at Duke
Schewel’s colleagues at Duke emphasized that they think he would be an excellent leader for Durham.
Mac McCorkle, associate professor of the practice in Sanford, said that he is Schewel's friend and supporter. McCorkle—who has seen Schewel in a variety of roles and settings—believes he would make a great mayor.
“He understands Durham," McCorkle said. "He’s been part of making a modern Durham with The Independent and just been involved in the center of a lot of progressive achievements that the city has made. He fits Durham like a glove.”
Alma Blount, director of the Hart Leadership Program in Sanford, wrote in an email that she has known for Schewel for nearly 40 years and endorses him personally in her role as a resident of Durham and a voter.
Junior Rachel Rubin, who took a class taught by Blount and Schewel her first year, wrote in an email that Schewel and Blount—or as they insisted their students, Steve and Alma—inspired her love for the city.
“I began to love Durham by watching Steve love Durham," Rubin wrote.
Senior Lisa Guraya, who was part of a two semester political leadership program with Schewel, echoed Rubin’s sentiments—noting that his qualities as a professor can be translated into the necessary qualities for a mayor.
“The passion that he brings in the classroom is the same passion that he brings to deal with issues regarding whatever in Durham,” Guraya said.
As for Schewel, he looks fondly upon his 17 years teaching at Duke.
“It’s such a gift to be able to teach Duke undergraduates,” Schewel said. “That is also a big part of my life—the ability to interact with students who are really smart and committed to making a better world, working with them and being able to teach them.”