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Professor Schewel reflects on activist career and potential mayoral run

<p>Steve Schewel has&nbsp;served on the Durham Public Schools’ Board of Education and the Durham City Council.</p>

Steve Schewel has served on the Durham Public Schools’ Board of Education and the Durham City Council.

One of Duke’s own might soon be in the running to be Durham’s next mayor.

Mayor Bill Bell announced last year that his current eighth two-year term would be his last. Assuming Bell’s plans do not change, Steve Schewel, Trinity ’73 and a visiting assistant professor of public policy, told The Chronicle he intends to run in the next mayoral election. A mayoral candidacy would only be the latest step in a career that has been dedicated to activism and improving the Durham community.

“If Bill does not run, my plan is to run for mayor,” Schewel said.

After graduating from Duke with a Ph.D. in education in 1982, Schewel has given back to the Durham community in numerous ways including founding the Independent Weekly newspaper, serving on the Durham Public Schools’ Board of Education and his most recent service on the Durham City Council.

‘Young idealist’

Schewel’s commitment to social issues began at Duke. As a student, he was deeply involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement as well as the women’s movement. At the time, women on campus faced different social regulations than men—such as not being allowed to stay out as late—and it was harder for women to get admitted to Duke, Schewel said.

As president of Associated Students of Duke University—what is now Duke Student Government—Schewel noted that he fought for the equality in social regulations and the admissions process.

“Duke was a place for me to be an activist,” he said.

However, he noted that the University was relatively closed off from the Durham community at the time. Much of Schewel’s activist work came after he left Duke.

In 1980, Schewel was part of a group—dubbed the “Raleigh 17”—that protested the impending construction of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant, then operated by the Carolina Power and Light Company and now by Duke Energy. Schewel was arrested and sentenced to eight days in jail following the protest. 

During this saga, Schewel said he noticed unfavorable media coverage from the traditional press, and after finishing his Duke Ph.D., aimed to create a news source better reflecting the group’s mission. Thus, after struggling to achieve the capital necessary to finance such an operation, he began the Independent Weekly in 1983.

“A progressive paper with a progressive editorial voice,” Schewel said. “It was a bunch of young idealists who were trying to make a difference in the world.”

Schewel brought both heart and determination to the paper, said Susan Harper, current publisher of the Indy Week as it is now called. She noted that Schewel would drive pages to the printer and then later deliver the paper in the early days.

Harper added that Schewel was adept at crafting an inclusive community by uniting the paper’s small staff around a common goal.

“Everyone was serving a part in serving the mission and in improving things in the Triangle,” Harper said. “ It wasn’t just the people writing the edits, the people selling the ads, the people managing the books. That’s important in a small organization like this—you’re not doing it for the big pay day, you’re doing it for the mission.”

While Schewel was president—up until 2012 when he sold the paper—the Independent tackled issues such as big tobacco, the death penalty and Jesse Helms, a former conservative North Carolina senator.

The paper has won numerous journalistic accolades—including the George Polk Award for environmental reporting, the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award and the Green Eyeshade Award for the best journalism in the Southeast.

‘Social justice leader’

Schewel has also pursued Durham’s interests on various governmental bodies—including the DPS Board of Education from 2004 to 2008 and the Durham City Council starting 2011 and continuing today.

When running to be on the BOE, Schewel said he was interested in the question of how to provide 30,000 students with a good education while combatting poverty, which afflicted many families in DPS.

Schewel noted that finding community partners willing to work with the school system and support its students is of the utmost importance.

“It’s not a secret how you provide a good education,” Schewel said. “You have a great teacher in every classroom, with plenty of administrative support, excellent social services support and really good facilities. It just takes the support of the community. “

Getting such support—especially financial—was difficult, he said, as middle-class parents often head to private schools and take their capital with them.

To help the districts, Schewel helped create the non-profit Crayons2Calculators—which operates a free warehouse where DPS teachers can come and get school supplies—in 2006 with the help of Duke students.

The program has given away more than a million dollars in supplies, Schewel said.

Schewel was part of a trio who joined the BOE in 2004 along with current board member Minnie Forte-Brown and current chair Heidi Carter.

“We were not looked favorably upon, coming in together with the same ideological bent,” Forte-Brown said. “But that was what Durham deserved—better leadership and governance in order to move the needle.”

Forte-Brown noted that she had known Schewel since they had both helped students transition to college at North Carolina Central University’s Academic Skills Center. She described him best as a “social justice leader.”

Among the goals Schewel and others advocated for was lowering dropout rates, creating an early-college high school for first-generation students and focusing on high-need students and equity considerations. Many of these were included in the board’s “theory of action”—of which Schewel was the primary writer, Forte-Brown said.

All this at a time when there was disharmony on the board and resistance to change, Schewel said.

Forte-Brown noted that the trio aimed to move past these issues by fostering community conversations and seeking out information—for example, through “red carpet events” that invited parents to dine with board members.

Giving back to Duke

While juggling all of these endeavors, Schewel has also come full circle and served as a professor at Duke since 2000. He has taught various courses on topics such as the Vietnam War, terrorism and the relationship between national security and privacy.

Currently, Schewel teaches a course titled “Leadership, Policy and Change,” which focuses on social engineering and social movements. Along with experiential aspects, Schewel said he aims to expose his students to a wide variety of sources.

“I believe that the best education is 15 students in a classroom with a professor and a lot of fabulous books and films," he said. "In that course in particular, I use a lot of history, some fiction, some psychology and some current journalism.”

Junior Lisa Guraya, who took Schewel’s class last semester, noted that Schewel was remarkably detailed in providing students with comments on their work so they could really understand where a grade came from.

She also said that Schewel made students think carefully and precisely about the words they used before sharing their thoughts, often pressing them further and for more detail.

“A lot of times people say things to hear themselves talk, and he kind of taught us to think before you say anything,” she said.

City Council member Don Moffitt agreed with Guraya in noting Schewel’s attention to detail—which he said Schewel exhibits in his council work by diving into the information “more than anyone has any right to expect.”

“If we’re presented with an ocean of material, I might stay 10 feet at the top, and Steve’s out there scuba-diving at 50 feet,” Moffitt said.

A three-tier platform

Schewel identified three key concerns that drive his agenda on the city council and might drive a potential mayoral campaign.

First, Durham must fight for fair police forces that are free from discrimination, he said. To this end, Schewel and the council now require that officers obtain written consent before conducting vehicle searches.

The council has also been working on finalizing a body camera policy—which Schewel said he expects will allow anyone captured on video to be able to view the recording. In addition, it would allow an independent review body to decide when and how video gets released publicly.

Second, Schewel noted that Durham needs to work towards affordable housing as greater demand raises housing prices in Durham. One of the initiatives Schewel is most proud of, he said, is Durham’s almost-completed goal of ending homelessness for veterans. He is currently working to compile a list of properties that could be eligible for affordable housing tax-credits or subsidies.

Third, Durham needs to become healthier and more attractive for residents, he said. Some of Schewel’s many ideas on this front included more sidewalks, more ball fields, more bicycle infrastructure and a tree canopy equitably distributed over the city.

Should he run for mayor, Schewel noted that he hopes to continue these discussions with individual community residents as he has while serving on the council.

“I really like talking to people about the city and its future,” Schewel said. “I like the one-to-one.”

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