As one of Durham’s six mayoral candidates, Pierce Freelon sees himself as a bridge builder between generations and as an advocate for intersectional growth.
Born and raised in Durham, Freelon has had numerous involvements with the local and regional community, such as teaching courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founding Blackspace, a digital maker space for people to learn about music, and serving on local boards such as the North Carolina Arts Council.
'On the cusp of growth'
"Our platform principles are community, growth and youth," Freelon said. "We need jobs, safe and non-threatening streets and affordable housing for all of Durham's residents. We need to continue to be on the cusp of growth in sustainable and equity-centered ways."
Freelon named combatting racial disparities in the criminal justice system and identifying the disparate impacts of Durham's recent growth as important issues in his campaign. He said Durham's poverty rate for black and Latinx youth is "staggering" and pointed to the more than 800 evictions in the city per month as evidence of Durham's high income inequality.
“[Durham has] the highest income inequality in the state of North Carolina,” he said. “These are some serious issues that require some bold, creative and visionary leadership.”
Although none of the three major political action committees in Durham—Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Friends of Durham and the People’s Alliance—endorsed Freelon, other PACs have endorsed him, including Run for Something and Equality North Carolina, which also endorsed Steve Schewel.
'Wait your turn'
At 33, Freelon is the youngest of the mayoral candidates, more than a decade younger than the next youngest candidate.
“A big comment that I've heard from time to time is 'wait your turn.'” Freelon said. “I respond to that with my ancestors in mind: Martin Luther King Jr. who was 34 when he led the march on Washington, Patrice Lumumba the first democratically elected president of the Congo who was 34, Angela Davis who was organizing in her mid 20s.”
He also mentioned that he was the youngest member appointed by the governor to the North Carolina Arts Council.
Joshua Vincent, campaign manager of Pierce Freelon for Durham, commented on the significance of Freelon’s youth.
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“The average age of Durhamites is 32. The median age of City Council is about 62. There is a political representation gap,” Vincent said. “A potential challenge is we want to make sure that as many people vote as possible. Extending the access to young voters in Durham is important.”
Finding a 'balance' between past and future
Vincent became close to Freelon in 2014 after organizing a moment of silence for the death of Michael Brown and other victims of police brutality, in addition to working with Black Lives Matter.
“Because of Pierce Freelon's connections to the activist community here in Durham, his candidacy speaks to young folks in Durham, but also to poor, working class folks in Durham who might have felt that even under Mayor Bell they may not have had the voice who had their best interests there,” said Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American studies.
Neal, who originally met Freelon through his mother, also said that his ability to unite people would be important given the recent influx of migrants from the Northeast corridor.
“I think the city needs leadership that understands [how] to find a balance between historic Durham and the Durham we're starting to see literally grow up into the sky—into the future,” Neal said.
Vincent and Heather Cook, a community collaborator with Freelon, both noted his willingness to “seek input” before making decisions.
“I know him to be someone who will not speak on something that he's not knowledgeable on,” Cook said. “He knows better than to think he has the best ideas.”
'Seared in my mind'
Freelon named several people who have shaped his character, including Chuck Davis—founder and former artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble, his wife Katie—for her support—and Harvey Gantt—the first black mayor of Charlotte.
"In the 90s, my parents were very involved in the political campaign of Harvey Gantt, [who became] the first black mayor of Charlotte," Freelon said. "That race really seared in my mind the importance of stepping up for what's right and being a champion of principled opposition."
His parents—jazz musician Nnenna Freelon and architect Philip Freelon—raised Freelon in Durham. A self-proclaimed local, in his spare time, Freelon enjoys playing pick-up basketball, frequenting Skewers Bar and Grill and attending film festivals at the Carolina Theatre. While he believed that the venues and restaurants provided new opportunities to experience Durham’s creativity and diversity, he also recognized that the growth has been alongside some “alarming disparities.”
“Durham likes to think of itself as a progressive city,” Freelon said. “But it's time for some new blood and new ideas.”