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Durham mayoral candidates discuss engaging college students at Thursday forum

Four Durham mayoral candidates offered ideas on how to boost civic engagement amongst local college students at a candidate forum Thursday.

The mayoral hopefuls included Farad Ali, a business consultant and former city council member, Shea Ramirez, a tax preparer and entrepreneur, Steve Schewel, a member on the Durham City Council and Sanford School of Public Policy professor, and Reverend Sylvester Williams. Entitled "Visions for an Equitable and Vibrant City," the forum was held at city hall and co-sponsored by the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham, the Sanford School of Public Policy, the International City/County Management Association, North Carolina Central University and Duke Student Government

The candidates shared their perspectives on a number of economic and social issues in the Durham community, in addition to answering a question submitted by Duke Student Government on how they would better engage students in the city’s civic dialogues. 

“I do think there’s many things that the mayor can do to in general to increase public engagement and especially among students. Go to campus when you’re asked to.  Meet with students and try to get them involved,” Schewel said. “The mayor can do some things, but it’s not only the mayor that can do some things—you guys gotta do some things.”

Schewel explained that it is important for students to “go out [beyond] the walls”—whether it be finding nonprofits they want to work in or tutoring at schools in Durham in order to be more present as community members.  He said the main message he wants to send to students at Duke and other area universities is that Durham wants and needs them to be involved.

Other candidates shared similar sentiments.

“One thing I pride myself on is making myself available and open for anyone to talk to from Duke’s campus to [NC] Central’s campus to any campus,” Williams said. “I am there because I realize we are not the ones who should be setting policies for you, you should be setting policies for you.”

Ramirez also noted that the relationships built between Durham’s colleges and local government officials are key to generating new ideas for the city.

“I’m really big on relationship building. I believe that it’s very important to have all the local colleges, the community colleges involved—Central, Durham Tech, Duke,” she said.

Ali highlighted North Carolina Central as a university with a commitment to service embodied in its graduation requirements, noting that at NCCU students are required to complete 100 hours of community service prior to graduation.

“[NCCU’s] motto is truth and service and to really go back and give to the community in a way that can build,” Ali said. “I think for Duke students there’s also an opportunity to give back, we have lots of students here that are in our school system.”  

Ali noted that Durham has over 50 schools under its jurisdiction and that the city can help students in engaging with them. An adjunct professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he said that he has worked with undergraduates to "adopt" a school and perform service projects, stating that these programs are important to kids because they build their lives around social networks.

Pierce Freelon—an African American Studies professor at UNC—was one of two candidates not present at the event. The moderator told the audience that Freelon informed the event’s organizers Thursday afternoon that he could not attend. Freelon’s campaign could not be reached for comment in time for publication. 

Candidate Tracy Drinker was also absent and did not responding to the forum invitation.

In addition to conversations on student engagement with local government, the candidates discussed how some policies disproportionately benefit some parts of Durham’s population in favor of others—a theme the candidates also highlighted in a prior MayorUp! Forum on policing.

This forum drew attention from students after Duke Student Government voted unanimously last week to allocate funding for Uber round trip passes to attend. Several groups of Duke students were in the audience—many from Duke Student Government and What’s Up Durham, an undergraduate class taught by Bob Korstad, professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Sophomore Lee Rodio, who is a Durham native, said he felt the candidates represented the broad spectrum of cultures and beliefs in Durham.

"I think Farad Ali and Steve Schewel were the clear-cut frontrunners for good reason," he said. "I think Farad and Steve both did a great job of expressing their connections to the respective universities and actually giving concrete ways that students can get involved."


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