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Who cares about the Durham election?

cultural q's

Point of view: It’s Saturday morning, and I’m late. I walk into CAARE just as the Durham For All rally is ending. I’m here because I’m supposed to be writing this column about politics, but I got sick of the presidential election. So I switched to the local channel. 

The hottest topic in local politics right now is the upcoming Durham city election on November 5. That’s in two weeks. Early voting has already started, which is why Durham For All is hosting a rally and a march to the polls today. I’m here to watch. I’m a spectator. I’m a fly. I know absolutely nothing about this election. I’m almost definitely the least informed person in the room. 

Some facts: CAARE is the Center for Accessible Affordable Health, Research, and Education. It’s in downtown Durham, a single story house-looking building with a cavernous, fluorescently-lit, podium-equipped room in the back for things like speeches and rallies and (maybe) sermons. Durham For All is a cross-class, multiracial organizing group trying to shift local government to represent and support Durham’s marginalized population (low-income, black, brown, queer). 

I don’t really know what that means, so the first volunteer I meet explains to me that she’s a door-knocker. She goes around underprivileged neighborhoods in Durham teaching people about important upcoming policies and elections. I feel like I could use a door-knocker myself, but I don’t tell her this. 

I know nothing about Durham politics because I’ve never felt a need to. I live in Durham, technically, but I’m in Duke-Durham, which feels immune to and sterilized of anything Durham-Durham. I’ve lived on campus for three years without giving Durham a second thought. When I bring this up, Ashlyn (Trinity ‘18), a recent Duke grad I meet at the march tries to make me feel less guilty. She says that Duke encourages the division between itself and the community. I feel like she gives me more grace than I deserve. I expect tension. 

I know there are many students like me who only venture off campus for leisure, to eat and drink and dance. The Durham we know is only in relation to the other-ness of being outside of Duke. I feel like a glitch in the simulation, venturing “off-campus,” meeting people I rarely cross paths with at school.

As the march starts, I turn to the person walking behind me who’s holding a “Fight for $15” sign, a middle school teacher in Durham. I ask her what the federal and county minimum wages are. I know, I should know this. But I don't. It’s $7.25 per hour, for both. 

She spends the rest of the march giving me a rundown of local politics, tells me who she’s voting for and why, and introduces me to organizers and candidates. She’s passionate about the public versus charter school debate. 

We arrive: Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center, where early voting takes place. Noon.

The election is surprisingly simple. There are three items on the ballot. We’re voting for mayor, three seats on city council and an upcoming $95 million affordable housing bond which, if passed, would be the largest affordable housing bond in state history.  

Durham For All has endorsed the bond, the incumbent Steve Schewel for mayor, and all three incumbents for city council: Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson (Trinity ’03) and Charlie Reece. These three city council members are at the event, which makes sense since they’ve been running their campaigns on a slate. Their slogan is “Bull City Together.” I end up talking to all three of them as we stand outside the resource center waiting for everyone to finish voting. 

Javiera tells me she’s proud of the trio’s track record of working together to pass progressive policies. Jillian’s interesting because she stayed in Durham after graduating from Duke in 2003 and represents an antithesis to the privileged, politically apathetic Duke student that I see in myself. Charlie is marching with a walker because he hurt his back. He tells me that since 2017, Durham city council has had a working progressive majority, and he’s worked with Javiera and Jillian to raise the county minimum wage for city employees to $15 per hour. Charlie also tells me that regressive North Carolina legislature keeps Durham, which is overwhelmingly blue, from passing more policies around anti-discriminatory hiring, rent stabilization and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour for everyone.

The trio seems nice. They know what they’re about. 

Jackie Wagstaff stands next to the tent her and a few of her supporters have set up in front of Durham County Criminal Justice. She’s tall, brooding over a crowd who presumably won’t be voting for her. Durham for All has not endorsed Jackie’s run for city council, and from what I’ve heard, she’s a polarizing figure in the community

The march dies down as people shuffle out of the polling station and disband. Something interesting happens. I’ve been talking to Jackie for more than ten minutes, and the middle school teacher comes to join the conversation. 

I’m asking Jackie about her stance on charter schools, but before I catch what’s going on, the teacher and Jackie get into a tense clash over details surrounding the Durham public school board’s decision in March 2018 to hire custodians as full time employees. Jackie suggests that the teacher doesn’t care about black kids. The teacher tells Jackie she knows that Jackie doesn’t like her. Jackie assures her that they have no beef. I try to keep up. My thoughts start to wander.

The truth is, most Duke students will never directly experience the effects of Durham public education funding or affordable housing. Most policy decisions made in Durham are really meant for Durham-Durham, not Duke-Durham. Only in select moments do Durham and Duke coexist. And you’ll only notice if you care to pay attention.

Example: If the county minimum wage is raised to $15/hour, maybe that one part-time employee at West Union won’t have to work two jobs.

If the affordable housing bond is passed, maybe Durham gentrification will slow down, and staff working at Duke can cut their commute times by living in rent-stabilized housing closer to campus. 

If we’re talking about the politics of care, I think that we don’t need to care about Durham or the upcoming election, but we should. It’s reciprocity, the stuff that will sustain our community and ensure its health.

I often find myself too caught up in my own stuff to notice the staff who work to make my life easier. Being a Duke student is a privilege. Shyly waving at the housekeeping staff who cleans my halls is easy acknowledgement, maybe dilutes my guilt for a second, but it’s definitely not enough.

The support staff that keeps Duke alive, that serves us food and makes sure our gross Saturday-night bathrooms get cleaned in the morning deserve as much care from the Duke population as its students. 

If you’re looking for ways to care about Durham in a meaningful way, vote in the upcoming election and inform yourself of what’s at stake. It’s a start. The Durham For All-endorsed incumbents are good, reliable choices.

I tune back in to Jackie's conversation because Jackie says something I can understand. 

“Everybody sees what they want.” 

Alice Dai is a Pratt senior. Her column, “cultural q’s,” typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to remove the name of the middle school teacher. 


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