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'Durham gets to lead the way': Durham mayor pro tem talks participatory budgeting, criminal justice reform

Budget processes are expanding to include community members, and Durham is leading the way nationally, the city’s mayor pro tempore said at a Tuesday event. 

Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, Trinity ‘03, spoke to students and administrators Tuesday about participatory democracy, policing in Durham and housing reforms. She spent much of the event discussing Durham's participatory budgeting program, in which community members have a say in how a section of the city’s budget is spent. The city council has committed $2.4 million for the participatory budget.

The launch of Durham’s participatory budget program—which the Durham City Council created in May 2018—was triggered by an ongoing debate about policing budgets in 2015, Johnson said.

"Durham has become a national model for participatory budgeting," she said. “There are not a lot of participatory programs in the United States, which is kind of sad but also kind of cool because Durham gets to lead the way."

Johnson also discussed efforts led by the city council to tackle issues regarding police reform and the criminal justice system in Durham. Some of the efforts Johnson talked about included making misdemeanor marijuana possession the lowest priority for police, tracking traffic stop data to investigate who was being stopped and searched by the police and implementing a written consent-for-search policy.

Johnson said that "there are some opportunities on the horizon," in relation to local policing reform, "if we are able to get some new leadership at the federal level in November."

Johnson finished the event by encouraging Duke students to get involved in student activism and local political organizations, emphasizing that college is a great time to "hone your political muscle."

Tuesday's event was originally planned by Lalita Kaligotla, associate director of the Hart Leadership Program and an adjunct professor in the program, as a component of her public policy course, but was later opened up to the public.

Johnson, a Virginia native who graduated from Duke with a bachelor’s degree in public policy, was elected to the city council in 2015, unanimously chosen to serve as mayor pro tempore in 2017 and reelected to the city council in 2019. She is an advocate for economic and environmental justice and the co-founder of Durham for All, a grassroots political organization.

During her own four years at Duke, Johnson noted she was involved in many student activist movements on campus. She participated in various sit-in protests at the Bryan Center and was involved in a protest against the Iraq War, which began her senior year, in which she and about 20 other students slept in a tent in front of the Duke Chapel for several weeks.

"That was a very strong time period for social movement activism on campus," Johnson said.

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