Injecting Social Justice into Local Government

On September 28th, Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson and Mel Norton of Duke University’s Cook Center on Social Equity visited UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning to discuss with students and faculty the work of balancing social justice advocacy while serving in local government. Since Jillian was elected to City Council in November 2015, and sworn in the next month, she has focused on intervening in gentrification in East Durham and the neighborhoods ringing downtown, and maintaining and developing new affordable housing. Mel, who graduated from DCRP with a specialization in housing and community development in 2008, and who was a member of Jillian’s campaign team, has a background in economic development and affordable housing development in Durham and is currently on the board of the Durham People’s Alliance.

In this Plan for All Brown Bag session, the two shared lessons from their work in community development, citizen engagement, and grassroots organizing, all of which have practical applications for planning students and practitioners. Some takeaways include:

1. Community meetings must include the trifecta: food, childcare, and translation services. Mel and Jillian emphasized the importance of the trifecta in removing as many barriers as possible for community members to get involved. They also discussed what Mel described as a “slower and more organic process of relationship-building than endless community meetings,” through less-formal community events like block parties and through identifying and working with people who are well-connected and already politically-engaged (who Mel called community “evangelicals”).

2. Social justice advocacy within a political framework requires community-led work, or what Mel described as a “multi-level strategic approach to elevate voices that have been left out.” Jillian and Mel cited participatory budgeting (PB) as an example of bottom-up community engagement, where the community is involved first in asking the City Council for money to fund the participatory budgeting process, and then a wide swath of the community votes on what goes into the budget. Mel noted that voting through PB engages a wider group of people than local elections, since the voting age is lower and people who are undocumented or who have felony convictions can vote.

3. In gentrifying neighborhoods like those in central Durham, neighborhood stabilization should be a major priority to prevent displacement. Professor Mai Nguyen asked Jillian and Mel for specific tools they use as community advocates, and Jillian noted that through housing surveys, she’s learned that two major issues for low- to moderate-income (LMI) homeowners are the high cost of repairs and utilities, and the rise in property taxes following a 2015 tax property reassessment in Durham. To address those two issues, the City Council funds an emergency repair program for LMI community members, and Jillian has supported a proposal to give grants to homeowners to offset the tax increase. Mel also noted that community land trusts, through which permanently affordable housing can be built, are a powerful tool for neighborhood stabilization.

4. Get involved! For students who might be interested in Jillian and Mel’s community-engagement work, Mel suggested volunteering with the Cook Center on Social Equity and Durham for All. Jillian strongly recommended that students and faculty take racial equity training, and get involved in small area planning, which encourages community input. She also suggested that students contact her at for opportunities to get involved.

Plan for All Brown Bag Flyer

Featured Image: Jillian Johnson and her campaign team during her campaign for Durham City Council. Photo Credit: Jillian Johnson

About the Author: Carly Hoffmann is a co-editor of the Carolina Planning Journal and a first year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, focusing on housing and community development. Prior to UNC, she worked as a book editor for Carly graduated from Columbia University in 2010 with a degree in Urban Studies.

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