Durham County leaders agreed Monday to take three actions to advance racial equity in Durham.
One will address accusations of racism from within.
County Chair Brenda Howerton announced plans for racial equity training for the five-member Board of County Commissioners and county manager.
A new commission to tackle systemic racism and the designation of Juneteenth as a county holiday were two more initiatives the board agreed on at the meeting.
Racial equity training
Howerton called the present moment an opportunity for commissioners to lean into their “collective discomfort” and “make our intention, commitment, role and responsibility in addressing racism clear.”
She announced a plan for the board and manager to register for a Feb. 19 seminar at the UNC School of Government. County Attorney Lowell Siler also is arranging training for commissioners with the Racial Equity Institute in Greensboro.
Howerton encouraged her fellow board members to participate as a response to an outside evaluation last summer that found the county was in “a state of periodic dysfunction.”
“We cannot change history or past actions, so the critical decision points today are perhaps more focused on the questions about where do we go from here,” said Howerton, who became chair of what may be North Carolina’s first all-women county commissioners board in December.
The county hired legal consultant James Coleman Jr. last spring after County Manager Wendell Davis accused Commissioner Heidi Carter of harboring an “inherent bias” toward him and “people of color in general” in a letter last February. Carter had criticized Davis for how long he had taken to follow-up on school construction plans.
Coleman found no racist intent in Carter’s actions but described “a lack of collegiality” between Davis and some commissioners and said the incidents Davis had complained about could “reasonably have been perceived as racially biased.” Carter later apologized.
Coleman also said some county staff perceived Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, who was chair at the time, as “micromanaging.”
A majority of the senior staff rejected racial bias as a source of her behavior, Coleman said, but most agreed that “the employees who perceived it may reasonably perceive her conduct as biased, whether conscious or implicit.”
After Howerton’s announcement, Commissioner Nimasheena Burns said Coleman’s findings needed remedy.
“The victims of perceived racism and racism are wounded the same way and hurt the same way,” she said.
Carter welcomed the suggested training, saying, “I’m committed to working together in a productive, collaborative, trusting way.”
Racial Equity Commission
In a separate matter, Elaine O’Neal, a retired judge who recently announced she is running for mayor of Durham, brought draft operating rules for a proposed Racial Equity Commission to the board for review.
She noted Monday was the first day of Black History Month and said the group would brainstorm ways to change institutional inequities.
“We’ve got to recreate some new ways of thinking about systemic racism and how it affects those who are closest to the pain,” O’Neal said.
The new commission will pursue the recommendations in Durham’s Racial Equity Task Force report.
It will consist of 15 people, appointed by the Durham City Council and Durham County commissioners.
Membership will include residents across different ages, races, religious background, economic status and sexual orientation. One seat will go to a public high school student. Members will have three-year terms and submit an annual report to city and county leaders.
“It’s an intellectual, you know, puzzle, but we know we’ll get there,” said Kaaren Haldeman, a co-chair of the city’s racial equity task force.
Durham County will make June 19 a paid holiday for its roughly 1,900 county government employees.
On June 22, Howerton had recommended the county recognize Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery.
Since then, she has pushed for a statewide holiday designation along with State Sen. Natalie Murdock, she said.
“So rather than to continue to wait, with this being Black History Month, it’s a perfect time to go ahead and put this through,” she said.