Gun violence, affordable housing top priorities for Durham council’s Ward 1 candidates

·6 min read

North Carolina was the right place for them to be, but Durham is where both DeDreana Freeman and Marion T. Johnson made their home.

The top two vote getters in the primary for the Durham City Council’s Ward 1 seat held earlier this month head into Tuesday’s general election with clear ideas about how they can serve the Bull City.

DeDreana Freeman

Incumbent Freeman, 43, got involved with her community young. She remembers many days hanging out at Kingsbridge Heights Community Center in the Bronx, New York, helping her mother with block parties and voter-registration drives.

“We lived in a low-income area and my mom was the tenant association president, and she organized to get moms daycare services who were receiving benefits in our community,” Freeman said. “That was like my first introduction into community organizing.”

Freeman said she continued to do more of that work when she attended Rutgers University-New Brunswick. There she joined the Black Student Congress and the Equal Opportunity Board before moving to Durham in 2007.

“My husband and I are from the Bronx. But we were in Cary at the time, which is a containment area for relocated Yankees,” Freeman joked, “Once we started to think about where we wanted and could afford to live, it was Durham..”

In 2008, she became an organizer with Durham for Obama, which offered rides to the polls. As she got to know the city better, politics followed.

But Freeman said it has never really been the politics that intrigued her, but the social justice issues behind the political decisions. Whether it was housing, economics or youth development, she said she’s always been about leveling the playing field for Black residents in Durham.

In 2017, Freeman faced 16-year incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden and won her first term on the Durham City Council. She has also served on the Durham Planning Commission and graduated from N.C. Central University with a Master’s in Public Administration in 2020.

Freeman has been endorsed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham.

She finished first in the Oct. 5 primary, with about 70% of the votes cast.

Marion T. Johnson

Johnson, 33, grew up in Charlotte, the child of Nigerian parents, and got her start in politics in middle school.

“Their big thing was for me to become a lawyer,” Johnson said. “My dad had me read The Wall Street Journal every morning and quizzed me about it, and it made me want to be an international human rights attorney.”

“But in college, I realized I didn’t want to go into law, and the prestige behind it became less important and purpose became more important to me,” Johnson explained.

She moved to Massachusetts to attend Wellesley College in 2009. After graduating, she ended up Washington, D.C., for work that involved advocating for LGBTQ rights and did lobbying on work and family policies such as paid family leave, paid sick leave, and pregnancy discrimination, before moving back to North Carolina for graduate school.

Johnson said many “Nigerians come to America to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer” and so the concept of following one’s passion was really confusing to her parents and family back home.

“My mom just stopped telling me I should go back to law school, just in case, “ Johnson said jokingly.

But the push for her to become a lawyer is directly related to her passion for local government today, she said.

After getting her master’s in Public Policy from Duke, Johnson decided Durham was home and settled down with her wife.

Johnson, who was endorsed by the People’s Alliance, finished second in the primary with about 27% of the votes.

While she and Freeman have different views about local governance, they both want it to be a better place for all residents. They spoke extensively with The News & Observer about their top priorities if elected in November.

Affordable Housing

Freeman believes the city must address unaffordable housing in Durham by looking at inequity.

“We have yet to get the equity aspect right, even with the Racial Equity Task Force recommendations, so I think that by continuing to ask those questions with contractors and developers we can change our current system,” she said.

Freeman proposed that contractors and developers offer information about their employees. Now, they must provide information on race and gender before competing for city work.

“I am an advocate for things like supply diversity and having people of color being professional and not just clerical,” she said.

Johnson says gentrification, displacement and unsustainable overdevelopment have created a housing crisis in Durham, especially for Black residents who have lived here for generations.

“We don’t have enough affordable housing in Durham, and creating that housing will be a top priority,” she said.

She would address displacement by rezoning city-owned land for higher density so that it can be used for affordable housing and by using small area plans that require community input before development.

“We also need to be thinking about how we can ensure that these houses are environmentally conscious because we don’t want to exacerbate this climate crisis,” Johnson said.

Policing in Durham

“Knowing that we have a new police chief opens up opportunity again to come up with a team focus, so it’s not just about police,” said Freeman.

The city has to take a dual approach to gun violence, supporting intervention and prevention. By using all available tools, she says the city can develop a network that includes community members, violence interrupters and businesses to help fight gun violence.

Freeman supported the last police chief’s request for more officers three years ago, as well as a free trial offer of the ShotSpotter gunshot surveillance technology.

Johnson disagrees.

“Increasing surveillance with programs like ShotSpotter doesn’t do anything to prevent gun violence,” said Johnson.

ShotSpotter, a company that sells a gunshot-detection system to cities, offered Durham a free six-month trial in August 2020.

“Alleviating the access to guns does prevent gun violence, and we need sustained commitment to true community safety from more than just city council,” Johnson added.

Durham should not be investing in system that overpolices and overcriminalizes Black and brown folk throughout the city, she said.

Johnson says if given the chance she would support a plan that transfers resources to the city’s new Community Safety Department.

“I think that would build up the community wellness department and alleviate pressure off the police so that they can focus on more investigative work, rather than responding to calls that they do not need to be involved in,” she said

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