One hundred years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, 14 women of color will appear on Durham ballots this year.
Ten of them—U.S. Senate candidate Erica Smith; state Senate candidate Natalie Murdock; state House candidate (and Durham City Council member) Vernetta Alston; Durham County commissioner candidates Nimasheena Burns, Nida Allam, Regina Mays, and incumbent Brenda Howerton; Durham school board candidates Alexandra Valladares and Jovonia Thomas Lewis; and Durham Register of Deeds incumbent Sharon Davis—took part in a panel Wednesday night at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in South Durham, each sharing their vision and talking about what it’s like to compete in a field long dominated by white men. (There are actually 15 women of color on the Durham ballot. Yvonne Lewis Holley is running for Lt. Governor.)
The two-hour forum, held on the eve of early voting, included calls to stop the sort of infighting that erupted between sectors of the city’s Hispanic and African American communities in last year’s municipal elections.
Erica Smith recalled the words of the Raleigh-born Anna J. Cooper, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in history: “Only the black woman can tell me when and where I enter.”
The candidates talked about the struggles they’ve witnessed with their own children and other children in public schools, addressing the discipline disparities that exist between white children and children of color in Durham public schools, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, gender inequities in hiring and contracting, tackling issues with public housing complexes like McDougald Terrace and other low-income neighborhoods, and building coalitions to root out hate in our communities.
And, oh yeah, they talked about the joys of dancing, loving trees, the honor of serving in the military, food, their favorite movies, and their most embarrassing moments.
“This is history in the making,” said Gloria De Los Santos of Action NC, who moderated the discussion. “You will never find a more powerful and diverse group of women in North Carolina or across the country.”
Murdock, a strong proponent of equal pay and eliminating food deserts in impoverished communities, pointed to a knee-jerk gender bias that surfaced in Durham when Floyd McKissick Jr. announced that he was resigning from the state senate post he’d held since 2007.
“Quite frankly, in a district that predominantly African American, an African American woman should have been recruited when the seat became open,” Murdock told the audience of about a hundred. “Everything I’m facing is comparable to women all over the country, if not all over the world.” (Murdock is running against Pierce Freelon and Gray Ellis.)
Alston, who is openly gay, said she has to contend with a triple bias, being “visibly gay, in addition to being a woman, in addition to being black.” Alston has worked as a staff attorney with NC Prisoner Legal Services and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. But “many times,” Alston said, people assumed she’s a paralegal instead of an attorney. She said she tries to disarm an ugly bundle of homophobia, racism and sexism “by trying to be the most prepared person in the room.”
Smith grew visibly excited when it was her turn to respond to question about deconstructing the cultural barriers she’s faced during her campaign. Smith said she has endured misogyny, gender discrimination, and racism “every day of the race.” Smith said she’s faced predictable attacks from the GOP, but also from members of the Democratic Party.
“Having representation from someone who doesn’t look like you scares the bejesus out of Washington politicians,” Smith said. “It should not be the melanin in my skin that holds me back.”
Howerton, who is seeking a fourth term on the Board of Commissioners, welcomed the possibility of other women of color on the board who would vote with her.
“You can’t get anything done when you only got one vote,” she said. “Diversity in our community is at stake right now.”
If elected, Valladares will become the first Hispanic school board member in the city’s history.
She told the church audience that just saying her name to strangers “causes ripples.”
Nida Allam, an Asian-American Muslim, pointed out that her campaign features the outline of her head in a hijab, the head covering worn in public by some female members of her faith.
“I want to be unapologetically me,” she said.
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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