In an election month filled with delayed results, frivolous lawsuits, a recount, and baseless claims of voter fraud, the race for the Durham County Board of Commissioners proved decidedly uncontentious.
That’s because the outcome was all but sealed in the primary back in March. In deep-blue Durham County, North Carolina, the five Democratic candidates on the ballot all ran unopposed in the general election this month.
When they’re sworn in in December, newcomers Nimasheena Burns and Nida Allam will join incumbents Wendy Jacobs, Heidi Carter, and Brenda Howerton. Their victories mean that Durham County will have an all-female board of commissioners for the first time in the commission’s 139-year-old history.
Voters also made history by electing Allam, who is the first Muslim woman to hold elected office in the state of North Carolina.
Allam’s political career was born out of tragedy in 2015, when her best friend Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; her sister, Razan, 19; and Yusor’s husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, were shot to death by neighbor Craig Stephen Hicks inside of their condo in Chapel Hill. Authorities later claimed they could not find sufficient evidence to prosecute the triple murder as a hate crime, though Hicks had expressed bitter animus toward Muslims in social media posts.
“I was a bridesmaid in her wedding in December,” Allam recently told Cardinal & Pine, referring to Yusor. “And then, in February, she was gone.”
Allam, a Triangle native, is the daughter of immigrant parents and a graduate of North Carolina State University. Previously, she worked as a political director for the Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and as an organizing director for Cheri Beasley, the incumbent N.C. Supreme Court chief justice who is in the throes of a remarkably tight race with conservative challenger Paul Newby.
As she prepared to begin her historic tenure, Allam spoke with the INDY about what brought her to this moment and how she plans to govern.
INDY: How and why did you get involved in politics, and what made you decide to run for office?
Nida Allam: Deah, Yusor, and Razan exemplify what it means to be a proud Muslim American. They lived their entire lives looking to serve not only our Muslim community but communities across the country and even globally. When they were taken from us in the Chapel Hill shooting, their parents asked all of their friends to not let their legacy die—to continue to remember the three of them and cherish them in our work.
It was their parents’ strength and love that pushed me to look for ways to defeat the hate that took my friends, to make sure no other family or community would have to live through the pain we endured.
It was soon after their passing that the 2016 presidential campaigns were gearing up, and I was drawn to Senator [Bernie] Sanders for the way that he spoke about people that were different from him. He never “othered” the Muslim community; he never spoke about us with the stereotypes and tropes that we often hear from mainstream news and politicians. He spoke of a message of social justice, economic justice, and racial justice for all human beings, and how all of us can build a movement together. At this point, he was still polling only at two percent nationally, but I knew that campaign and message [were] vital for our country.
I decided to run for office because I had been working behind the scenes in progressive movement and voter mobilization organizations. I saw during that work the need for progressive candidates to step up to carry forward the message of our values and policy. I also saw a need for a change in how we discuss politics and how we organize. As a voter and constituent, I have always wanted to see more emphasis from elected officials [on engaging] with community members while they are in office—just as much as they did while running. Because the conversation shouldn’t end once you’re in office.
With your historic election, can you speak to the values you bring to the table and how that might help underrepresented communities?
The values that I was raised with as a Muslim, the values that Deah, Yusor, and Razan were raised with—to be proud of where we came from, and to take care of our neighbors, and to live in service of others. It is narrated that our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “None among you is a true believer unless he loves for others what he loves for himself.”
As a public servant, it is my duty and obligation to not take my privileges for granted, and that I must use what I have been blessed with to serve the people around me, and to build for them to have the same opportunities if not more than I have. Breaking barriers and being the first doesn’t stop there; it is about reaching that point and bringing people along with you to break all the barriers so we can have a truly representative government.
Did you ever consider moving away from the Triangle? What keeps you here?
Durham has long been where I wanted to live. My family moved to North Carolina when I was five years old, and I was raised right on the border of Raleigh/Durham, in Brier Creek. My parents did everything they could to build a life where my sisters and I would be able to strive and live our own American dreams.
We went to magnet schools and would commute 30 minutes to near downtown Raleigh, with predominantly white classmates from elementary to high school. Up until eighth grade, I didn’t wear the hijab full-time, and it was very evident when I did begin to wear the hijab how my classmates’ perception of me changed instantaneously.
It took some time, but I did end up finding a home in a friend group in high school that was very diverse—not just in race/ethnicity, but also in talents and aspirations. As I began to grow in early adulthood and [to consider] what life I wanted to build for myself and my future family—a prominent aspect would be the experiences I want my kids to have, and to protect them from being “othered,” as I was at such a young age. Durham is where I saw—and still see—that to be possible. I see a diverse and vibrant community, just like my small, close-knit friend group in high school. Durham was where we accept folks for who they are and welcome them with open arms.
While you were campaigning, you said that economic inequality was the most pressing issue facing Durham. You also said that local governments can enact bolder policies. How will you address these issues as a commissioner?
Two of these policies include raising the wages for Durham Public Schools classified staff to a minimum of $15 an hour and enacting more robust property tax assistance programs, which other municipalities in North Carolina have done with the advice of the University of North Carolina School of Government. We can’t have public sector employees in Durham County who aren’t making a living wage. Most of these individuals are Black women; many are mothers of children. They deserve and need a living wage.
We also need to address the evictions crisis and to create more affordable housing opportunities.
Finally, we must invest deeply in Durham Public Schools and [Durham Technical Community College] so that our county residents have every opportunity to develop a love of learning, while also developing their analytic minds and skill sets that will permit them to find meaningful and well-compensated work. All of these questions of economic justice are also questions of racial justice.
You’ve talked about the significance of gentrification and displacement in the past. How do you plan to address these issues?
Again, a robust property tax assistance program is crucial to permit lower-income homeowners to stay in their family homes, rather than being pushed out. Many Black families have been in their homes in Durham’s neighborhoods for generations, and the pressures of gentrification and higher taxes are pushing them out in favor of flippers.
The property tax program that passed this year does not go far enough to relieve the burden on these homeowners. This needs to be a huge priority, so that folks who want to stay in their homes have every opportunity to do so. The implementation of the affordable housing bond is also going to be important to make sure that it is really creating opportunities for working-class residents to stay in the city’s central neighborhoods. Fair transit access and fair wages are also elements of this work, so that our residents can get good jobs and can pay their bills.
You’ve said the city needs to collaborate with unions. Do you think the public and private sectors are receptive to unions, or will unions drive new and even existing employers elsewhere?
Durham is a vibrant, beautiful, and diverse city with so much to offer in terms of culture, music, art, food, technology, North Carolina Central University, and Duke University. The list of benefits of this place goes on and on. People all over the world want to come to live and work here. Capital will continue to flow toward Durham.
I support organized labor. Unions gave us the weekend, the 40-hour workweek, and protections against child labor. The Fight for $15; the Durham Association of Educators; [UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union]; and the National Domestic Workers Alliance are all examples of organized labor groups in Durham that really center social justice concerns.
I think that the people of Durham want to both work at and support institutions that are receptive to unions and dignity in the workplace. If a company cannot satisfy [those] minimal criteria, I believe the people of Durham would rather not have that company in their community—not for employment or patronage.
As a democratically elected representative, it is also my responsibility to make sure that my constituents are safe and healthy, and that their voices are heard. This means ensuring that residents of Durham County are employed by companies that treat them with dignity and pay a living wage, at the very least. I believe the Durham community wants to pursue equity and justice in more direct and impactful ways, but in order to do that, policymakers such as myself must create pathways to guide community members towards.
You have voiced support for a property tax relief program that would reduce the financial burden for homeowners with limited resources. You explain that such a program is important to help Durham maintain its identity. What is the “Durham identity,” and how will maintaining it slow the process of gentrification?
Durham has a multi-faceted identity. We have individuals who have lived in Durham their whole lives, as well as newer residents, including immigrants, who have chosen to move here for the opportunities and to enjoy the welcoming and inclusive culture. I think the key is to build bridges among all Durham residents, of all races, and to make sure that we center policy that keeps long-term residents in their family homes, substantially slows evictions, and creates opportunities for homeownership for working-class families. We can’t define a Durham identity in exclusive terms; we have to be inclusive of all.
After the election, some moderate Democrats have argued that progressive demands thwarted a “blue wave.” What do you make of that?
I don’t think that the moderate Democrats’ assertion on this point is well-founded. We saw incredible energy and turnout for some of the most progressive candidates in Congress this year. We saw Georgia flip blue, truly from the efforts of grassroots organizers of color centering issues of racial justice. Unfortunately, we also saw that there are a great number of people in this country who are willing to support a white supremacist in the White House.
Democrats won by an average of 80 percent in Durham in this year’s presidential election. Durham voters have been providing a blue wave for a long time, and I want to ride that wave to enact bold policy. In order to win future elections, Democrats have to provide proof of concept for the values we stand for, which necessitates bold action centered on worker’s rights and dignity for all.
The Durham community has organized around criminal justice reform for a long time, and as a representative for those dedicated community members, it is my responsibility to ensure that criminal justice policies reflect what the community has clearly demanded. I am hopeful that the [Community Safety and Wellness Taskforce] can identify evidence-based programs to meaningfully address poverty, mental illness, and alienation, so that we have less of a need for armed police—and a stronger, healthier community for all of Durham.
The city and county are still struggling with the impact of the coronavirus. Tax revenues are down, and small businesses are struggling. What steps do you think will help Durham recover from the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic?
We need to pour resources into Durham Public Schools. Strong schools make strong communities. I am proud that Durham Public Schools did go virtual for schooling to keep families, educators, and school staff safe from COVID-19. Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, we have an opportunity to reimagine schooling and really center democratic decision-making, the community schools model, language access, social and emotional learning, and deprioritizing standardized tests.
Austerity budgets are not going to help us recover from this pandemic. I think capital improvements for public schools through a bond referendum give us an opportunity to create jobs, as well as improve the physical places where our children learn.
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