Seventeen years ago, an article in the INDY described Friends of Durham, one of three major political action committees in the Bull City, as an “overwhelmingly white” and “conservative” organization. 

Shelia Huggins says she’s not sure those labels were correct back then—and they certainly aren’t now that she’s taken over. 

“It was less about conservatism and more about a business-friendly environment,” Huggins says of the Friends’ thirty-year history. 

A black woman, attorney, and former city employee and city council candidate, Huggins began chairing Friends of Durham’s board earlier this year. She’s hoping to revamp—and reclaim—the organization’s image. Her vision is for the Friends to be more actively involved in Durham politics, and to provide “a safe space for quality conversations” in a time of intense polarization.

In the past, the organization (via its Facebook page) has called out progressives for “obstructing” affordable housing by demanding it be built on a pricey, downtown Durham lot (the city-owned former police department headquarters), and responded “Yikes!!!” to an INDY endorsement that suggested Mayor Steve Schewel and council members Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece would form a progressive bloc.

Though Durham is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, Huggins says she wants to get away from partisan labels. She worries that there are people in Durham who are afraid to share their views on issues facing the city—issues that can get boiled down to diametrically opposed sides: charter schools versus public schools, developers versus neighborhoods. She wants Friends of Durham to ground its work in research and the everyday needs of Durham residents, engage new people, and be a place where members can express differing viewpoints without getting shut down.

“Everything’s not that political,” she says. “People need jobs. People need medicine—they don’t care what your label is.”

Along with revamping the organization’s website and social media, members are taking a look at their priority issues. Previously, the Friends of Durham website listed the group’s priorities as schools (not performing well enough), crime (too high), taxes (also too high), and race relations (too often “injected into politics where it does not belong”). Under Huggins, those priorities have shifted to schools, crime, governance, and the economy—no race relations.

“We are committed to building bridges of all types in Durham, especially bridges that help us connect and build trusting and respectful relationships among all of the races of people who live in our city,” Huggins says. “Historically, our membership hasn’t always reflected the diversity of our city. We acknowledge that, but we believe wholeheartedly that our commitment to making Durham a great home for all residents has to begin with relationships.”

Lately, the Friends of Durham has been something of a nonentity. The public hasn’t heard much from the organization, and its endorsements haven’t mattered nearly as much as those of the People’s Alliance or the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. (Huggins is a member of both organizations and is also active in the Democratic Party.) 

Going forward, that will change, Huggins says—and not just during election season. The group’s members are currently researching a hotly debated request from the Durham Police Department to add seventy-two new officers over the next three years, and plans to put out a position statement on that and more.

“If we’re Durham and we say we’re accepting of people, you should never feel uncomfortable talking about how you feel about an issue that you’re paying for with your public dollars,” Huggins says. “If we’re progressive, let’s break that down and have a conversation about that because I don’t think everybody in Durham is progressing.”

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