Name as it appears on the ballot: Nida Allam
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.nidaallam.com
Occupation & employer: Organizing Director, Chief Justice Beasley Committee
1) In your view, what are the most important issues currently facing Durham County? If elected, what would be your top three priorities?
The most critical issue facing all of Durham County is economic inequity. Socioeconomic status affects almost all aspects of an individual’s life from birth, including but not limited to the education achievement gap, access to housing, and wage disparities.
As County Commissioner, I would utilize the current tools at our disposal to address said inequities. For example, we know that a quality preschool education has a significant impact on addressing a child’s ability to maintain grade-level learning with their peers through the third grade. We must increase funding for PreK programs and work towards a truly universal system that provides all Durham residents equitable opportunities to a high-quality education.
We know that the housing affordability crisis in Durham is also tied to decades of stagnant wages. The commission must ensure part-time DPS employees are paid a minimum of $15 an hour. This provides immediate relief for these community members and their families while also setting a standard around our shared values as a community. However, $15 an hour still does not represent a living wage for
Durham—whatever policy we put forth, it should have the ultimate goal of reaching $23 an hour to actually represent a living wage for the area. This wage should then be held constant with cost of living and inflation. If I am fortunate enough to be elected County Commissioner my top three priorities are fighting for safe & healthy communities, removing barriers and building bridges to inclusive communities, and holding myself and other elected officials accountable.
We must fight for a Durham where all residents can fully participate and contribute to our community. Our communities are stronger when every single voice feels heard and when residents have access to the resources they need to thrive. We must fight for a Durham where the government truly reflects the will of the people. There is possibly no greater responsibility from our elected officials than honesty and transparency. We do this by providing clear and transparent evaluations of county services and programs, increasing the opportunities for feedback and collaboration through more community forums and citizen workgroups.
2) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Board of Commissioners? Please be specific.
I was the first Muslim person ever elected to the Executive Council of the NC Democratic Party. As Vice Chair, my work focuses on engaging marginalized community members in the electoral process, but also on building bridges between elected officials and these communities to continue dialogue outside of the election cycle.
I believe in building accountability within our own party and ensuring every constituent has access to their elected officials for two way dialogues. We have implemented round tables with faith based leaders, youth organizers, and grassroots minority organizers around issues affecting their communities and how their elected official is fighting for them and/or what policies they can put forth. I would extend these practices of continuous dialogue to my role as a county commissioner to ensure I am always accountable to the residents of Durham County.
As now former Chair of the Durham Mayor’s Council for Women, our work is centered on improving the opportunities and quality of life of women and girls (cis & trans) and non-binary people across Durham through civic engagement and by promoting the interests and needs of the community at large.
In my recent project analyst role I manage a multimillion dollar budget and oversee over a dozen project timelines every year. I manage the finances and human resources for each project all while developing metrics to measure key performance indicators for our projects. As the lead on these projects I engage our business partners, other technology partners and consultant companies across every phase of a project from design, development, testing, to deployment.
This work displays my ability to execute programs effectively at a large scale across multiple teams with various stakeholders. Each of these roles has allowed me to grow and improve my capacity to work effectively in team settings.
As a county commissioner it is vital to understand that you are on a board alongside 4 other individuals who are also committed to public service, though their ideas on how to execute this service might differ. To truly serve and be an effective county commissioner we must know how to collaborate and build strong relationships and partnerships. As the next Durham County Commissioner I will strive to be a constructive leader, always prioritizing the residents of Durham.
3) One of Durham County government’s primary responsibilities is school funding. A 2018 report from ProPublica found a wide gap between black and white DPS students in terms of discipline, achievement, and opportunity; it also rated DPS high in segregation. Is there anything the county can or should be doing to combat these issues?
First, we need to be very clear about the root cause of inequities in school funding: the North Carolina General Assembly. Of the many services the government provides, public education holds the greatest capacity for long term, structural change for numerous reasons. High quality educational opportunities are directly linked to better outcomes later in life; progressive, social justice oriented curriculum helps instill civic responsibility in children from a young age; this curriculum combined with a culturally competent, representative teaching staff mitigates the growth of implicit bias across race, gender and class; well supported teachers help to alleviate the socioeconomic gaps between privileged and less privileged students. The list goes on.
In Durham, we are fortunate to have a committed, organized teaching workforce in the Durham Association of Educators (which I am proud to be endorsed by), who have led the inspiring direct actions on the GA for the past several years. In order to achieve real equity and justice in our public schools, we need to leverage our local resources in a way that helps sustain these actions on the state until we have a GA that will adequately fund public schools. When it comes to school policy and funding within Durham county, there are a number of strategies I believe the Commission should pursue in order to address the issues listed in the question.
NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has systematically undermined efforts to halt the school-to-prison pipeline over the past several years by keeping disaggregated school discipline statistics confidential, in addition to changing language at the state level and allowing districts to change language in regard to disciplinary practices. For example, since an explosive report by the Youth Justice Project unveiled extreme disparities in suspensions and expulsions, DPI has made changes to their labeling of various punishments to simply “disciplinary reassignment.” This has led to a nearly 100% decrease in suspensions and expulsions according to state records, but in fact there have been even more “disciplinary reassignments” since the policy change.
This misleading reporting is perpetuated by local districts renaming their disciplinary measures. In Durham, for example, certain schools have changed the name of “in school suspension (ISS)” to “Restorative Practice Center.” When reporting to the state, this allows schools and districts to report 0 ISS without technically lying. But when we speak to students about how these supposedly different disciplinary measures operate in practice, there is no difference between ISS and restorative practice center.
As Commissioner, I want to investigate these practices more with the help of the Made in Durham Youth Network. This group of at least 35 students (representing every high school in Durham), has done admirable work over the past 5 years collecting survey and qualitative data about how supposed policy changes to disciplinary action have affected students.
We need to take seriously the work that this group of students has done and use it as we create a more equitable discipline policy. Our primary objective should be to practice Freire’s dialogic methods in both curriculum and discipline, meaning that disciplinary actions should include robust due process and input from peer students. Further, we should be sure to have a uniform vocabulary for disciplinary practices across the district, to avoid false reporting. Any new practice (even in name) must be evaluated and approved by the county and school board on a yearly basis.
Teachers currently spend hundreds of dollars of their own (inadequate) salary on school supplies for their students. This unfortunate reality manifests disparities across schools and classrooms similar to those experienced by students: teachers in poorer schools spend more of their own money than do teachers in better funded schools. Luckily in Durham, Crayons2Calculators has helped to address these issues with their annual Fill That Bus drive and by providing access to DPS teachers to a warehouse full of supplies which they can “purchase” free of charge.
The county and school board have done well providing capital and financial support to C2C, but we must do more. Currently, C2C is staffed by two committed, retired DPS principles, Eunice Sanders and Barbara Parker. For nearly two years, they supervised operations and logistics for C2C without pay, because they knew how vital this service was. I propose that Durham County provide more funding and capital support to C2C so that it can hire adequate staff to help Ms. Sanders and Ms. Parker. Further, the county should try to provide a van or truck to help facilitate transportation of large amounts of school supplies to those schools that need it most.
We also need to provide more educational services in the summer, for numerous reasons. First, working parents need to be provided a safe space in which to leave children while they work during the summer. Secondly, summer breaks are a detriment to our public education system as they only exacerbate achievement gaps while bringing overall learning down. While privileged students have opportunities to attend advanced summer camps or to learn and read with parents who don’t work, minority students do not have this access.
This effectively allows privileged students to get a head start while disadvantaged ones fall even further behind over the summer break. Regardless of how these disparities grow during the summer, any teacher will tell you that the first month or so back from school entails little more than reviewing most of the material from the previous academic year. Until we can have a discussion about year round curriculum at the state level, Durham must provide for students during the summer through camps, elective course offerings, and internship/ trade opportunities for high school students.
Since the county oversees much of the funding for public schools, we should ensure that all of our public schools have an adequate number of counselors and therapists. The state has not restored funding to a number of education items since the recession, including staff development. A 2017 report by the Youth Justice Project found that NC schools are severely lacking in mental health support staff in schools. While the national standard ratio of social workers in schools is 1 for every 250 students, NC schools average just one social worker for 1,536 students.
In order to have the greatest impact on mental health outcomes, the county should prioritize filling the gap left by inadequate state funding for mental health services in our public schools. If funding is available for more social workers, we should take advantage of the school as a public meeting place to invite families and community members to meet with school counselors. At the same time, all adults working in schools should receive training and regular follow up opportunities in student mental health training.
The local property tax funding model used by most school districts, including Durham, limits how much those counties or districts can actually control those funds. While we continue to support the efforts of public school teachers (led by DAE) to gain adequate and equitable funding from the legislature, there are strategies the county could explore to develop more equitable school construction and student assignment across race and class.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw Brown v. Board as an accomplishment for the Civil Rights movement, but almost immediately recognized that as long as neighborhoods are segregated, schools will most likely remain segregated accordingly. Therefore, any meaningful effort to integrate schools and ensure equity across them all will necessitate close coordination with the housing authority and municipal government as Durham implements its housing bond.
I support the creation of more magnet programs particularly in low-income areas, or where mixed-income housing is to be built. More magnet programs will attract wealthier, white families to historically underfunded schools, while also offering a competitive alternative to the increasing number of charters in Durham. By placing the magnets in low-income areas and allowing them to serve as community neighborhood schools for local residents, children in the area will benefit from higher magnet budgets as well as the property tax revenue from wealthier children traveling from wealthier neighborhoods. This model was effective throughout the 90s in Charlotte, where CMS almost reached total race parity across the district before it implemented a new assignment plan in 2002. Part of the reassignment plan included moving the physical locations of magnet schools and eliminating their automatic neighborhood-school status for low-income students surrounding them.
More immediately, the county can work to improve student assignments. In San Antonio, policymakers are using Census data to get a more accurate idea of district demographics across race and class. By breaking down census data into smaller, more precise census blocks, the San Antonio Independent School District has been able to more accurately assign students to schools in a more equitable formula. Additionally, using this detailed, publicly available data enables the district to be more sensitive to school assignments so that families are not burdened with inequitable transportation needs.
Although CMS was successful in assigning students equitably through the 90s, a primary complaint from poor and wealthy parents was the increased commute times. Reassignment, combined with Charlotte’s exponential growth, made for bus pick-ups as early as 4:30 am and drop-offs as late as 6 pm or later. For carpoolers, a commute from South Charlotte to a language magnet school in North Charlotte could take over an hour both ways. The district’s assignment model was effective in its end goal, but integrating census data can help execute any policy with greater efficiency and less burden to the public.
The census-based project in San Antonio has also allowed the district to experiment with its own school-choice experiments, without the participation of charters or vouchers. As of last summer, families are presented with choices other than their neighborhood schools in which to enroll their children. Census data combined with district-collected demographic data allows policymakers to provide a fair amount of choice with equity and diversity as a primary objective.
In addition to the proposals above, Durham can pursue yet other policies in order to address re-segregation. Since I will detail what this looks like in terms of charters in the next question, here I will focus on segregation that happens within schools. Practices like in school suspension allow for rampant segregation combined with diminished educational opportunities in individual schools.
Further, prohibitive processes in AP and Honors enrollment lead to segregation between classrooms, while simultaneously growing achievement gaps across race and class. Local studies have shown that while these affect black students most historically, these disparities have been worst between white and Latinx students over the past 2-3 years. Equity in class assignment will need to involve a bilingual process, as well as summer and after-school support for students who wish to complete AP or Honors courses but may not have the resources or the mentorship necessary to do so.
4) In your view, what effects have charter schools had on education in Durham? Do you believe they have increased segregation, as critics contend? Or have they offered opportunities to those who would otherwise be trapped in poor-performing schools, as supporters say?
This is not a question of belief—charter schools have absolutely increased segregation in Durham schools. Additionally, numerous studies of districts across the country, including DPS, have shown categorically that charter schools do not produce statistically significantly better outcomes than public schools; at best, they do as well as public schools (Ladd, Clotfelter, Holbein 2017).
In NC, the charter schools that perform best consist mostly of white students. The segregation created by charter schools is particularly insidious, because it manipulates the valid concerns of parents in a way that benefits charter school boards, to the detriment of public school students. A recent study found that the net cost to DPS could amount to $1000 per student enrolled in a charter school (Troutman 2014).
Fundamentally, schools serve the public interest by providing an educated, civically engaged workforce. When we allow charter schools to proliferate, we actively subvert this mission by spending public resources to satisfy the private interests of charter school boards and those who send their children to charter schools. If a charter is in fact providing opportunities to a student otherwise “trapped in a poor-performing school,” this should be an urgent signal to increase funding and support for our public schools, not to further decentralize and segregate the system by allowing it to become a free market.
5) What is your vision for growth and development throughout Durham? How can the county balance growth while also ensuring gentrification doesn’t push long term residents out?
Gentrification is a result of imprudent promotion of development, where incoming companies and money are valued more than the residents that already exist in an area.
In Durham, specifically, the areas of disinvestment are starkly different from those areas which have experienced growth, in tree-lining, in their locations, and in their racial composition. The areas which have been neglected are those that were red-lined by banks throughout the early to mid 1900’s, and are historically African American communities.
As seen in the less-than-positive response from the community in response to the Planning Department’s review of zoning in East Durham, this causes a lot of distrust and anxiety for those who live in these communities. It is not unreasonable to be worried that these neighborhoods may go down the same path as other, similar areas, where the residents will be turned out of their homes due to skyrocketing rents, unless better policies are implemented to preserve these communities.
Responsible development is possible when the stakeholders at the table are community members directly impacted by the displacement caused by gentrification. Building a shared neighborhood vision of community health and sustainability while partnering with community institutions such as churches, small businesses, and schools.
A way of achieving this with developers is by incentivizing Community Benefits Agreements (CBA). Developers, with the counsel of community groups, outline the direct benefits promised to community members through their new development. Through CBAs, community groups are given a voice to shape developments and legal authority to hold developers accountable.
Any proposed project should only receive incentives if they will generate both economic and fiscal benefits that will weigh out the costs, with attention to the downstream effects to ALL stakeholders, not just economic stakeholders.Finally, short-term benefits should not be incentivized over the long-term health and prosperity of the city and its residents.
6) City voters passed a $95 million bond to fund affordable housing efforts last year. What more should the county government be doing to further housing affordability? Additionally, what steps can the county take to assist those living in substandard public housing?
I am in favor of experimenting with “public options” for housing. We cannot limit ourselves to thinking that affordable housing should be bare bones, temporary and frankly unattractive housing. And in fact, we have plenty of examples of “public options” in American housing policy, just under different names. Since the 40s, the government has subsidized housing costs for white folks and helped pay off mortgages. We can do something similar in Durham, reorienting our focus from “build as many cheap units as possible” to “build homes that we believe Durham residents deserve, regardless of income.”
In other words, we should supplement the city’s bond with extra funding that will allow not only for the building of new units, but also for the creation of a voucher-like system in which low income people can shop for a home anywhere they’d like, as higher income people do. Once an adequate home is identified, the county should help cover costs for that home and exempt it from property taxes for a certain number of years. This will not only create equitable housing options for our residents, it will also facilitate the historically difficult process of more deeply integrating our neighborhoods.
I would like to see Durham County work with more residents to help eliminate housing debt and repair credit scores. Even as people from lower economic strata build more wealth over the course of their lives, low-income people disproportionately suffer with poor credit scores from earlier ages, due to inherited debts and the frequent need to care for their parents earlier. With mixed income housing, we need to make sure that new units and neighborhoods reflect the economic makeup of Durham, rather than just providing a few affordable units which will be brought to market price within 5 to 10 years.
Similar to how we measure demographic makeup of schools and seek to reflect the makeup of the district, we need to make sure that our affordable housing units bring people of different backgrounds and economic status together, rather than driving them apart. This is done by ensuring that the quality of affordable and mixed income units are even better than units built by private entities.
The county can also look into creating a Section 8 supplement fund that would help folks afford adequate housing for larger families, which sometimes receive less funding due to arbitrary rules regarding dependents and real family members. Additionally, Section 8 waitlists can take so long to process that eligible candidates can end up homeless or evicted months before their applications are even seen. Local officials need to develop strategies to cut this waitlist or provide relief while the federal government processes those documents. I would also like to see the county leverage legal and financial resources to protect tenants from unfair evictions, since North Carolina does robust tenant protections.
Similar to Durham’s Living Wage Project, I am in favor of convening major real estate firms and private landlords in the area to institute a rent control project. The state preempts localities from instituting rent control, but it also technically preempts living wages.
One might have thought that getting businesses to sign onto a living wage project would have been impossible, but now dozens of businesses have done just that. I believe that by leveraging city resources and perhaps through tax incentives, we could convince landlords to commit to a version of rent control so as to limit the detrimental effects growth and gentrification have had in Durham. I recognize this would be an extremely difficult fight, but if it’s possible anywhere in NC, it’s possible in Durham.
Finally, how do we pay for any of this? We have an entity in this county worth at least $14 billion, yet it pays little to no taxes to Durham. I’m speaking of course about Duke Medical/ University. Tax law at every level in this country makes “non-profits” like Duke nearly untouchable, but it is shameful that progressive officials have not been more aggressive about changing this. There should be no housing crisis within miles of an institution as blatantly wealthy as Duke, which is why I am proposing a corporate head count tax on any firm which employs over 100 people.
We need to make sure that Duke, not its employees or its patients, pay its fair share for the decades of free rent Durham has provided to it. A corporate head count tax would allow the county to potentially circumnavigate state level laws pertaining to Duke’s exempt status, allowing Durham to reap the benefits directly. In researching and instituting this tax, we must ensure that the employees of Duke are not negatively impacted by reduced pay or lay-offs, for example.
For years, Chicago funded successful housing developments using a corporate head tax, until Mayor Emmanuel repealed them, claiming these taxes “killed jobs.” This turned out to be false, with the added detriment of significantly reducing the housing budget. Working with my fellow commissioners and tax policy experts, I am committed to taxing Duke so that we can drastically increase funding for housing, transportation and schools. In Chicago, they are in the process of reinstating this tax on firms at $33 per employee. We could institute a tax half this size in Durham and significantly increase our spending on desperately needed housing and social services.
7) With the light-rail plan having collapsed, what do you envision as the future of mass transit in Durham? What initiatives would you like to support? What do you believe to be a viable next step?
We cannot afford to give up on the light rail. It is wrong that Duke could single handedly halt the project, despite acknowledging we are experiencing a climate crisis. We have put in so much money already, and there is strong public support for the project. Further, clean public transportation is vital to any effort to combat climate change and protect our people. developing light rail in the
Triangle is crucial for a number of reasons:
1) we need to drastically reduce the number of cars in transit as quickly as possible
2) Light rail could be the largest scale project with an opportunity to help train and employ large numbers of people in a new, green economy
3) Increased connectivity in the Triangle could trigger wave of growth in the area as our resources become even more closely linked
4) Light rail presents an opportunity to amend for previous transportation policies that have decimated communities of color and poor people in the past, such as the construction of Highway 147.
I would also consider investing in a fleet of electric buses and or mini buses for bus rapid transit (BRT). In cities in Europe, 8 to 12 passenger buses can be used on an app to pick up passengers where they are, acting as a public version of Uber Pool. Durham should work on offering a similar rideshare program, which will allow us to keep fares low while reducing the number of vehicles on the street.
As commissioner, I intend to utilize technologists to get a clear picture of our challenges and opportunities around bus rapid transit feasibility, convenience, access, ridership, and more. I also want to work with Carolina Biofuels and other similar firms to help as many diesel vehicles convert to biofuel as possible.
8) Last year, Durham saw a spike in homicides over 2018. What can the county do to address violent crime in the community? Are there preventative steps the county can or should take with regard to mental health? Are there any innovative programs in place elsewhere in the country that you would like to see implemented here?
Violent crime proliferates where poverty exists. If we are serious about addressing violent crimes, we need to address poverty. Several of the policies I’ve described already would do this. We can go even further by directly investing in poor communities through the county’s procurement powers. I will outline this idea more in the next response.
The county also needs to expand the mental health services offered to residents. Therapy is prohibitively expensive even to people who can afford decent health care. For people trying to set up an initial appointment, they may be forced to wait months before seeing a care professional. We should work with local social work schools, as well as the sheriff’s department and municipal resources to provide more mental health services to Durham residents free of charge. Ideally, we will be able to mobilize these services in order to meet the poorest residents in their neighborhoods.
We also need to understand that mental health services are not simply providing social workers and therapists. We need to provide free, accessible ways for community members to exercise. This can include walking and biking trails, but should also include outdoor workout facilities like those found along waterfronts in New York, LA and cities across Europe.
9) Economic inequality rose significantly in Durham County over the past decade (though it declined somewhat from 2017–18). How can county commissioners address this problem and ensure that the county’s prosperity is more equitable going forward?
When pursuing contracts for any project, we should prioritize firms led and run by minority groups. If we cannot identify such a firm, the county should be proactive by helping low income residents develop these enterprises in the form of worker-owned cooperatives. In Italy, municipalities have put together grants for new cooperatives.
If individuals can assemble ten other residents and put forth a proposal, the Italian government will provide them with adequate investment to start their cooperative. Durham should research and develop this sort of program for community members here. Jackson, Mississippi, also has an innovative cooperative economy project in Cooperation Jackson. So far, they have successfully launched a farming and a landscaping cooperative, both members of a network that aims to grow the cooperative economy for a more equitable economy.
10) Are there any issues not included in this questionnaire that you would like to address?
In addition to the education policies outlined above, I also want to work towards providing fresh, healthy lunches for every DPS student. Additionally, these lunches should be served with plastic-free plates and utensils. I also support the growth and expansion of the Communities in Schools model.
Durham can also do better at providing bike lanes throughout the city. These lanes should not be marked simply by street lines, but should include small, physical medians to ensure maximum protection for our biking community members.
When developing affordable housing, we should go the extra mile by installing solar panels on or near the homes. This solar energy should be put into public ownership, ideally by residents of affordable housing units.
Comment on this questionnaire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.