Pierce Freelon


Occupation: musician, professor, artist-organizer

Phone Number: 919-907-0570

Email Address: info@freelonfordurham.com

Years Lived in Durham: 33. Born and raised.

1) Durham residents, from the new group Durham for All to the demonstrators who tore down the Confederate monument on Main Street, are calling for more power to be placed in the hands of the people. In what ways do you think Durham can improve public participation in local government? How would you make room for that in city government?

The median age in Durham is 32 years old. The median age in our City Council is twice that—about 62 years old. To improve public participation in local government it’s important that our leadership speaks to all residents and reflects our diversity. I will work to build a bridge between Millennials, the single largest voting bloc in America, and our elders, who have laid a strong foundation in Durham. In the spirit of Sankofa, a West African concept symbolized by a bird moving forward towards the future while looking back towards the past, I will work to foster a robust intergenerational dialogue, to move Durham towards an equitable future for all of us. There are also gaps between city government and its immigrant and refugee population. For example, despite a quickly growing Latinx population, no portion of the city’s website is in Spanish. We need to change that. If people don’t see themselves, or their issues, reflected in City government it’s harder for them to find entry points for constructive participation. This is where my experience as an artist gives me a unique opportunity to improve civic engagement.

Every Friday at 9:19, my digital makerspace, Blackspace, hosts a cypher at CCB Plaza. A cypher is an open creative space where folks from throughout the community are invited to rap, sing, play an instrument or engage in some form of creative self-expression. It is inter-generational and multi-ethnic, with folks from different socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Our community hails from The Mac, Fayetteville St., Hope Valley, The West End, Duke, to North Durham. The Cypher is a reflection of Durham’s rich diversity. Each week I help hold space for all voices to be heard, and all people to feel empowered to contribute. This is in the legacy of Baba Chuck Davis, and other cultural alchemists who use art to engender a sense of community, vulnerability, enthusiasm, and participation.

I’m not suggesting we turn City Hall into a performance space, but I will use my extensive experiences in creative spaces to pivot people’s minds and hearts towards public participation in local government. We need bold, visionary leadership and creative perspectives to the challenges facing Durham. We also need Durham’s creative community, which is being pushed to the margins through gentrification, to have some skin in the game, and a seat at the table as we build our future together.

Lastly, I am an advocate of participatory budgeting, which Councilwoman Jillian Johnson has been championing in order to make our city’s budget process more inclusive. Greensboro is already doing it, as are other cities across the country. I support these efforts, and I support enhanced transparency and participation in the budgeting processes.

2) Because of state law, municipalities have a number of restrictions placed on them by the legislature: they can’t, for instance, be a sanctuary city, impose a city-wide minimum wage, enforce inclusionary zoning, or remove Confederate monuments. Under what circumstances should elected officials push back against the legislature?

Elected officials should use all available tools to resist racist, LGBTQ-phobic, anti-immigrant, anti-environment, anti-worker, anti-voter laws put forth by our state or federal government. People’s lives are at stake. Families are being torn apart, the environment is under assault, and the vulnerable are being exploited or excluded by many of these policies, and we have a moral obligation push back. Too often, elected officials are reactionary. We need leaders to get ahead of the challenges facing our community, with a bold vision for an equitable future.

North Carolina is among the most repressive states in the country when it comes to protecting LGBTQ communities. Durham was somewhat complicit in this, as we did not have adequate protections in place, and weren’t discussing it at the city level until HB2 forced our hand. The status quo was not where it needed to be on this issue, creating more risk for the LGBTQ community. We have to be out in front of issues that can severely affect folks’ lives. I will push to see Durham enact a LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance, similar to that seen in Savannah, Georgia, which will protect city employees and applicants from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, and disability status in city employment, application, licensing, and permitting. We should pass this ordinance in defiance of HB142’s attempt to tie our hands until 2020 and sue the state.

Durham should be a sanctuary city: for refugees fearing for their lives, for immigrants with papers and without, for Muslims or other religious or ethnic minorities on the President’s ban-lists, and for the LGBTQ community under siege by our state legislators. We need to stand in defiance of bigotry, in the name of our principles and challenge the state and federal governments if they try to bully us into compliance. This is the spirit of the Greensboro Four, of Pauli Murray and of Baba Chuck Davis, as well as of Jesus Christ, Confucius, and Oshun; we have a moral obligation to provide sanctuary to those who need it. Period. Forty-Five has repeatedly threatened to defund cities that provide sanctuary. The state of North Carolina also restricts cities from refusing to cooperate with ICE and has threatened to deny immigrants bail and withhold tax revenues from cities who do not comply with their agenda. The ACLU calls these bullying threats unconstitutional, and we will fight them tooth and nail. Durham needs to join the cities of San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago, and Denver as leaders in the progressive movement, on the right side of history. United, we can stand up against injustice and shift the culture of our state through bold, principled action.

Right now, as I type this questionnaire, there is another opportunity to push back against the Trump administration’s action to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA allows eligible undocumented immigrants to work, enroll in college, get a driver’s license, and have protection from deportation. DACA has benefited nearly 800,000 undocumented youths since 2012. DACA has kept families together as well as provided security and fairness to those who seek to contribute to our communities and live their best lives. President Trump and members of the Republican lead Congress couldn’t make a deal to protect our most valuable resource, our people – putting them at risk of deportation. I stand firmly with our local Mayors Pam Hemminger of Chapel Hill and Lydia Lavelle of Carrboro in my call for the continuation of the DACA program which provides protections for our immigrant community and as soon as I submit this document to the INDY, I will be riding my bike to CCB plaza to stand in solidarity with undocumented Durhamites and organizers. I will do the same as Mayor.

3.) Given the inflamed racial tensions after the recent events in Charlottesville, what steps should Durham take to position itself as a guardian of social justice? How would you characterize city leaders’ relationship with Durham’s communities of color, and what should be done to improve that relationship going forward?

The People of Durham have already taken bold steps to protect the principles of social justice. The fall of the “Boys Who Wore Grey”; the subsequent rallying of dozens of citizens to turn themselves into the authorities was a historic display of civil disobedience, which stands in the legacy of Bree Newsome, who fearlessly scaled a flagpole in South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag; the Greensboro Four, a group of courageous North Carolina A&T students who sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro; and Rosa Parks, the bold leader who risked her life to sit on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

However, the racism embodied in that monument, and in Charlottesville, is just a glimpse of a broader structure of systemic racism. On the steps of the old courthouse the Confederate monument cast a dark shadow, but let’s talk about what’s happening inside the courthouse. In Durham, there are staggering racial disparities in local drug enforcement; folks are being held ransom by our bail-for-profit system; 40% of children of color live at or below the poverty line, and over 800 people per month are evicted in Durham and lack support and adequate legal representation.

The indignity of facing a racist monument pales in comparison to the staggering impact our structurally racist institutions. In many ways, Durham is a tale of two cities. We must address this head on, rather than pretend it is not the case. To improve these disparities, we must be steadfast in our intentions to invest in communities of color; to create jobs that alleviate poverty; to address affordable housing, and embrace reform of our criminal justice system in order to ensure safe and non-threatening streets.

4) Durham’s public housing stock is aging, and there is limited money to redevelop units. What are your ideas for keeping residents of public housing in quality, affordable homes?

There was once limited money to redevelop downtown – until city officials, private stakeholders, and investors decided to make it a priority. Now it seems unlimited. Since December 2001, 1.7 billion dollars in public and private investments have flooded the 0.8-square-mile downtown area. This was not happenstance. It was the result of a coordinated effort of public, private and nonprofit partnerships, all working towards a strategic plan. We need to approach affordable housing and public housing with the same level of urgency because it is one of the biggest challenges facing our community.

An economic development opportunity exists in Fayette Place—a public housing project developed by the Durham Housing Authority in the 1960s, which was demolished over a decade ago and has languished ever since. I am glad City Council, alongside the Durham Housing Authority, recently took action to purchase the land because it had been lying derelict for years. I have spoken with Pastor Laney from Monument of Faith, as well as with members of Durham CAN, about this unique property. This project will be a catalyst for economic development in the heart of Durham’s historic Hayti community. The redevelopment of Fayette Place is of paramount significance and will have big economic implications for the surrounding community. I will work with community leaders and city stakeholders to make sure more city dollars are invested in the community.

My ideas include: -leveraging the city’s many of tools and resources to ensure more landlords are accepting Section 8 vouchers.

-work with the county and nonprofit community to provide support services for low-income residents.

-deconcentrate poverty by building mixed-income affordable housing.

5) While much of Durham has seen a renaissance during Mayor Bell’s tenure, the city’s poverty rate has also increased. What are your ideas for lowering Durham’s poverty rate, other than providing affordable housing? How can Durham’s renaissance be spread more equitably throughout the city?

To combat poverty and unemployment in Durham, we are proposing a jobs guarantee program — Jobs for All — which would create living wage jobs with benefits for unemployed Durham residents. Our director of economic policy Mark Paul, is currently working out of the Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. We are crafting a municipal jobs guarantee for Durham, which could create a pilot program for the nation to follow.

There are about 6,000 unemployed people in Durham, but that does not take into account those who are underemployed or have fallen out of the labor market. We believe that access to a job is a human right, not a privilege. If you are looking for work and can’t find it, then the market has failed you and Durham has a moral obligation to provide its citizens an alternative to unemployment and poverty. However, the moral obligation is not the only reason to invest in our most vulnerable citizens. There is a cost to poverty and to the maintenance of unemployment and poverty wages. We’ve spent millions of tax dollars on the prison-industrial complex through arrests and incarcerations as well as subsidized housing, health, and other services. Investing in jobs creates economic security, which has tremendous implications for affordable housing, education, and public safety, and ensures a better quality of life for present and future Durham residents.

Our goals include the following:

• Provide socially useful goods/services to the community.

• Expand the productive capacity of our economy.

• Encourage living wages in the private sector.

• Frame economic rights as human rights.

• Target the least advantaged in our society while maintaining the universal nature of the program (targeted universalism)

• Enhance public safety and quality of life by providing positive personal and social benefits associated with the dignity of work.

• Create a permanent floor in the labor market, which will expand during times when need is exacerbated (economic recessions) and contract during times of strong labor markets (economic booms). It thus functions as a “counter-cyclical” program.

• Eventually scale to near-universal coverage, which will place a new floor in the labor market. This will cause firms to offer higher wages and will function as a form of redistribution from business owners to workers.

• Negate the negative social multiplier that grows from unemployment. Unemployment is a public health crisis, which has a high social cost to the broader community.

6) The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project has moved into the engineering phase, although the Trump administration seems reticent to fund it. What are your thoughts on light rail? If completed, do you believe the project will be worth the community’s investment? Why or why not?

I support Durham’s Light Rail Project. I have some serious reservations about the following: 1) rising costs, 2) the state reducing its commitment from 25% to 10%, 3) the fact that we weren’t able to get buy-in from Raleigh, and 4) I would have liked to see more stops in East Durham, servicing low-income communities, it seems like the proverbial train already left the station.

I would also advocate that we continue to invest dollars in expanding our public transportation services—free buses, accessible sidewalks, revamping infrastructure, upgrading the bus station, enhancing rapid transit, and building more bike lanes. This is particularly important now, as the Bull City Connector’s future is increasingly uncertain. Folks who rely on public transportation need relief now, and can’t wait until the rail is finished in a decade.

The Durham Light Rail Project needs to create living-wage jobs and be accessible to low-income and working people in Durham. In 2014, Durham CAN worked to obtain commitments from Durham city elected officials to support a goal of 15% of housing within half a mile of each light rail station to be affordable to families earning less than 60% of area median income. At that time, CAN leaders also called city and county elected leaders to factor affordable housing in their Station Area Infrastructure Study (SASI), which is aimed at determining infrastructure needs, cost, and financing mechanisms at all transit stations. CAN also wants to make sure jobs provided by light rail will pay at least a living wage and that internships will be used as a gateway to permanent jobs for both Durham youth and adults. I stand beside CAN in meeting these demands.

I think it will be worth the investment. With the rate at which we will continue to grow in the coming years and decades, we need transit solutions to connect the Triangle. Even with driverless cars, and other technologies, we’ll still be dealing with more people and more vehicles and there will only be more congestion on 147 and 15-501. We’re at least a decade late, but I believe this is the best look for Durham.

7) Given the current direction of Durham city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific changes you will advocate if elected?
 Generally, we’re on the right course for the most privileged people here in Durham. If you’re a Duke graduate with a good job, a tech start-up, a developer who flips houses, or a foodie, you’re in good hands with the direction of Durham city government. But if you’re on the other end of the displacement/eviction crisis, or one of the 85% of young black folks arrested for marijuana possession, or if you’re only making minimum wage in Durham, which amounts to only $15,080 a year for full-time workers – a salary that is insufficient to meet basic daily needs in Durham, where the cost of living is rising everyday – you wouldn’t be so excited about the way things are trending.

I have mentioned some of these earlier in the questionnaire, but here are some specific things I would implement:

More inclusive governance

More living wage jobs with benefits for more people

Tackling affordable housing

Addressing racial disparities in our criminal justice system

8) Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.

I don’t have three issues that are “most pressing”. To quote spoken-word poet and LGBTQ rights political activist Staceyann Chin, I believe, “all oppression is connected.” The intersection of racism, poverty, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and sexism creates a society in which those with resources and privilege benefit at the expense of others. However, here are three issues and solutions:


As I mentioned earlier, I’ll propose a municipal jobs guarantee, starting with a scaled pilot program. If a person is unemployed it is because the market failed them, not because they failed society. As such, our team is working to identify a way I which to launch a pilot program and make Durham the testing ground for what could become a state, or national, jobs guarantee program.

Affordable Housing:

I would decrease property taxes for low-income homeowners in the form of a property tax circuit breaker. A circuit breaker is a tax refund for individuals or families whose property tax liability is a large percentage of their annual income, or whose age, ability, or fixed income makes it difficult to keep up with rising property taxes.

Circuit breakers are a way for the city to play a role in curbing the growing racial wealth gap. Rising property taxes undermine wealth building opportunities for local residents who, all of a sudden, see their property taxes jump and who do not have the bandwidth to keep up. Circuit breakers alleviate some of the pressure on homeowners to move out or sell out. This is only one tool to stabilize the rapid growth that Durham has recently been experiencing. Circuit breakers could also provide relief for low-income renters because landlords may not feel the pressure to increase rent to keep up with rising property taxes if circuit breakers are in place.

Criminal Justice Reform:

I would help end money bail. The city alone cannot solve this problem. However, the city, and I as Mayor can lead. Just as it was done with the Misdemeanor Diversion Program, by bringing together necessary stakeholders, such as local judges, the Sheriff’s Office, DPD, community groups with expertise—such as Southerners on New Ground—and directly impacted community members.

Expanding the Misdemeanor Diversion Program: The MDP works for the few hundred youth who can access it. We can open the doors even wider by 1) eliminating the age limit of 21, and 2) working with local law enforcement to ensure officers refer as many people as possible to it.

Moving to Non-Violent Policing: We must ensure that police do not exacerbate the harm and trauma which many communities in Durham already experience. This can be done by requiring reading (or listening to the book-on-tape) of The New Jim Crow for all current and new officers, ongoing investments in racial equity training for all officers, de-escalation training, and training in trauma-informed care.

Investing in Clean Slate Clinics: Durham’s own Umar Muhammad was leading the way in community-based clean slate clinics to help clear up old records so people could get jobs. Wake County invests its own public dollars to pay for such clinics. Senator McKissick passed a bill this session to reduce the waiting time for expungement eligibility. We should follow their lead. Such an investment is critical for the economic growth of our city.

9) What in your public or professional career shows your ability to be an effective member of the city council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to deal with them?

I am an accomplished social entrepreneur and have collaborated with some of the most influential companies, nonprofits, media organizations and governments in the world, including Apple, PBS, Lenovo, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, United Nations Foundation and the US State Department. As the youngest faculty member in the music department at UNC, I helped raise over $1,000,000 to create an international program that took several Durham artists abroad to engage other countries in cultural diplomacy through Hip Hop. Creating this opportunity took vision, strategy, hard work, focus, collaboration, creativity, and leadership – all skills which are relevant to the Mayor’s office. While most of my colleagues were teaching class, and doing research, I was leveraging my networks, and relationships to create opportunities for the University and my creative community in Durham. That access has created a multiplier effect in which local artists, now with international experiences under their belt and collaborators in their rolodex, have gone on to excel in other creative and entrepreneurial areas. As Mayor, I will continue to tap this network for social good, to bring in jobs, stimulate our creative economy and to create training and workforce development opportunities for our youth.

10) Please give an example of an action by the city council in the past year that went wrong or should have been handled differently. Also, what was the city’s biggest accomplishment during that period?

Wrong: Parking meters. While the city made the decision to reduce the amount of taxpayer money used to subsidize downtown parking, it could have been implemented better. For example, better placement of the metered spots, and leaving some 15-minute free spots in places for people needing to access public services such as City Hall or the Post Office. Metered parking is prohibitively expensive for many Durham residents. Furthermore, the machines are inconsistently functional, and the inconvenience has hurt some downtown small businesses.

Right: I applaud the recent increase, going from 1 cent to 2 cents for every dollar of property tax for affordable housing. This is projected to create, preserve, or repair 1,150 affordable housing units every year. But, it does not go far enough. This 2 cent increase costs the average Durhamite $37 per average household per year to help sustain affordable housing in Durham. If we were to double that, to 4 cents, or a nickel, we could provide housing for thousands of local residents for a fraction of the price of a Durham Bulls season ticket (or less than half the cost of a ticket to Moogfest) per average household.

11) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

I am a progressive, Pan African student of radical black feminism.

12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

I want to re-emphasize the need for intergenerational discourse and for civic engagement from a diverse cross-section of Durhamites. Now more than ever we need millennial leaders to step up. We need Latinx leaders to step up. We need LGBTQ leaders to step up. We need women and gender nonconforming folks to step up. We need folks outside the status quo, with a bold civic imagination and progressives civic will, to participate in addressing the challenges facing Durham.

Since I launched my campaign, some of my elders have told me that I should “wait my turn.” But when I look back to my ancestors I see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the March on Washington at age 34; I see Angela Davis organizing on campus and in the community in Los Angeles at age 25; I see Patrice Lumumba rising to lead as the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at age 34; I see Pauli Murray, bucking the system, and writing the framework of Brown v. Board of Education at age 32.

King once said, “wait has almost always meant ‘never’”. We don’t have time to wait in Durham when 800 people are evicted from their homes every month, when there are gross racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and when 40% of black and brown children are living in poverty. We don’t have the luxury to wait for the GOP supermajority in the NC Legislature, or the Trump White House to join progressives on the right side of history.

I’m stepping up now, for the people of Durham, and will work tirelessly to champion the values espoused by my mentor Baba Chuck Davis: Peace, Love and Respect. For Everybody.