Disclosure: Leonardo Williams is a candidate for Durham’s Ward III City Council seat. We did not make an endorsement in this race due to a conflict of interest.

If “community” was an action, something that drove all of us to do rather than to talk, how would it look? Would we picture ourselves striving for the same things – to love our city and love each other? Would we want our families and neighbors to be safe and to prosper? Durham needs to be defined by our own community—not a definition conceived in some distant ideology—but by the people who bring her to life every day. If “community” were an action, our lives would shine bright.

I’ve chosen to love this community and care deeply for its people since the moment I began my journey here in 1999. I am not under any illusion that the future will be easy, and it takes great sacrifice to seek permission to be an elected official and to be a public servant. In fact, as so many others before me, I have accepted this sacred call to action, the call to community, with purpose and with dignity. I am a father, a husband, an educator, an entrepreneur, a caregiver, a practitioner, a Durhamite. I know no other way of being.

I have joined two uncommon journeys together—that of an educator and an entrepreneur. I’ve explored our municipal spectrum from one end to the other. Each has provided me the opportunity to live, learn, and love hard on those with whom I have stood. At the intersection of this life, the greatest lesson afforded to me is that people are vital in creating a common good and social wellbeing. When I was a teacher, I had the honor to glimpse into the future, to shape the lives of young people and their families to be the best they could be for themselves and for their world. As a small business owner, I have the honor and privilege to ignite real-time impact on people’s livelihoods and their ability to build their own legacy here in Durham.

For our city, this is a path untraveled—an educator and a working-class resident. Equity in education has always been rooted in my lived experiences, educating our children, advocating alongside my colleagues, and raising the standards of teaching and learning. I’ve been in those classrooms, engaged parents, trained educators, accomplished academic milestones, and helped students see their true potential. It is clear, our Durham city government does not have a formal funding authority over our public school system. However, our city is met with ample opportunity to positively impact our youth and schools; from wrap-around services to funding extended school days to implementing universal Pre-K. Just take a look at our 600 plus churches. Those sacred places aren’t just churches, they are classrooms, community spaces, training labs. Take a look at our libraries, our parks, our playgrounds, our museums, our heritage centers, every city space becomes an opportunity for young people to learn and to contribute to Durham.

As an entrepreneur, I see a city full of potential, culture, and pride. It is here that we can all flourish. In a city full of tremendous talent, everyone should have a chance to contribute their talents to Durham and to make a legacy for themselves. Small businesses do that. There’s a misconception that small businesses are the equivalent of corporations like Google and Apple, but they’re far from it. Small businesses are everyday folks like you and me, imaginative and innovative, taking a risk to make it out here in that same world dominated by corporate interests. During the pandemic, we saw how small businesses suffered to keep their employees paid and to keep their storefronts, but 20 months later, the big companies left us and our small businesses fought like never before. It reminds me of our history here, Black wealth and entrepreneurship, a Durham built on the backs of our people, Black entrepreneurs who had a vision and took the risk to make it come to life. Today, Black businesses are failing faster than any other industry. The Paycheck Protection Program left 90 percent of Black and Brown businesses out in the dust. But you see, when the tide rises, we all rise. Durham’s small businesses and small business owners are currently fighting adversity on all fronts. From rising crime and larceny to lowering sales and shutdowns, they’ve become spectators of the reputation they helped to create and victims of economic vulnerability. We need our community to invest within. For every $100 spent at one of our businesses at least $45 is reinvested here, while only $14 stays here if that money is spent at a national chain.

Every day, we see news stories that tear at the very fabric of our spirits. There is too much access to poverty, hunger, violence, and missed opportunities. Residents are losing their homes and being pushed out again. Families are exposed to lead poisoning and asbestos in their homes. People are without jobs, without housing, without support, and without hope. We are losing young Black men on a weekly basis, and they are all the victims of a system that drowned out their cries. If we’re not at war, then why are there so many casualties? 

When do we all come together again to renew our mission to each other and to proclaim once and for all that we are greater together. What have we ever accomplished alone? And yet, why does it feel like we are more alone now? I used to enjoy watching the battle of the bands between Southern and Hillside, not a battle for life in our streets. Our community has enjoyed the city’s Holiday Parades, dancing together as the NCCU Marching Sound Machine “break it down,” watching our kids make lemonade for their neighbors. That’s the Bull City that we know and love.

This is a clarion call for the residents of Durham to step up and step in. We must restore hope. My lived experiences define my commitment to our community. I am stepping into public office to help shape our government to be receptive to what our community has to offer. We are a rich people filled with the solutions that we need. We are the answer to the call.

To love thy neighbor, live safely, and to seek economic mobility should be a Durham standard, not an out-of-reach aspiration. We have to engage one another again. We have to build on each other’s strengths. We have to learn from the lessons of our history. We have to put “community” into action.

I am reminded of a quote that sums up this idea. “People are people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, education, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs. We’re all human beings who deserve dignity and respect. We all want to live in neighborhoods where we feel safe, secure, and have a sense of community. We want access to jobs, educational opportunities, healthy food, parks and open space, shopping and entertainment. We want to be able to afford where we live and have the opportunity to build wealth. We want to honor our history and culture. We want to be involved in developing the plans and making decisions that shape our communities. We don’t want people deciding in a conference room what is best for us and then spending a year trying to sell us on it and calling it engagement. We can’t survey people to death and call it engagement. A postcard isn’t engagement. Let’s stop talking at people in our business suits with our notepads like we’re doing a research project. Let’s stop touring neighborhoods like we’re looking at animals at the zoo. Let’s start meeting people and talking with them in the places and spaces that make their communities home. Let’s listen FIRST. Let’s build together.” 

We are Greater Together.

Leonardo Williams, a lover of Durham and candidate for Durham City Council Ward 3. 

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